Native Americans make strides in the tech workforce
Native American techies are working to promote better understanding of Indian cultures, and making important technical contributions
By Angela M. Hutchinson
The Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology notes that the number of Native Americans in the U.S. has grown in the 20th century. But Indians still account for only 1.5 percent of the total U.S. population, and represent an even smaller proportion of those working in science and engineering.
The Native Americans who have made careers in technology are hardworking, determined and proud of their heritage. And the commission concludes that, like many other groups, Indians will enjoy even greater success by making science and engineering careers a key focus.
Awareness and advocacy
Unfortunately, membership in this relatively tiny group also comes with a challenge: a lack of awareness and sensitivity about Native American culture, values and issues in the non-Indian population.
Choctaw Kenneth Vargas, who works as an engineering director for the U.S. Navy, believes that most members of the American workforce are not used to having Native Americans on their teams. "Mainstream America has incorporated many culturally and racially insensitive phrases as part of everyday language that have gone unchallenged to this date," he says.
"This is not done out of malice, for the most part, but out of ignorance. Many people say 'too many chiefs and not enough Indians,' 'bottom of the totem pole,' 'having a powwow,' without realizing they could be offending someone." Racially charged names of sports teams and mascots are another source of friction, Vargas continues. "Our people are not mascots and should be respected in the same way other ethnic groups are considered in our country; no more, no less."
Chippewa Gordon D. Waishkey, a branch chief for the U.S. Special Operations Command, has faced similar issues. "Most people think all American Indians are the same, when in fact each tribe or nation has its own unique culture, language and history," he says.
Even the name used to refer to Indians as a whole can be problematic, he adds. "When I grew up I was an American Indian, but now we are called Native Americans. By definition, anyone born in the United States is a native of America. American Indians of all tribes and nations made significant contributions to the establishment and growth of the United States. Being an American Indian sets us apart as who we are. It's our identity."
Organizations like SACNAS, formerly the Society to Advance Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), focus on increasing the representation of American Indians and Alaskan Natives in engineering, IT and related technology fields. AISES members represent more than 200 different tribal nations, and partner with corporate, government, academic, and tribal decision-makers to work toward the mission of seeing more Native Americans in technical positions.
Clearly, these featured Native American engineers and IT professionals have a passion for both their work and their culture.
Sioux Jennifer Fawkes climbs the career ladder at 3M
"Being Native American, I am traditionally shy. Early in my career, it was very difficult for me to stand up for myself, as I was intimidated by those who were older than me and had more experience," says Jennifer Fawkes. "It took me a few years to understand, but I learned to speak up for myself and put my opinions on the table because they were just as good as anyone else's."
Twenty years into her service with global innovations company 3M (St. Paul, MN), Jennifer Fawkes is now an IT lead, providing support for 3M's global infrastructure. Fawkes actively monitors and responds to incident detections in the company's open systems environment. She identifies opportunities to remove waste and streamline or standardize processes, and also performs restorations on C: drives and mail restorations for 3M's clients.
The Sioux influence
Fawkes is originally from Grantsburg, Wisconsin, but her father was raised in Flandreau, South Dakota. "A few times, we attended the annual powwow in Flandreau, which spans three days," she says. Fawkes is a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe. She says her cultural background has contributed to her continuously evolving leadership characteristics.
"I listen to people and take my time to make decisions. I think of all the possible outcomes then I state my opinion," she says. "I'm not a fast talker, and prefer to work in a small team rather than a large group, but I do what I must do to accomplish the task at hand."
A graduate of the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities, Fawkes earned her degree in women's/Chicano/rhetoric studies and a minor in criminology. She is working on a certificate in computer security from the Graduate School of Software at the University of St. Thomas.
Working her way up
Fawkes' career journey with 3M is unusual. After graduating in 1993, she applied for several positions within the company and ended up accepting a fulltime position as a custodian, because she needed health insurance. "I really started at the bottom and worked my way up to where I am today." After working as a 3M lab technician, helpdesk agent in IT, lead in helpdesk, analyst, day coordinator and project analyst, she landed her current post.
Bringing in projects and setting up the process for open systems excites Fawkes. "There are so many different personalities and opinions in the group, no two days are ever the same," she says. "The most challenging aspect of my position is following up on issues that no one seems to own."
One of Fawkes' favorite recent projects involved upgrading first-level European IT support operations to the standards of U.S. first-level operations. She helped create and update documentation for open systems support (OSS) for both operations. "I created new remedy owner groups, created new processes and combined several processes into one for OSS to follow," she explains.
Fawkes likes supporting 3M global efforts. She especially enjoys working with those who are not from the U.S. She says, "Learning about other cultures and personalities of people who are not like you can build trust."
Chippewa Gordon D. Waishkey manages applications and more for the Air Force
"I feel my American Indian background prepared me for my current line of work because it's given me a positive attitude toward everything I do," says Gordon D. Waishkey, portal and applications branch chief for the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).
