Soft skills can give Hispanics in IT an edge
Today's employers are looking for "renaissance engineers" who excel in both tech and soft skills, says Mike Acosta of MAES
A solid math and science foundation is essential; graduate degrees help career advancement
By Sonya Stinson
There is still much work to be done to achieve parity in IT and other technical fields, says Mike Acosta, national president of the Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists (MAES). According to Acosta, a 2007 study (the most recent figures available) showed that Hispanics held 5.5 percent of all IT jobs nationwide at a time when Hispanics accounted for about 15 percent of the U.S. population. Turning those numbers around requires an effort that has to start well before students reach college age, he says.
"It comes down to the basics: in elementary, middle and high school, the student should get a very solid foundational education in math and science," he says. "Unfortunately in our country, that's not happening, especially in a lot of the underdeveloped regions where most of our minorities live."
MAES is doing its part to increase the number of Mexican Americans and other Hispanics in technical and scientific fields. The organization reaches out to students from middle school through grad school by connecting them with Hispanic mentors and role models.
"When I got my bachelors degree in the 1970s and went to work for IBM, I didn't know many role models in computer engineering that looked like me," notes Acosta.
UTEP prepares freshmen for advanced classes
Acosta worked as a computer engineer at IBM for twenty-one years. When he started there in the mid-70s, mainframe computers were state of the art. "I almost feel I've lived several lifetimes from an IT standpoint," he says with a smile.
For the last seventeen years, Acosta has been at the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP), where he taught computer engineering for ten years and is now director of the border office of the U.S.-Mexico Foundation for Science (Fundación México-Estados Unidas para la Ciencia, FUMEC, fumec.org). FUMEC's mission is to promote bi-national collaboration in science and technology to solve problems and address opportunities for both Mexico and the United States.
At UTEP, where both the student enrollment and the local population are 85 percent Hispanic, there are several support programs for freshmen entering the college of engineering.
"We help students get up to speed so that when they enter the sophomore year and get into major courses they are where they should be," says Acosta. "In the old days, they didn't do that. They just threw you into the pool and you either sank or swam."
Well-rounded IT grads are in demand
Acosta notes that today's employers are looking for "renaissance engineers" who excel in the soft skills that involve working well with people. "It's teamwork dynamics, project management, communication skills, presentation skills, being a well-rounded person," he says.
Even in the current economy, demand for graduates with IT skills remains high, notes Acosta, although they sometimes have to search harder to find jobs. High academic performance and internship experience, as always, provide a competitive edge.
Jorge Sepulveda develops IT solutions at the FBI
In October 2010, Jorge Sepulveda, an IT specialist at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI, Washington, DC), was tapped to develop an IT solution for the largest police corruption case in the agency's history. FBI agents conducting Operation Guard Shack in his native Puerto Rico needed a way to share real-time updates on the status of the case. Sepulveda designed the tool, working with such high-ranking officials as the police and FBI chiefs in Puerto Rico.
"The fact that I was able to help the people where I'm from was extremely rewarding," says Sepulveda. He earned a BS in business administration with a concentration in computers from the University of Puerto Rico in 2003 and an MS in information systems technology at George Washington University (Washington, DC) in 2007.
Sepulveda recalls having to make a big adjustment when he first moved to the United States after graduating from college. "I had to change where I lived, my main language and culture," he says. "It took me a while to adapt to all those changes, but I definitely learned a lot, and I'm grateful for it."
Today Sepulveda says his biggest challenge is managing his time amid the constant requests from co-workers for his technological expertise. Since 2008 he's worked in the Web services and support unit of the FBI's IT branch. That unit manages the agency's Microsoft SharePoint infrastructure. He also leads the team that develops the agency's electronic forms.
Though he had a longtime interest in computer technology, inspired by Star Wars and other sci-fi films, Sepulveda actually planned to become a medical doctor when he started college. But a suggestion by his calculus professor that mathematics, not medicine, might be his strong suit prompted him to switch majors.
In 2002, he did an internship with the Department of Agriculture. That led to a job after graduation, where he stayed for the next four years. He joined the FBI in 2007. He answered an ad for an IT specialist and a SharePoint project got him in the door.
