Always hire people smarter than you are and let them do their work — One of the most rewarding things to see is someone tapping into several ideas that you propose, finding their niche and just going for it. This recently happened with one of the engineering data scientists. He joined the team and started working on a few projects that were assigned to him. As he was working on this and getting exposed to other ideas in the field; he started focusing on one topic more than others. It is a topic with business value and very fitting to his technical background and because he was drawn to it himself, he skipped crawling and walking on the way to running.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Fatma Kocer, VP of Engineering and Data Science of Altair.
Fatma began her career at Altair, a global product development software company, as a Product Line Manager in 2006. She quickly advanced to VP of Global Business Development in Design Exploration where she was recognized for her talent in leading the design exploration strategy and building teams. Due to her leadership and success, Fatma moved into her current role of VP of Engineering Data Science in January of 2018, where she manages a team of engineering data scientists that are focusing on delivering solutions leveraging design exploration and data science for product design, manufacturing and operation. Fatma consistently ranks as a top-five percent performer in the company.
Known for her expertise in computer-aided design engineering, Fatma was selected as a technical keynote speaker for the Society of Automotive Engineers’ World Congress 2018 and is a regular contributor to the NAFEMS Optimization Working Group where she also played a leading role in the 2018 Digital Twins eSeminar. Also known as a strong mentor, Fatma encourages students of all ages not to be afraid of pursuing a career in STEM. This past year, she established an exploratory week for female high school seniors to shadow her department at Altair. Kocer has also been named as one of Crain’s 2019 Notable Women in STEM.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I like to tell people it’s less of a story and more of a series of turning points, but regardless, it happily brought me to where I am today.
I have always excelled at math and quite honestly, have been a bit geeky about it. Ever since I was a child growing up in Turkey, I’ve had an affinity for numbers, even phone numbers…I would multiply them, divide them, and so on. When it came time to think about my future and what I wanted to study, I was debating between engineering and economics. When I was much younger, I always wanted to be an ambassador, but I picked engineering because it looked more certain to me at the time when I was 18; little did I know about the robustness and reliability issues in product design.
The critical juncture in my life came when I started college and made the decision to study engineering. I did well in school, but I missed math, so I went on to graduate school in the United States to focus on optimization, which is more of the math side of engineering. This is what brought me to Altair, where I learned about solving real problems that require not only technical skills but also people skills. I had really liked the job description because my mind feels engaged when I participate in discussions, and this position required me to engage in discussions with customers, program management, software development, marketing, and sales. In school, I learned from technical papers and textbooks, whereas at Altair, I learned to connect with teams of varied responsibility and backgrounds and discover that by working in a supportive, diverse environment, we can develop better solutions. Now, at Altair, I have become my own kind of ambassador to Altair’s products and that is something that gives me a lot of pride.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Something I’ve always found fascinating within my career is how truly small the world is. I’ve met many different people throughout my career, and then when I least expect it, run into them again in a completely new situation related to the field.
In my work, I present at many different technology conferences which enables me to travel to new destinations and see other cultures and learn about their markets. The ATC conference in India is always a favorite destination. At that conference, I feel like a rock star as I walk out on stage and am introduced to over a thousand people in the audience in a very glamorous way. It can be quite overwhelming. As a matter of fact, three months after presenting at ATC in Bangalore, an Indian-American colleague from the US was at a wedding and started talking to the person sitting next to him. During the conversation, he mentioned that he works at Altair. Then the person sitting next to him asks “Do you know Fatma?” What is the likelihood of something like this happening; where someone knows who you are in another country on the other side of the world? My field has the feeling of a large yet small community.
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?
Never let your guard down and remain dressed for success. I was just starting in my position and learning how to conduct myself in meetings in different countries and cultures. I had just arrived on a very early flight to the UK wearing jeans and sports shoes. I had to rush immediately to the Altair office, hoping it would be a casual customer meeting because I had no time to change. As I walked into the office, everyone was dressed in a suit and tie, which was a bit awkward especially considering the tone of the meeting. It was not exactly the conversation I wanted to have in my casual clothes. I now make sure that I always fly prepared.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Altair has a true interest in helping everyone, from the decision-makers to the engineers, product teams, and analysts. There hasn’t been a particular story but in just about every meeting I witness where each team member involved is genuinely interested in finding the best possible solution to a customer’s problem.