Waishkey has worked in the portal and applications branch of the U.S. USSOCOM for five years. "I provide overall management for USSOCOM and its component commands in application development, Internet, portals, and database management," he says. He assesses the use, costs and acquisitions of automated information systems equipment. He also evaluates and makes recommendations on systems design, development and sustainment. "When people think of USSOCOM's mission of supporting the deployed special operations warfighter, they don't think of the technical systems side of how we do it. I find my job to be very unique and rewarding," says Waishkey.
Proud of heritage, proud of country
Waishkey is an American Indian of Chippewa descent. He was born in Detroit, MI, but grew up in New Port Richey, FL. "American Indians have made remarkable contributions to our nation's identity and to know I am part of such a rich heritage is inspiring," he says. Waishkey happily accepts the fact that he represents more than just himself. "When a person realizes that life is more than just him or her, that person's perspective naturally changes from inward to outward, which is quite empowering," he says.
In July 1984, Waishkey received an associate's degree in architectural drafting and design from Tampa Technical Institute. A year later, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and retired as a Sergeant First Class after twenty-one years of service. "I knew when I retired I was going to miss being a part of that community," he says, "but my current job is the perfect opportunity to continue serving my country and my fellow service members. I can't see myself doing anything else."
Working with people, meeting goals
Waishkey enjoys working directly with his team in developing and implementing their personal performance plans. "I am responsible for assigning tasks, maintaining quality control, and assuring the completion of the tasks within the required time lines," he says.
He meets with management and department leaders to ensure the availability of resources to support USSOCOM's overall mission. Then he develops acquisition and procurement recommendations that address the scope, objectives and issues like the cost-benefit analysis and lifecycle management.
He also provides direct support to the special forces operators on a daily basis, which makes his job particularly rewarding. "There are not too many jobs out there where a person can make a direct contribution to helping individual service members accomplish their missions and return home safely," he says. "My job makes a difference. I am fortunate to work with other great professionals who share the same passion."
One of Waishkey's challenges is making sure that the government's web-based services are operational for sharing data anywhere in the world. "We work with highly integrated equipment, and the operator in the field is relying on the data we provide," says Waishkey.
"Diversity in any organization," Waishkey concludes, "provides many different perspectives, outlooks and ideas that can add strength and the ability to adapt to the ever-changing high-tech world." To benefit from that diversity, Waishkey says, "every individual, military or civilian, must be encouraged and enabled to reach his or her full potential."
Cherokee Betty Edwards brings her heritage and love of learning to Walmart
For the past twenty years, Betty Edwards has worked for discount retailer Walmart (Bentonville, AR). Currently she's a senior project specialist for the company's information systems division. Her team is creating a service catalog to simplify the way Walmart associates around the world receive IT services. "My work involves facilitating meetings to gather requirements, tracking and approving services, learning design aspects of developing a service and working as a liaison with individual teams to set up new users," she says.
Both of Edwards' parents were of Cherokee descent. "My mother was raised by her grandfather, who was Cherokee, and my family grew up on his eighty-acre farm in southern Missouri, where we always had a garden and a large orchard," she says. Edwards grew up with four brothers and four sisters. "In a large family like mine, the work ethic is ingrained.
"You can look at my family photos and see the Native American heritage," says Edwards. "One of our female ancestors survived the Trail of Tears. If you're Native American, you come from determined, hard-working people."
A love of learning
Edwards says she has always been ready to learn and open to change. She says, "You can accumulate knowledge in so many ways. Never give up. You can always go back to school. Even if you learn for your own benefit, you're proving to yourself that you can learn." Education is just the beginning, she notes, and then the knowledge gained should be put into practice.
In 1994, Edwards graduated from Missouri Southern State University (Joplin, MO) with a bachelors in business management. Since then she has taken pride in doing work that yields meaningful results, like Walmart's managed print services project. "The project goal was to reduce energy costs, CO2 emissions and paper usage. We achieved those goals, and we did it in a way that saved the company money," she says. "I am passionate about showing that protecting our resources is good business."
But what she loves most about her job is the variety of work she does every day, and the variety of teams with whom she can interact. "My work allows me to collaborate with almost every area in Walmart's home office of approximately 14,000 associates."
Pueblo member Linda Ann Gallegos is an IT project manager at LANL
"I value people, milestone accomplishments, innovation, process improvements, problem resolution, and successful execution of difficult challenges," says Linda Ann Gallegos.
Gallegos is IT project manager for Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), a New Mexico-based multidisciplinary research institution involved in strategic science on behalf of national security. Her role is to manage IT projects of various levels of complexity and scope. She communicates with senior execs, company stakeholders and internal customers to keep projects in compliance with established budgets, schedules, forecasts and business plans.
"I am the project lead for the information technology project management office. I'm responsible for fifteen IT project managers. In addition, I'm a project manager myself on two large institutional IT projects," she says. One involves deploying laboratory-wide integrated email/calendar system/unified communications, and the other involves implementing a cloud computing capability for deploying corporate services while retaining site autonomy for managing infrastructure. She deals with database and application development, testing and deployments; establishing and enforcing standards and methodologies like configuration management; software development processes and security technologies.
