Sarah Kurtz of NJFX: “You don’t have to be a coder”

You don’t have to be a coder. If you are in the STEM field, people automatically assume you are an engineer or coder. There are many, many careers in STEM that run the gamut from those more technical roles to more creative. We have public relations, marketing, writers, business development, security, digital media professionals, all […]

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You don’t have to be a coder. If you are in the STEM field, people automatically assume you are an engineer or coder. There are many, many careers in STEM that run the gamut from those more technical roles to more creative. We have public relations, marketing, writers, business development, security, digital media professionals, all in STEM fields. There are lots of opportunities. In fact, I think that anyone in any field should look at the telecommunications industry for a career path.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Kurtz, Business Development Manager for NJFX.

Sarah Kurtz leads NJFX’s enterprise efforts by providing awareness of unique interconnectivity options and the global reach at the NJFX Cable Landing Station campus. In this effort she engages with global organizations, multinational financial institutions, and major international carriers.

NJFX helps telecommunications carriers diversify connectivity options to key hubs across North America, Europe, the Caribbean and South America. NJFX does something that no other facility can: provide a viable alternative for carriers and large organizations to design resilient network architectures and further ensure global networks stay operational.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Growing up, there was always this big, windowless building practically in my backyard. In high school, we all wondered what it was. My first job was almost directly across the street from it at an old fashioned car-hop drive in. Little did I know then, it would be my future place of employment. While I was in college studying computer science, my father did some research on the building and learned it housed something related to IT technology and thought I’d be interested. I reached out to NJFX CEO Gil Santaliz and secured my first college internship. After college, I started my career in coding with Verizon. The thing about coding is that it’s you and your computer. I wasn’t sure if that was for me as I’m more social and like to interact with people I decided a happy medium would be to transition into more of a sales and marketing arm of the tech industry, which is how I ended up as Business Development Manager for NJFX.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Well, the most interesting thing for me so far has also changed life around the world — I’m talking about the global pandemic. I joined NJFX in October of 2019. During my first six months with the company, I traveled to London twice, to Hawaii and also to San Francisco in my role as Business Development Manager. I was only home for three days in February of 2020. Then it all came to a screeching halt. Just six months in to my role, everything stopped. I immediately had to find new ways to network without being face to face with people. In my world of business development — the face-to-face interaction and networking had to stop — everyone had to pivot. Six months of intense relationship building needed to be nurtured. Suddenly, I had to figure out how to do that virtually.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest mistake was learning that a prospect I was pursuing was leaving his company. I wanted to make sure I secured his new contact info before he left so that I could continue building that relationship at his new organization. I sent him a “I hear you’re moving on” message to his company email. Our CEO was horrified! He said company email is often monitored, and that I could have gotten him in hot water if he had not yet shared that he was leaving. It was a lesson in business etiquette and in keeping those relationships as people move on without burning bridges.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

There is no place like NJFX in North America. It is simply put, where the internet lives. NJFX is a cable landing station (CLS) colocation campus that offers Tier 3, carrier-neutral data center capabilities — providing direct access to multiple independent subsea cable systems connecting North and South America, Europe and the Caribbean. It is an entirely unique facility in the world of information and communications technology. As content and application requirements continue to push the need for data to be closer to the edge, such a CLS colocation campus is essential in providing strong interconnections between customers, partners and transcontinental subsea cable systems.

