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Life Skills for STEM careers 2022

By Tony Pearson posted Sat May 07, 2022 02:00 PM

Last Thursday, I participated in a virtual panel discussion on STEM careers.  The audience was 77 college students from USA, Canada, and Mexico.   Many of the American students were from Columbia University, UNC- Chapel Hill, and UC Berkeley.  Our moderator was Tiffany Tram from 2U.  The panelists were:
  • Amy Adams, Product Manager - Artificial Intelligence at Intel Corporation
  • Rachel Oberman, Software Engineer at Intel Corporation
  • Tony Pearson,  Spectrum Protect Technical Advisor at IBM Corporation

Amy summarized her 22 year career, starting out at Microsoft for 15 years, and now working in AI at Intel the past 7 years, designing the AI accelerator portion of Intel microprocessors.

Rachel covered how technology has evolved over the years.  She writes software that is used to train and test AI models. 

I was asked to cover which "Life Skills" I felt would be best to adopt for a career in STEM.  Here were my top three:


STEM is all about learning to accept failures and adapt to changes. I often say that the only people in the world who embrace change are convicted felons on death row, and babies in soiled diapers. If you have a problem with change, choose a different career.  Gone are the days of just taking over the family farm, family restaurant, or other family business.

STEM is like a video game where you can restart and try again as many times as they need to be successful. If at first you don't success, try something different.

What do Silly Putty, Post-it notes, Pacemakers, Microwave Ovens, and Ink-jet printers have in commom? They were all accidents or mistakes!

When you think of the invention of the light bulb, few remember the first inventor, Joseph Swan from England, but instead think of Thomas Edison who failed thousands of times, learning how NOT to make a light bulb. In the end, Edison was able to improve on Joseph Swan's design in the materials for the glass, the gas inside, and the filament itself.

Critical Thinking

STEM professionals use analytical and critical-thinking skills to look for patterns, make predictions, determine if their predictions are correct, and then use data to support their claim. You should learn to make decisions based on scientific evidence that supports the best solution. This will also help you make informed decisions in your everyday lives.

Challenge the status quo. Why do we always do it this way? When I first started at IBM in 1986, I would ask "Why do we do it this way?" and the response was often "Because that is how we always had done it".  I would not have 19 patents and be named "Master Inventor" at IBM if I had accepted this as an answer!


Whether sharing ideas or findings, or explaining topics, the ability to get you message across effectively is vital in STEM. Professionals need to communicate their questions, and reflect and explain what they did to solve a problem to the best of their ability.

Become a story teller, figure out how to present information in an engaging manner appropriate for each audience. Presenting to executives, sponsors, or investors will be different than presenting to co-workers, suppliers or contractors.

It is important to be precise in your communications, both oral and written. Mistakes can have disastrous results. In 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter was lost because of a communication error between feet and meters. Airplanes have almost crashed because fuel was measured in pounds not kilograms. 

Our panel then answered a series of interesting questions, here is a sample:

What are the PROs of advancements in technology?

Perhaps one of the best benefits to technology is that it has enabled people to work. A few hundred years ago, you had to be strong enough to work the fields, grow and gather food, herd animals, build ships and log cabins. Today, blind people have "internet readers". People in wheelchairs can have productive computer programming and other STEM careers.

What are the CONs of advancements in technology?

A big problem is that we have made technology look to easy.

Consider this analogy. When I started driving a car, I had a stick-shift transmission, and so I needed to know how gears worked to know how to operate the vehicle. Today, many people have automatic transmissions, so more people can know how to drive, but fewer could perform their own maintenance.

Likewise, just because you can use a laptop or mobile phone, doesn't mean you could build one, fix one, or program one.

Why is there a shortage of STEM skills?

This is mostly a demand issue. STEM is hard. Many college students realize it is not for them, and switch to less challenging areas of study that require less effort. But overall, there has been an increase in graduates in STEM fields. However, this growth is not enough to cover the growing demand. Every industry from retail and agriculture, to manufacturing and finance, need STEM professionals.

How do we get our first job in STEM?

STEM fields have a low unemployment rate. Because there is more demand than supply, companies are forced to hire people who may not have the 3-5 years of experience they would prefer.

IBM has coined the phrase "new collar" workers, referring to STEM professionals who do not have traditional 4-year college degrees. Many have high school diplomas, followed by two years of community college or focused vocational training.

In other cases, it is a case of "Fake it till you make it!" I got my first job as a database administrator at 15, I was still in high school. My boss asked if I could do the job, I told him I took typing class, was captain of my high school's chess team, and can read instruction manuals. That was good enough for him!

Afterwords, the audience was provided an opportunity to fill out a quick survey.  Here are a few Survey quotes:

  • Hearing what some of the most important life skills are that will impact my career in the future.
  • Informative, relatable information. The workshop should've been scheduled for at least an hour and a half.
  • The session gave me a lot of hope for entering technology at this time in history and about getting a job even now with my minimal tech experience because of the need in the field. It's very encouraging!
  • So helpful to learn many tips from these seasoned professionals!
  • This has been a great seminar! Hearing about their career paths and the skills they see as important have been good insights.
  • I feel inspired and motivated to keep working really hard in my bootcamp and to learn new languages.
  • Amy A, Tony Pearson, and Rachel Oberman all had wonderful insight on STEM and life skills. I loved their outlook on life, and career, and the most important skills to have and sharpen to make you a better employee or more applicable candidate. Tiffany Tram was a great host and was so attentive to all questions and panelists.