Heritage, gender and barriers
Gallegos is a member of the Pueblo of Pojoaque, one of eight Northern Indian Pueblos in New Mexico. Her father's family is from both the Pueblo of Pojoaque and the Pueblo of Santa Clara and her mother is from Ohkay Owingeh (formerly the Pueblo of San Juan).
Early in her career, Gallegos faced culture and ethnicity barriers. "Being a Native American female in a male-dominated field was a challenge. I felt I needed to work twice as hard to demonstrate to my managers and customers that I was capable of accomplishing the work," she says. "I was fortunate to have great coaches and mentors throughout my career to provide guidance."
Growth, achievement and success
Gallegos began with LANL twenty-six years ago as an undergrad student in the weapons division. She provided project management support in planning and scheduling activities using a mainframe project management tool for the weapons community. As a graduate research assistant, she served as system manager for workstations connected in the open, administrative, and classified computing environments.
In 1987, Gallegos received her associates degree in computer science from Santa Fe Community College in New Mexico. Two years later, she graduated cum laude with her BSCIS from the College of Santa Fe. In 1991, she earned her masters degree in management information systems, also from the College of Santa Fe. The same year, she was hired as a full-time employee in the engineering, science and applications division of Los Alamos where one of her assignments was to implement an institutional computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). "This experience led to my involvement with the lab's CMMS project where I ended up as the project manager. Since then, I've successfully managed the implementation and deployment of many institutional systems," says Gallegos.
She enjoys interacting with people and managing IT projects. "Throughout my career, I have successfully managed technological projects by leading diverse teams."
Choctaw David Scharpenberg manages Deep Space Network ops for ITT Exelis
"Anything can and does happen at any time," says David Scharpenberg of ITT Exelis (McLean, VA), a global aerospace, defense and information solutions company. "My job allows me to improvise, troubleshoot, find a solution, and execute the solution. The type and variety of real-time issues are endless, which allows me to stretch my brain."
As an Exelis operations chief for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) space flight operations facility (SFOF) in Pasadena, CA, Scharpenberg manages four Deep Space Network (DSN) crew members during a shift. The DSN is an array of large antennas strategically located in California, Australia, and Spain that provides twenty-four hour coverage for deep space missions.
"The SFOF also serves as the central hub for all the data from these spacecraft, which are routed to the mission teams: Mars Science Laboratory, Cassini, Voyager, New Horizons, Mars Exploration Rover, Grail and more," he explains. "Since the DSN provides twenty-four-hour coverage, one small but very important duty is to maintain a log, just like on Star Trek," he says with a smile.
Scharpenberg has worked as an operations chief for six years, and as a tracking support specialist for four. Before Exelis, he worked in the space industry for companies like Lockheed Martin and Globalstar, and did a four-year term in the U.S. Air Force.
A positive heritage
Scharpenberg remembers being picked on as a young child. "But I grew up in a small Ohio community and we were just kids," he says. "I really can't say that I have had any challenges because of my ethnicity."
In fact, Scharpenberg says his colleagues embrace his diverse background. "I think every work environment I've seen has been pretty diverse," he says. "California is a melting pot of sorts."
Scharpenberg's father is of German descent and his mother is Choctaw. "I am on the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians roll and my mother is from the Tucker community on the Choctaw reservation near Philadelphia, Mississippi."
In some ways, Scharpenberg thinks his ethnic background has helped him to be more respectful of others when dealing with work-related issues, and life in general. "To me, diversity sends the message that everyone is included, which is a welcoming feeling no matter how you look at it," he says.
Choctaw Kenneth Vargas directs engineering at Navy facilities
Kenneth Vargas is the engineering and acquisition division director at the Navy Facilities Engineering Command Mid-Atlantic Joint Expeditionary Base's Little Creek/Fort Story facilities, where he's responsible for facilities engineering and contract support.
From May 2006 through 2007 he was embedded in the New Iraqi Army as an advisor to the New Iraqi Army Civil Engineer Corps. "My year was filled with personal growth and challenging adventures," he says. "When the year was over I had grown as a person, as an officer, as a leader."
Working hand-in-hand with the fledgling New Iraqi Army was one of his more rewarding endeavors. "The opportunities the Navy and the Civil Engineer Corps have given me are unmatched," he says. Vargas has led his engineering team in support of Navy SEAL teams, SEABEEs, Explosive Ordinance Disposal Teams, Riverine Units and Salvage and Construction dive teams.
In 1998, Vargas completed his bachelors in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas-Arlington. Nine years later, the Navy gave him the opportunity to earn his masters degree in civil engineering at the University of Texas-Austin.
Vargas was raised in two traditional Native cultures with four different languages (English, Spanish, Choctaw and Quechua). His father is Quechua Indian from the Capital of the Inca Empire (Qosqo) in the Andes of Peru. His mother is Oklahoma Band Choctaw. Vargas has traveled extensively and embraces diversity.
Vargas takes pride in working for the Navy. "With the Navy Civil Engineer Corps I not only get to be an engineer and be a warrior representing the Choctaw Nation, but I also get to be a leader of warriors. There is no price for this privilege and blessing," he says.
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