Most adults may not remember everything they did when they were kids, but George Mason University alum Kate Maxwell distinctly remembers how much she enjoyed coding.
“It was fun for me, like playing a game,” Maxwell said.
She followed that zest, and it ultimately led to a career in engineering and technology, and her current position with Microsoft as Chief Technology Officer of Worldwide Defense & Intelligence.
Maxwell describes herself as an ‘elder millennial’ and grew up when personal computer technology and the internet were coming into homes. Her father enjoyed gaming consoles; she played plenty of Atari, Nintendo, and computer games like The Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego. When the public internet became mainstream, Maxwell started to get hooked on coding.
“I had my own GeoCities website—which was kind of like an early blog—and found an interest in computing,” she said. “I explored the web, I played with technology, and I began learning how to code.”
She opted for studying computer science in college, a choice her parents supported, but which she quickly found wasn’t an area where she had many female peers. She loved what she was doing and learning, but it was sometimes a lonely experience being one of only two women in the degree program.
“At the time, I didn’t have many female role models in tech, and I occasionally suffered from what I’ll call a ‘career-path identity crisis,’” she said. “I wondered if this field of study was really for me, and questioned whether I really belonged.”
On the advice of some trusted mentors and advisors, she stuck with it and landed a role at Raytheon (RTX) right out of college. She began her career as a software engineer and quickly worked her way into senior engineering and technical leadership roles. While at the company, Maxwell knew Mason had a strong system engineering program, as well as connections with the Department of Defense. The choice to pursue her graduate studies at Mason lined up.
“It was a great fit, and Mason offered the flexibility I needed while working full-time,” she said. “[Studying at Mason] was a huge career accelerator and rounded out my skills as an engineer while giving me some new leadership skills that helped me bridge the gap between technical leadership, people leadership, and business leadership.”
Although her journey has had its challenges, Maxwell is happy she stuck with pursuing a career in engineering and tech. She urges other women interested in STEM to be brave, stick with it when things get hard, and to not be afraid of failure because it’s all part of the process when it comes to trying new things.
“It doesn’t always have to be perfect. Bet on yourself to figure it out,” she said. “Find your people and build a community and network that will support you, celebrate you, and give you honest feedback when you need it.”
Maxwell was ranked 2023 #1 Woman in Technology by Technology Magazine. She credits Mason with providing quality of education and system engineering professors that know the industry landscape and support their students in achieving their goals.
“This is perhaps my favorite thing about STEM professions—you can truly make a difference with this career path,” Maxwell said. “Engineering has afforded me opportunities to support some incredible missions, to work with some incredible people, and to make a difference at a global scale. My goal is to ultimately leave this world a little better than I found it.”