Rather than a gradual evolution, COVID-19 has accelerated the digital transformation efforts of many enterprises virtually overnight. If the recent months have taught us anything, it’s that a surge in digital services usage places tremendous pressure on the internet to be able to handle the rise in traffic volumes and shifting patterns of demand that can potentially affect the end-user experience. To give just one example of how this has affected communications providers, in March 2020, as internet users began staying home to work, study and self-entertain, one major carrier saw a 20 percent increase in web traffic in a single week. Virtual Private Network (VPN) usage went up 49 percent, while video rose by 36 percent, and online gaming increased 115 percent. Faced with these current and future challenges, a CLS colocation campus that serves as a network interconnection point at the easternmost edge of North America, enables companies to design and construct the most efficient network for their business and ensure the delivery of high-bandwidth content and applications to serve customers. NJFX offers an ecosystem rich with layer one terrestrial and subsea fiber networks and platforms providing multiple options for route diversity, availability, reliability and security.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Right now I am heading up outreach to financial institutions as part of an initiative to ensure that their global network infrastructure is reliable, resilient and documented. Too often, organizations find they have a weak link in their network architecture which can be devastating if an outage occurs. In comparison, if you look at the amount of investment in internet infrastructure by content companies, it’s staggering. Facebook, Google, Amazon and others are making sure their IT platforms are always available by financing their own subsea infrastructure. Imagine a world where it’s easier to post a picture to Facebook than it is to take 100 dollars out of your local ATM? Banks also need to know that the infrastructure their networks run on will not fail them. One example is related to a major U.S. bank that will be the first financial institution to manage subsea fibers on a festoon cable from our NJFX colocation campus to Florida with stops in Virginia Beach and Myrtle Beach. Because of its location on the edge of domestic and international networks and subsea cables, this enables enterprises, financial services organizations, and carriers to utilize direct routing, eliminate single points of failure and avoid typical network congestion points along the entire east coast of the US. We are proud to be the physical host to make these networks more reliable and resilient.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I wouldn’t say I’m dissatisfied, considering my personal position and what I was able to achieve so far. But the STEM field would definitely improve with more women in leadership roles. The good news is today and there are so many initiatives working to improve this. I am personally working to engage a younger, more diverse group of professionals to join the telecommunications workforce. My colleague, NJFX General Manager, Felix Seda and I ushered in the Millennials in Telecom reception at PTC 2020. We also work on initiatives within the Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging working group of the SubOptic Association. It is an uphill battle at times, and I would not say it’s happening overnight, but it’s happening. Profiles like this one help — showing young women what’s possible. I think it will lead to a snowball effect.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I am no stranger to being in the minority. I grew up with brothers, played sports with males and was never really affected by being the only girl in the room. In college I was one of a handful of people in the computer science program. And I was the only woman in three of my five computer science classes. The key is to break out of that initial fear of participating in class. Once I broke that barrier and boosted my confidence, any doubts I may have had melted away. Your confidence grows by speaking up and speaking out. The same holds true today. I am often the only woman in a room (or a Zoom!) full of executive level men. But once I find my voice in that meeting, it comes easier. I would tell young women: “Don’t be afraid to speak out, don’t be discouraged. You are a trailblazer!”

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

STEM is boring. The most fascinating thing about STEM is that it is ALWAYS changing, evolving and advancing. I am a digital native. I have never known a world without computers. But some of the folks I deal with every single day, started in this industry when the fax machine was the most advanced way to communicate in “real time.” The world has definitely come a long way since then and to me that is exciting. The future is limitless and in the STEM fields, we get to be on the forefront of it all. Our industry touches medicine, space exploration, climate change, global communications and just about everything else you can think of!

STEM girls are “nerdy.” Maybe we are not glamorous, but this field is not for so-called nerds! I have to present myself to high-level executives of major multinational companies and know what I’m talking about beyond tech infrastructure. It calls for a high level of social grace and the ability to navigate all kinds of topics diplomatically and with ease. It is not for the faint of heart!

STEM is all science and numbers. In my current role, I need to be up to date on current affairs, state and federal legislation, tech trends, the latest app, sports, entertainment and more. I have to speak to all different kinds of people from all over the world. It’s important to understand things like geopolitics, world cultures and diversity, along with business practices and sales and marketing initiatives. If you think STEM means you’ll be behind a desk working with algorithms, 1s and 0s, you might have the wrong idea.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

You don’t have to be a coder. If you are in the STEM field, people automatically assume you are an engineer or coder. There are many, many careers in STEM that run the gamut from those more technical roles to more creative. We have public relations, marketing, writers, business development, security, digital media professionals, all in STEM fields. There are lots of opportunities. In fact, I think that anyone in any field should look at the telecommunications industry for a career path.