I believe one of the most commendable attributes about Altair is the company’s commitment to supporting and promoting diversity and fostering talent at every level. For example, I was able to bring a friend’s daughter to work to job shadow. During her time at Altair, she was able to shadow five different people from five different departments with our HR’s full support. My friend’s daughter wasn’t sure if she wanted to get into engineering because she wasn’t sure what was involved. Altair gave me the opportunity to show her many different aspects of engineering. I’m happy to report now that she is a sophomore at the University of Michigan and not only studies mechanical engineering but hopes to work at Altair one day too.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Currently, I am a mentor for the women engineers at Altair. Many report into me and I mentor them just as my male manager did with me. I tell them about my past experiences and what I wish I had known earlier in my career, so I can help them thrive in their future.
I’m also involved with the Youth Development Program at TACAM; the Turkish-American Cultural Association of Michigan. Our aim is to give leadership opportunities for every student involved in the program. Each semester, the program alternates leadership roles to allow participants to try a new position. In my opinion, while leadership isn’t necessarily suited for everyone, each person should still have the opportunity to experience what it means to lead. You truly never know if you are meant to be a leader if you never experience it.
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?
When I look at “About Us” pages of technology and engineering companies, I always look at how many women are CEO and CTO, or responsible for product development or strategy. Unfortunately, there are not many. I think women closed the gap in education and experience, but we’re still working on doing the same for leadership.
As a woman and immigrant, I feel there was a bit of a cultural difference in what I went through compared to others in my field. I did face some challenging times along the way, but nothing stopped me from my career path. At Altair, I’ve had a very large support team consisting of my managers, graduate advisors, and colleagues every step of the way. I think at a basic level it just comes down to giving women in tech or STEM the support or guidance they need to make sure they’re being recognized in meetings and able to contribute, just as my mentors have done for me.
This is why I am one of several mentors at a local youth leadership club. One of the messages we always hear girls and parents of these girls saying, is that “not everyone is born to be a leader” or “I don’t want to deal with politics.” Leadership is not just for self-confident people who are charismatic and/or can give great speeches or want to be the president one day. Regardless of your level, title or experience, leadership is a needed skillset just like swimming or riding a bike. Projects need leaders. Personal and work critical situations need different people to step up at different times; leaders need team members who can relate to their challenges. So, women should experience being a leader for a day, a week, a project; maybe they will like it and realize they are born to be a leader.
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 believe there’s an inaccurate portrayal of women in engineering. Often there’s too much focus on the negative; of engineering being a challenging field to break into for women. I remember my mother crying when she learned I was accepted into the engineering program because she feared it would be too hard. Maybe I was lucky to have landed at Altair and to receive the thoughtful support of my male managers and graduate school advisers, but to me, engineering is not as challenging as its often portrayed. At the end of the day, we all want to do good work and solve problems, but I think men do not question whether they belong to STEM/tech or not. Noone questions men about it. But a lot of women question this and more importantly others question this. The feeling of not belonging keeps you from stepping up because you are never fully in it; you never feel like you’re sitting at the right table. I think this will be solved by both women being more assertive and men being more inclusive and all being less judgmental as people are exploring new team dynamics. My advice to other women pursuing STEM is that as long as you know where you are and where you want to go, find people that support and challenge you to make it there. Know where you want to stand and find mentors and a support system to help you exceed your goals.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth that I usually hear is engineering is difficult, lonely, and men do not think women belong in STEM/tech. Of course, I run into some who believe that to be true, but I worked with a very supportive, appreciative group of men in my previous job and now at Altair. Many became good friends and since then I’ve made many of them unofficial mentors.
Another myth is kind of funny, where people think that if a man becomes an engineer, they must be smart, hard-working, and dedicated. If a woman becomes an engineer, they must be super smart, super hard-working, and super dedicated — a kind of superwoman. For some reason there is an idea that engineering is “too much work for a woman” which I directly say, women don’t have to be smarter to be female engineers, we just have to do the work.
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.)
- Create a circle of support — Mentorship and support were essential in my professional development. It was through the encouragement of my coworkers that I allowed myself to have that first seat at the table and believe it is essential for all leaders to feel supported. One of the executives once told me in a meeting that I had to sit at the main table. I was mildly embarrassed but more so thought I did not know as much as the others to take a seat in the main discussion table. I obliged and sat at the main table. It did not take long that I realized what I did not know, neither did others but through discussions, we figured it out.
- Speak up with your ideas — My mentors have always encouraged me to share my ideas and insights. When you read this interview, you are probably thinking I had it all figured out and knew it all along. That is definitely not the case. When I was promoted to the director position, I remember telling my manager that I didn’t know how to be a director and he looked annoyed and said you will quickly learn. It took many of my managers’ encouragement to speak up more (or even annoyance because I stayed on the sidelines) to help guide me. I did not appreciate these reactions at first, but I really do now looking back at them. I have to admit I still wait longer than optimal to feel confident in my new ideas.
