Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day set aside by the United Nations to recognize the important role that women and girls play in science and technology. According to UNESCO, women now account for 53% of the world’s bachelor’s and master’s graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) but just 30% of researchers..[ii] To understand why this is the case, researchers at Microsoft undertook a quantitative study of more than 6,000 girls and young women to examine their attitudes toward STEM in school and into the workforce. And, one of the key findings was that, while girls and young women describe themselves as being creative, they don’t see the potential to express that side of themselves in STEM careers.[iii]
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To me, creativity is about doing things in a different way – thinking outside the box.
My own journey to STEM = creative
I find that fascinating because my own journey has been so different. As a kid, I always loved math and figuring out how things work, so it was a natural fit for me to pursue a STEM field in my studies and career. After I completed my undergraduate degree in China, I came to the U.S. to get my Masters and Ph.D. degrees at the University of California, Davis. But, while I was focused on engineering in my field of study, I also took the opportunity to explore other professions. For example, I volunteered to be an interpreter for the law school and thought about possibilities in immigration and patent law. I even went so far as to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), but I kept finding myself drawn back to engineering.
Art was another career I considered because I’ve always had a passion for drawing and painting. I had about two and a half months between finishing my Ph.D. and starting my new role at Cisco, so I used that time to find out if art was what I wanted to do as a career or just as a hobby. I treated it like a full-time profession and started to paint six to eight hours a day and read a lot of books to educate myself. The first month was fantastic, but, by the second month, it didn’t feel as rosy. I started to realize that I was really missing my time in front of the computer to focus on engineering. So while engineering may seem like a boring field, especially to girls and young women, I find that it’s the perfect combination of being analytical and creative. You don’t have to be an artist to be original or explore your creativity – you can do that in the STEM domain as well. More importantly, engineering allows the opportunity to create fantastic new technological advances that make the world a better place to live.
Paintings by Dr. Danjue Li
Creativity in product engineering
To me, creativity is about doing things in a different way – thinking outside the box. Whether we are developing new products or defining features to best suit customers’ needs, ideas can come from anywhere. For example, the idea for the sports analytics startup I co-founded before coming to Equinix came from watching my daughter play soccer. I started to think about how I could help her out so that she could enjoy playing soccer without worrying about overuse injuries and burnout. And that led to the idea of using data analytics to monitor training load and sports performance to help children train without injury and improve their performance over time. Since how we play and interact as a team in soccer is a critical lesson for my daughter and girls like her to learn, we were trying to cultivate that through our software offering as well. Teamwork is a soft skill that will serve them well in their future careers.
This is really important because we want to spend our resources toward building something that will generate real value for our customers.
While it’s true that ideas can come from anywhere, that doesn’t mean we can or should pursue all of them. Scaling innovation is about discipline. Most of the “what should we build” input we get comes directly from our customers, however, engineers are not short of creativity, so we often come up with multiple ideas on “how should we build it?” To keep us disciplined, I use a simple process with my team to help us decide on which ideas we should move forward on developing.
- Who is the audience for this product feature idea?
- What pain points do they have on a daily basis that this idea will remove?
- Is there an alternative way to accomplish this idea?
- Would the audience pay for this idea?
- Is it a must-have or a nice-to-have?
- If it’s a must-have, do we have the capability/capacity to build it? (feasibility)
- If we put the same effort elsewhere, would we see a better ROI?
This is really important because we want to spend our resources toward building something that will generate real value for our customers. At the same time, the journey matters and the team should enjoy interacting with each other as we move toward achievinga shared goal. These questions are great barometers for this as they help us hone in on the most innovative, game-changing ideas that will create value. As a case in point, the UX design for one important feature of our customer-facing consoles is using a 2D graph to visualize a topology, but we had some really creative ideas on using 3D rendering and layered-graphs to gamify the design and create a more interactive user experience. Once we went through the questions, however, we concluded that it was a “nice-to-have” rather than a “must-have” for the product we are trying to build. This is a great example of why I believe a STEM career is a perfect fit for me because it allows me to be incredibly inventive and use my imagination to explore the “what-ifs” while also engaging my analytical side to determine what is practical.
Dr. Danjue Li presenting at the Girl Geek X Equinix Lightening Talk in January[iv]
You may also be interested in watching Dr. Danjue Li’s recent presentation at the Girl Geek X Equinix Lightening Talk (Dr. Li starts at approximately 28:28).