Conquer your fear. I learned early on that I have a voice. All I needed to do is use it. The more I did, the easier it got. That first step is always the hardest. Don’t be afraid to take it.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You will make mistakes. How you handle them is what matters. Will you make excuses, blame others or learn and grow from them? Will you continue to repeat mistakes? I make it my own personal goal to avoid making the same mistake twice. It has served me well to learn from and grow from missteps in my work.

Take every opportunity. There are so many people out there who want you to succeed. Take every opportunity you are given. Find mentors and seek out role models. There has never been more of a desire to help women and people of color succeed. Take the mentorship opportunities and run with them!

Believe you deserve to be there. Forge your own path. When you fall, dust yourself off, pick yourself up and move forward. You will have discouraging moments. But use those as fuel to add to your fire. Don’t let it get you down.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

I think in general women tend to be more collaborative. I would build on that. Listen to all ideas, take into consideration all experiences. Foster mentoring relationships. Provide guidance but allow team members to bring their own experiences and expertise to the table. Avoid micromanaging your team.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

In my experience the best leaders I’ve worked with have allowed me to do more than the defined role I was hired for. My boss (NJFX CEO Gil Santaliz) has given me as many opportunities as I am willing to take on. He has confidence in his own judgement of my strengths and so he allows me to use them. He is also confident in me knowing my strengths and abilities. If I say I am willing to take something on, he knows that I will give it my full effort.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I give a lot of credit to Gil. I thought my first internship would be daunting. I can’t say I wasn’t nervous and uncertain. But in the three months that I spent with NJFX, I went from doing administrative duties to being able to sit in on high-level meetings. It definitely helped my confidence. I think it gave me the conviction to apply for and earn a position at Verizon. Gil introduced me to this industry and saw how quickly I was learning and how interested I was. He was happy to have me do more. In less than two years, I have been given ample opportunity to grow, learn new skills, develop relationships, and succeed in my role.

NJFX General Manager Felix Seda has also been a mentor and a true partner in our efforts to bring fresh perspectives, including younger and more diverse faces, to the industry.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My initiatives with the SubOptic Association and the Millennials Reception at PTC have helped me to bring young talent into the fold. As I rise in my field, I hope to mentor and encourage others. It’s the “pay it forward” model and I am a huge proponent of it. I am also working on projects that help fund and provide internet access to underserved areas of the world.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The “Disconnect to connect movement”. Bear with me on this one as it sounds like it goes against tech and the reason for this article, but sometimes you have to get away from the screens that have become such a necessity in our daily lives. For instance, during COVID while we have been stuck inside working from home doing video calls and watching Netflix in our free time, I’ve made it a habit to try and get outside and walk everyday with just myself, my thoughts and the scenery. Whether it’s an hour outside connecting with nature in my small beach town as I walk on the boardwalk, or leaving my phone behind when I go to my parent’s house for a family dinner to connect with them in conversation, I think if people consciously took time away from technology for say an hour a day, it would improve everyone’s well-being. Technology is great, don’t get me wrong, but in this day and age we have become so reliant on it that a quick breather here and there to reset and connect with friends, family, and/or nature will do our bodies and minds a load of good! This is especially necessary in the younger/millennial generation who have grown up knowing nothing but screen time, so it makes me all the more conscious of my time.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“We cannot always control everything that happens to us in life, but we can always control how we respond.” This alludes to not letting the uncontrollable in life get you down and rather looking for ways to react positively and grow from it. There’s not necessarily one instance where this was relevant but rather every day I try to do this. There’s always going to be highs and lows, but if you take the lows and learn from them and if you don’t let the things you can’t control take hold of your attitude, you’ll live a better, happier life overall.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Whitney Wolfe Herd. She recently became the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire after taking the dating app Bumble public. Her biggest rallying cry for women (anyone really) is that you can absolutely make money doing something you love. She says you need to find your passion and then find out how to make money doing it. It goes in line with that saying, if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.

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