Sepulveda is considering pursuing a PhD in IT to further advance his career. "I was recently reading a report from the OPM (U.S. Office of Personnel Management) that said Hispanics at the executive level were only at 4.1 percent," he says. "I really hope I can help improve that number by having an executive position sometime in the future."
For now, Sepulveda enjoys his working relationship with agents in the field and is happy to have a role in making their missions successful. "Every time I create something that they can use, they are extremely grateful," he says. "The fact that I'm making their lives easier and helping them do their jobs more efficiently is very rewarding for me."
The Home Depot's Alvaro Ramirez del Villar: focus on performance
When Alvaro Ramirez del Villar was promoted from IT developer to senior systems engineer at the Home Depot (Atlanta, GA), his first assignment was writing data access objects (DAOs), a Java program interface used in database management. He and his team created a timesaving method for generating and testing DAOs.
"We ended up writing an application that generates the DAOs based on the underlying table structure in the database," says Ramirez del Villar, who has been in his current post since spring 2010. Automating the manual process of coding Java objects allows the team to "focus on performance."
Ramirez del Villar works in the company's infrastructure department, which is in charge of computer hardware, but he joined a merchandising department team on the DAO project.
Born in Peru, Ramirez del Villar has lived most of his life in the U.S. He grew up in Florida, arriving there in 1992 after four years in New York. He earned a BSME with a minor in computer science from Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, GA) in 2009.
"Once I got into mechanical engineering, I did some co-ops and worked at manufacturing plants where I was introduced to automation for the first time," Ramirez del Villar says. "That got me interested in the programming aspect."
He likes the fast pace of learning and immediately applying new technologies. When he found he needed to use the Java language he'd previously encountered only in an introductory college course, he enrolled in the company's Java boot camp. "As soon as I was done, I was coding Java applications immediately," he says.
The expectation that he'll do his work without someone guiding him every step of the way has been his biggest challenge. "In school and in my co-op jobs, I was always told exactly what to do," he explains. "In this job, I need to direct myself a little bit more. I'm given a problem, and I need to find a solution and then go build it."
With an eye toward a future position as a lead systems engineer or manager, Ramirez del Villar would eventually like to return to school for an MBA.
George Cruz is IT project manager at Wells Fargo
By the time George Cruz received his 2008 BS in e-business from the University of Phoenix in Arizona, he already had more than twenty years of banking industry experience under his belt. At age forty-seven, he describes himself as a "late bloomer" (at least as a college student). Cruz is currently pursuing an MBA in project management at his alma mater.
As IT project manager for Wells Fargo (Charlotte, NC), Cruz works in the technology and operations group, supporting the Wells Fargo Advisors division, the brokerage arm of the financial services company. He is also vice president of the company's Latin Connection team member network.
The New York City native began his career in the financial services industry as a high school student when he took a job at Bank of America. "I attended a high school that actually specialized in business," Cruz explains. "It was right in downtown Manhattan, so it had all the connections to the financial community."
Cruz arrived in Charlotte as a consultant under contract with Wachovia Bank, which subsequently merged with Wells Fargo. He was offered a fulltime position as a business analyst and later moved into relationship management and then project management, a role he's stayed in for the last eight years.
As an executive board member of the Latin Connection network, Cruz helps guide the organization's thirty-one chapters on event planning, community outreach and mentorship.
"I'm impressed that Wells Fargo has many people of Latino origin at all levels in the company," says Cruz, whose family is of Puerto Rican descent. "Most notably, they have a lot of senior executives that are Hispanic/Latino, which is something that we're proud of."
While at Wachovia, Cruz was part of a group of volunteers that worked in partnership with the Wells Fargo Housing Foundation, which provides grants through Habitat for Humanity.
Cruz notes that a few years ago, the Hispanic/Latino network was able to donate $50,000 and hundreds of hours of volunteer time to help build homes in four cities. "That was something I was very proud of," he says.
Lisset Guzmán is a system analyst at SCE
Lisset Guzmán is a system analyst for the IT department at Southern California Edison (SCE, Irwindale, CA). She may say that she "just landed" in the job, but the job offer probably had something to do with the strong impression she made as an SCE summer intern. She joined the company full time nearly three years ago.
Guzmán spent the summer of 2008 working on a research project analyzing the potential benefits of an internal blog and Wiki for the utility. Eight interns participated in the project and presented their results to SCE's upper management.
