Heather Nolis, who grew up on a farm in rural Oklahoma, never planned to have a career in technology, but now, she is an engineering leader at a major wireless provider.
When Nolis was a neuroscience student, she didn’t want to turn her scientific findings over to someone else to crunch the numbers, as she was asked. She managed her own stats and soon realized how much she enjoyed data and software.
“I learned to program so I could analyze that data myself,” she says. “At that point, I absolutely fell in love with programming and left neuroscience entirely. I completely pivoted to software engineering.”
A founding member of T-Mobile’s artificial intelligence (AI) team, dubbed “AI at T-Mobile,” Nolis has a master’s degree in software engineering and has been with the company for two years. The team focuses on the conversion of cutting-edge analyses to real-time, scalable data-driven products, and has 25 members, 60 percent of whom are women. As one of the first women on the team, Heather made a purpose to partner with her boss to have a diverse set of potential candidates being interviewed for roles, leading to significant female representation.
“Do this for other women”
Nolis was nervous that a career in tech would be intimidating. A pep-talk from her wife, who also works on the AI at T-Mobile team, changed her mind.
“She is a data scientist. She’s a trans woman and she was socialized as a man. She sat me down and said, ‘You have to do this,’” says Nolis. “You have to do this for other women who don’t have this opportunity. You’re smart and strong and capable and you can speak your mind.”
Nolis started out as an intern at T-Mobile. At the end of her interview for a full-time spot, she was offered the position. She had natural concerns that she’d be the only woman on the team at the time and she asked if she’d fit in. Her boss said it would be no problem, knowing that the plan was to continue increasing diversity across the organization. The proof was also in the recognition T-Mobile had received, including being voted onto several “best workplace for diversity” lists by its employees.
Nolis encourages women to speak up and ask questions, especially during the hiring process. She also says that women should do their research before accepting roles, asking questions like, “Is the company known for being diverse and inclusive? What is the evidence?”
Nolis knows how difficult it can be for women to feel that they have the exact skills to be in a technical role — often looking for a 100 percent match with what is on a job description, which can lessen options. When it comes to hiring, she and her team have found ways to quantify “soft” skills such as good communication and creativity, so that even those who don’t have a strong tech background can be considered.
She’s grateful to work at T-Mobile, explaining the company is committed to empowering women employees, with several national Diversity & Inclusion networks — including the Women in Leadership and Pride & Allies networks — which attract over 24,000 employees.
“It’s the safest I’ve ever felt expressing ideas,” she says.
While she once worried the tech industry would be tough on her, she now thinks differently.
“I thought I would be constantly looked down on,” she says. “What I immediately found was that the person being most critical of me, was me.”
The software engineer is thriving due to the support of other women. Here’s an example: as a new hire, Nolis planned to attend a Lesbians Who Tech conference. She tweeted that she was going to pay her own way and use her personal time to attend. Then, a female T-Mobile director saw the tweet and connected her to company resources who paid for her to attend.
Nolis advises women in tech to look for companies that support them and to ask other women for help.
“Almost every woman that you find is your fiercest advocate,” she says, concluding, “Women who have gone through the hard process want to give you a hand and make it as easy for you as possible.”’
Looking for a role in tech, head to the T-Mobile careers page and see what it’s like to join the Un-carrier!