STEMConnector, an organization committed to linking science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education advocates together across disciplines and distances, selected Disney Interactive’s Vice President of Technology Nikki Katz for its 100 Diverse Corporate Leaders 2014 list. At Disney Interactive, Nikki leads and shapes the platform services group, which creates large-scale tech solutions that are leveraged across The Walt Disney Company.
Nikki recently shared her perspective on STEM education and diversity in the workforce.
How do we encourage students to continue their study of STEM subjects, particularly women and underrepresented minorities?
Nikki Katz (NK): I fell in love with programming as an 11-year-old toying with DOS and QBasic. I wrote command line games, signed up for every Computer Science class I could find and begged my parents for a Borland Pascal compiler for my Bat Mitzvah. I declared as a Computer Science major within weeks of starting my freshman year of college, but by the end of that first year I changed majors. I had learned that software engineers didn’t look like me, that I didn’t fit the stereotype—I mean, I didn’t even play video games. The stereotype has evolved and changed over time, but stereotypes of who STEM professionals are remain a big deterrent for women and minorities as they progress in their career. To encourage diversity in STEM fields, we have to highlight the diversity that already exists in those fields. We have to help women and minorities see themselves in STEM role models and find challenges to tackle with their STEM education that matter to them.
Leaders are in great demand as business builders and role models. What advice do you have for minorities and women “coming up” in the system?
NK: My advice to anyone “coming up” in the system is to take ownership of and accountability for your own career. There are many ways to attain professional goals, but failure to set them for yourself or to gauge progress towards them is a sure fire way to miss. This needs to be an active and ongoing process. Know where you want to be and assess opportunities in terms of whether they get you closer to that target. Seek out projects that will expand your skill sets and fill gaps in your organization that highlight your strengths. Be appropriately and constructively critical of yourself—essentially apply the principles of continuous improvement to your own skill sets and knowledge base. Good leaders exhibit both confidence and humility—the confidence to trust themselves and to take risks and the humility to always push to be better and evolve.
How do you translate your work into innovation?
NK: Although innovation is defined simply as the act of introducing new ideas into a system, in an applied business setting I interpret it as the ability to predict where you need to be and adjust to be there before the customer realizes they needed you there. Innovation can be revolutionary and take industries forward in huge leaps, or it can also be more subtle and evolutionary. My organization enables innovation by providing common platforms that serve as building blocks and allow teams across Disney to more quickly deliver new products and experiences to market. We focus on efficiently prototyping new concepts and technologies and then rapidly iterating to production-grade quality and scale.
How does STEM leadership with a focus on diversity help your company compete?
NK: Staying competitive means identifying and investing in good ideas and top talent. Good ideas are not hampered by arbitrary boundaries like position, title, socioeconomic status and race, and they can come from anywhere in the organization. In fact, research has clearly proven over the years that the best ideas are more likely to emerge from diverse groups. Disney’s investment in technology leadership with a focus on diversity increases the chances that good ideas will bubble up and be heard. Additionally, our focus on diversity means that we increase our candidate pool and are therefore better able to attract and retain top talent.
To read more, visit STEMConnector.org.