How I Started In STEM: How Ms. Pac-Man launched a career with Debbie Ferguson
Debbie Ferguson is the Head of Accountant Segment at Gusto and has been in the STEM industry for over 30 years using technology to solve important global problems and developing others into great leaders.
How did you get started?
From elementary school, I was always interested in building things. I'd draw out floor plans of houses I wanted to build. I thought I would become an architect. But when I learned about computer science, I realized I could build more things sooner than what was required to eventually become an architect.
When did you know you loved STEM?
I learned, I knew I love STEM when I was introduced to Ma.Pac-Man because it was a game that came out when I was in high school. And I was intrigued by how this whole thing worked. And how would you even make such a product? And it turned out I was just about to go into my junior year of high school and so I took a computer science class and I bought a computer and I started to play around and that's when I fell in love. When I started to learn all the things I could do, I never did build Ms. Pac-Man but I was able to build a lot more things once I’ve got into computer science. I was just playing Ms. Pac-Man last night. I still play it to this day.
What is your number one tip for someone who wants a career in STEM?
The number one tip I would have for someone who's thinking about a career in STEM is this: pay attention early on to where you're getting energy. What’s driving you? What's motivating you? Wherever you find those things that are exciting you, maybe it's how you're working with a team. Maybe it's a particular technology. Maybe it's a particular type of problem to solve. Lean into that because that's where you're gonna get your energy. That's where you're gonna have the most impact. You're gonna be naturally motivated to work hard in that space, as opposed to something that drains your energy and feels more like a chore.
What is the hardest thing about working in STEM fields?
I think the biggest challenge working in the STEM fields is you're working with a lot of other smart people who are opinionated. And so as you're debating how to solve a particular problem and the answer isn't altogether clear, you can have multiple opinions all in the same room. And so how do you navigate this when other people equally as smart and as passionate about you are arguing from a different point of view? How do you work to come to an understanding and then how do you move forward together? That's probably the thing I've spent the most time in coaching and in learning for myself is how to listen really well, get to core areas of understanding and then build out from there. But that's always, I like to say, often any problem is really ultimately a people problem. And if you can keep track of that and be aware of when that's occurring, you probably have a better chance of great outcomes in whatever you work on.
Things to look for in prospective employers
If there's one thing I look back over my career, that's been extremely important, it's being connected to strong mentors, people that I could learn a lot from particularly early on. So really pay attention to who is around you, you can learn from even when you get out into industry. And if a particular job need to pick between two different jobs and one seems like there'll be more learning and the other one, maybe it's a little better base pay, pick the one that where you can learn and grow. That'll serve you the most over your entire career.