Mai-Lan Tomsen Bukovec is the Vice President of Technology at Amazon Web Services. As one of the most senior female executives at AWS, Mai-Lan doesn’t have the traditional technical background one might expect. After graduating college with a degree in journalism she joined the Peace Corps working in sub-Saharan West Africa. This experience made her realize the power of human potential, regardless of background or schooling, and it inspired her to help others achieve their full potential.
How I Started In STEM with Mai-Lan Tomsen Bukovec
I got started in STEM after I came back from working in West Africa in the Peace Corps after I graduated from college. Now I was a forestry volunteer in Northern Mali, not too far from the town of Timbuktu. And I saw firsthand how technology made a huge difference in people's lives. Whether it was access to the internet or it was access to a satellite phone. People had a huge advantage when they had access to technology and it made me want to put technology in the hands of everyone. So when I got back to the US from my Peace Corps experience, I started working in tech, and to this day I work super hard to make sure that the advancements that we make in technology, like what we're doing in the cloud at AWS, are something that anyone can take advantage of.
Best advice you received for your career in STEM
The best advice I got earlier in my career was to just go for it when I was eyeing up this job that I really wanted, but then I was wondering, oh, would I get it? Do I have the right experience? And so the person I was talking to and gave me this advice, they just kept on hearing me say over and over again, how cool I thought that opportunity was. And finally they just told me, go for it. What is the worst thing that can happen? The worst thing that could happen is that you actually don't get the job, but in the course of pursuing the opportunity, you're gonna meet some new people in the interview process, you're gonna get way better at interviewing, and you're gonna learn a little bit more about a technology that you didn't know about it. So just go for it.
Best tip for pursuing a career in STEM
My top tip for anyone who's starting a career or wants a career in STEM is to push yourself out of your comfort zone. That's where the real learning happens. Now, it can be super tempting, don't get me wrong, to stay in an area where you know you're awesome, but if you do that, how can you possibly become awesome in another area? To do that, you gotta jump with both feet into a new experience and put your learning hat on, because that is what's gonna take you out of your comfort zone, but it's also gonna make you awesome in so many other areas that you don't have exposure to today.
Importance of representation and diversity in STEM
Simply put, we need diverse representation in STEM because it helps us build the right and great experiences that we need in technology, and that requires a diverse perspective. One of them that I love is called “Right A Lot”. And there's a line in there that's like, that's super important, super important for diversity, super important for building the right experiences. It says that leaders have to disconfirm their beliefs, and that means you have to actively seek out a perspective that's different from your own. And that is about diversity too. You can't be right a lot of the time if you are constantly reinforcing your own viewpoint and the viewpoint of people who think and maybe look just like you, you have to seek out a different viewpoint, and you have to do it at all stages of your career.
We have a program called Girls Tech Day and Girls Tech Day is something that we run and it's impacted about 13,000, a little over 13,000, young women across 12 different countries like India and Australia. Our whole goal with programs like this is to break the gender gap and build this whole community of women in tech.
What is the hardest part about working in STEM?
The hardest part about working in STEM was just getting started. Especially when you're early in your career, it can be so easy to just doubt yourself when you're surrounded by so many smart people. You can get to wondering sometimes, do I really belong here? I mean, that person over there, they just said something way more brilliant than anything I could have said. And so the key to getting through this phase is just don't…don't do that! Don't think about how you compare yourself against the people around you. And, you know, I know it's really hard not to, I did it myself when I was early in my career, but your learning and your contributions as part of your career in STEM is really about you. It's not about other people. It is about you and all the awesome that you can do. And if your inner voice starts to doubt if you really belong here, you just need to shut that down and just go be awesome.
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