"It was challenging, because there was a generation gap," says Guzmán. "A lot of people didn't want to learn anything new. It was pretty interesting."
The interns responded to the challenge by highlighting the business benefits of social media software, including the enhancement of knowledge retention, Guzmán says. Apparently their strategy was persuasive, since the company adopted the ideas in the summer of 2010.
Guzmán is currently assigned to SCE's technology development maintenance division, where she does research, test and analysis to aid in the purchase of system upgrades. "We develop and implement any enhancements that the business needs," she explains. "We have HR clients, so we provide upgrades to their software systems and we maintain and support their applications."
With a 2008 BA in business administration and a 2009 MA in human resource organizational development from Azusa Pacific University (Azusa, CA), Guzmán initially planned a career in organizational development.
"When I started my internship, I could see the relevance of my degree to IT, as far as adapting to new technologies and change," she says. "If you just have the technologies but don't actively train the users, the technologies cannot work well."
As more employees retire from the company over the next few years, Guzmán would like to be involved in training the new generation of IT pros.
Alan Zavala is in project management at SSA
Alan Zavala is an IT specialist in the Social Security Administration (Baltimore, MD). He came to his job in May 2009 via the financial services arena, where he'd been a loan officer at the White Marsh, MD branch of Wells Fargo (San Francisco, CA).
Zavala grew up in Maryland, and earned a BS in financial economics from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2007.
His current job focuses primarily on project management and procurement of IT services for the federal agency. "I'm not really hands on with computers," he acknowledges. "I'm working with the folks that are the technical resources."
In a management role that requires "balancing several workloads," Zavala notes that he has gained skills that go far beyond what his academic degree prepared him for. "A lot of what I studied in college was just me and the books," he says. "Now I have to work with several different people, organize things and lead in order to get goals accomplished."
Leading group meetings is a task Zavala has had to get accustomed to. "I have to organize everybody and be on the conference calls running the show," he says. "Like speaking in front of a crowd, you get stage fright. It's been challenging, but I enjoy it and learn a lot from it."
Zavala wasn't completely without project management experience when he landed this job. During his college years he worked as a manager for Collegiate Entrepreneurs, a Baltimore-area company that did home improvement projects. That job entailed drumming up business, hiring a crew and doing some of the hands-on work himself.
"That was a big accomplishment for me, because it was pretty difficult," Zavala says. "A lot of what I learned there I apply here."
Looking ahead, Zavala says he would like to enhance his technical skills as he continues to work in IT management. He's been accepted into a masters program in cybersecurity at his alma mater, and started with two classes in the fall of 2011.
Sergio Loza is in a rotation program at Freddie Mac
As a software developer at Freddie Mac (McLean, VA) Sergio Loza is immersed in a major project called Rules/MISMO Data Translation.
Loza explains that externally, financial institutions follow standards provided by the Mortgage Industry Standards and Maintenance Organization (MISMO). Freddie Mac uses legacy F1113 standards internally, so this project translates input from one standard to the other in order to understand and analyze the data. "As part of a team, I'm involved in changing data and modifying code according to business requirements," Loza says.
A May 2010 graduate of George Mason University (Fairfax, VA) with a BS in computer science, Loza is in the third leg of Freddie Mac's college rotation program for new hires. His previous two stints were as an implementation engineer and ETL (extract, transform, load) developer.
"It's almost like an internship, but it's actually a fulltime position," Loza notes. "Every six months, you rotate into a different role, and after three rotations, you choose what you want to do within Freddie Mac. It's a good experience."
You might say that Loza is also in the third rotation of his working life. He served as an Army medic and helped to launch an Internet service provider before even earning his college degree.
He joined the Army after high school, trained as a medic and worked primarily at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, where he eventually led a team of medics. When he left the Army, he enrolled in the University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA) to study biology, intent on pursuing a medical career.
But then the opportunity arose to get in on an ISP startup with three entrepreneurs "who didn't know anything about the Internet or computers," Loza says. Since he had a longtime interest in computers himself, he decided to help them out. With "lots of research and trial and error," he says, the ISP became successful. He went on to become a network engineer at the company and transferred to George Mason for a degree in computer science.