- Always hire people smarter than you are and let them do their work — One of the most rewarding things to see is someone tapping into several ideas that you propose, finding their niche and just going for it. This recently happened with one of the engineering data scientists. He joined the team and started working on a few projects that were assigned to him. As he was working on this and getting exposed to other ideas in the field; he started focusing on one topic more than others. It is a topic with business value and very fitting to his technical background and because he was drawn to it himself, he skipped crawling and walking on the way to running.
- Don’t take things personally-It is never about you unless you make it about you. — I hear from women why certain things happened the way they did or why someone made the comment they made. There is no harm to think about this but there’s no good either because the cause isn’t always about you. People react to things at work, not to people. It’s never about you, it’s always about the situation.
- Don’t forget that “perfect is the enemy of good”. — A woman engineer who worked in my team had a similar background to mine as an immigrant woman engineer raising young kids. I took it upon myself to tell her about my experiences as needed. In her early days, she was presenting one of her projects to a large audience. She knew the topic and was well prepared for it — a little too well though; she had almost memorized the presentation. When you do that; try to deliver perfection; you lose spontaneity and the ability to think on your feet because you are so worried to deviate from the perfect. So when people ask questions, she did not perform as well even though she knew the answer. Questions and answers are the most important part of a presentation. A presentation is as much about how well you know the material and present as it is how well you inspire and engage the audience. I had advised her to be only 80% prepared and let the rest 20% take its course. She had, later on, told me that she does follow that rule and has much less stressful, and more productive meetings.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
The women I mentor won’t be surprised to hear this from me, but my advice is, don’t just jump on things that are assigned to you. Make sure they align with your career trajectory. At the same time, if you are doing something that is not part of your plan, make sure you’re aware it isn’t.
Insert yourself into strategic planning. Get involved with your company’s strategic projects. Your business colleagues will most definitely appreciate your technical knowledge and consequently, you’ll learn more about the business-side.
Most importantly, life is juggling three bowls: health is made of glass, family and friends are made of glass, and your job is made of rubber. If that falters or drops while you focus on the glass it will bounce back.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Never be afraid to tap into the strength of your team. Trust your people and use their strengths the best you can by knowing the technical details of what they’re doing. But also recognize the bigger picture and the potential each member has to contribute. Promote your team’s work and provide feedback. If you focus on elevating your team, you will help them succeed and excel in all areas. I’ve always told myself to support what my teams need, and my teams will rely on me to share clear direction on where they should focus.
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?
This is a tough one. It’s very hard to choose just one! I feel as though I’ve had a role model in each stage of my life. When I was younger it was my brothers, and before that, it was my parents. In college, it was each of my helpful advisors who supported me to obtain my degree. Now in my role at Altair, there are a number of people who support me. Regardless of my gender or nationality, they’ve always encouraged me to grow and develop to where I am today.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
At home, it’s through my 16-year old daughter. I’ve always encouraged her to try new things whether it was trying a new food she hadn’t tasted before or signed her up for public speaking. I’ve also always reminded her that “perfect is the enemy of good”. I encourage my daughter to have fun exploring all activities and not exhausting herself in one specific area now when there’s so much ahead of her.
In a professional setting, as I noted before, I lead the Youth Development Program at TACAM. I’ve heard women, mothers at the school say to their young girls, “Leadership is not for everyone.” But our aim is to give leadership opportunities for every high school student. I believe this gives them the confidence and experience to try new things.
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. 🙂
Relative to my mission with the Youth Development Program, my goal is to inspire a movement around getting children, mainly girls, the technical and business experiences they need to lead. Women are catching up and even leading in many fields, but women are still reluctant to reach for the next leadership position. I’d like to encourage everyone to be a leader at some point in their lives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s a quote I enjoy a lot, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” To me, this quote signifies the belief that we don’t need to look for perfection, but if there are parts of an imperfect thing that are useful, we shouldn’t be afraid to use it.
On a more serious note, there was a time when my brother was sick and I was struggling to figure out how I could take the time to be with him while still managing my work. My manager and mentor at the time, told me that life is all about juggling three balls: health, family, and career, but health and family balls are glass; they break if you drop them. Career is a rubber ball; it will bounce back. I have since been very appreciative of Altair’s culture where they encourage you to be productive without sacrificing time from real-life events.
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 🙂
I’d love to have breakfast with Megan Rapinoe, one of America’s best soccer players. She is brave and inspiring. Then I’d love to have lunch with Mary Barra from GM. In her role, she has handled challenges extremely well that others could not.