Loza says that business experience, like his time in the Army, taught him a lot about the value of teamwork. "We worked late nights, did whatever it took," he says. "As long as we had the same determination to work together, I learned that with a team you can do anything."
Someday he'd like to apply that lesson in managing a team of software developers at Freddie Mac.
Ruben Mendoza is assistant professor at Saint Joseph's University
Ruben Mendoza calls himself "the accidental professor." He's an assistant professor in the decision and system sciences department at the E.K. Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph's University (Philadelphia, PA).
Mendoza was born in El Salvador and immigrated to the United States at age fifteen. Despite a father who was a university professor and a mother who was an elementary school teacher, Mendoza wasn't interested in an academic career.
"I guess you could say that the vocation to teach was in my blood, but I never really heard the calling," he explains. When the calling did come, Mendoza had already worked several years in industry as an engineer.
After earning a bachelor of engineering in electrical engineering from the City College of New York (New York, NY) in 1988, Mendoza took a job at Procter & Gamble (P&G, Cincinnati, Ohio). For the next eight years, he was immersed in technology evaluation, project management and infrastructure build-outs, eventually becoming an internal consultant for P&G in the U.S. and abroad.
"It was then that I realized that, even back in college, I was really good at understanding something and making it clear to someone else, no matter how complicated it was," Mendoza recalls. "So I began to think, 'Maybe I can teach.'"
Through the PhD Project, a program that aims to increase the numbers of ethnic minorities earning doctoral degrees, Mendoza entered a PhD program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Instead of engineering, he chose the business school.
"I had discovered that I was good at understanding technology and explaining it to people in a business context," he says. "Business school sort of became a natural for me."
Mendoza left the PhD program at Michigan, but not before earning enough credits to get dual masters in business administration and information systems in 1999. He then landed a teaching post at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's graduate center in Hartford, CT, where he taught information systems in the executive MBA program. He also enrolled in the PhD program at RPI's Troy, NY campus.
He was still pursuing his doctorate when he arrived at Saint Joseph's in 2003 as a visiting professor. After finishing his PhD in management information systems in 2006, Mendoza became an assistant professor.
One of only three Hispanic professors in the business school, Mendoza has been a speaker at a number of Philadelphia programs promoting workplace diversity. He also participates in a university program that aims to recruit more Hispanic and African American students.
Julio Castro works at the U.S. Embassy in Bratislava, Slovakia
For foreign service information management specialist Julio Castro, a new year meant the start of a new career in a new country. In January 2011, he took a post as an information program officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bratislava, Slovakia. He administers the embassy's classified computer network, ensures the safety of classified material and information, and supervises and trains other staff members.
Before joining the U.S. State Department, Castro spent seventeen years at the Department of Defense, most recently stationed in Peachtree City, GA.
"I was doing very well there, but I got to a point where I wanted to do something different," says Castro, who found his opportunity through a search of the State Department's career website. "I didn't see myself doing the same thing for the next fifteen to twenty years."
Secure communications are central to Castro's job. "It's challenging because you need to be aware that there are rules you need to follow, and you need to be very thorough in terms of what you do and how you do it," he says. "There is a lot of documentation that needs to be updated on a daily basis."
Castro grew up in Caguas, Puerto Rico, about twenty minutes from San Juan. It was his mother who encouraged him to study computer science.
"I would say she was a visionary," Castro says. "At that time, I knew I was going to college, but I didn't know what to study. She told me, 'I think computers are the future. You should look into that, because when you're done with college, you will find a good job.'"
Castro earned his 1992 BS in digital electronics from the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. He also has associates degrees in computer science and instrumentation technology from the school. In 2004, he received an MBA from the University of the Sacred Heart in Santurce, Puerto Rico.
Castro points out that a large percentage of the population in Puerto Rico is college educated, and the island has several thriving technological industries, from pharmaceuticals and biomed to microprocessors and software development.
The cultural and racial diversity of Puerto Rico prepared Castro well for life in his new Eastern European home. "The Slovaks have their own culture, but I haven't been through what they call 'culture shock,'" he explains. "Not at all. I consider myself open-minded. I'm in a different country, so I need to adapt to this country. I'm not here to complain. I'm here to enjoy and to learn about the culture."
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