This two-part story looks at job shadowing programs that the Sunnyvale office hosts for college and high school students.


Remember when you were a high school or college student? “Work” seemed like such a foreign concept. Most of us had no idea what our parents or other people did at work all day. A career was this nebulous thing that you knew you might have some day—but that day seemed so far away. Why worry about work or a career when there’s a game on Friday night or dance on Saturday?


NetApp is trying to get high school and college students to start thinking about what a career might look like someday through a couple shadow programs that allow students to come to the NetApp campus in Sunnyvale and learn about what people do all day when they’re in the workforce. The company recently participated in two shadow programs—one for members of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), and one for local high school students in the Bay Area—that let students get a glimpse of what life after school is really like.


The Next Gen of Female Engineers

NetApp works closely with a number of colleges and universities across the country, building relationships with various academic departments, career development offices and student organizations to promote awareness of the company as a potential place for interns and new grads to work. Among the student organizations that University Relations Campus Manager Mercedes Hernandez maintains an ongoing relationship with is UC Berkeley’s SWE chapter.


According to Hernandez, Berkeley’s SWE chapter sponsors career shadowing days for its members three times each year. A couple years ago, the chapter reached out to NetApp asking if the company would be interested in hosting engineering students for a day. This year, NetApp has already hosted a number of female engineering students, both in January and March, with a total of seven students coming to campus for a day to literally “shadow” an engineer as they went about their workday. Hernandez helps to recruit mentors for the students. The most recent group of mentors were members of Sunnyvale’s Women In Technology (WIT) group.


“We leave it up to the mentors and mentees to decide how their day should be structured,” Hernandez says. “Mentors review their calendars to make sure students can attend their meetings where necessary.  They typically give students a tour of the campus, have lunch, provide introductions to their team, walk them through their specific role and have dedicated Q&A time.”


Students typically do a shadow day during one of their school breaks rather than during the semester. Hernandez says the women who shadowed employees during their winter break in January are students whose families typically live in the Silicon Valley area. “They participate in the program during their holiday breaks when they come back to visit family.”


Yannan Tuo, a first-year UC Berkeley student who visited NetApp in January, says she was interested in attending a shadow day at NetApp because she “wanted to see firsthand what some of the daily tasks of a hardware or software engineer are and listen to their thoughts on entering the tech industry.” Yannan was one of three of the students who happened to visit NetApp on a day when there was also a NetApp Women in Technology (WIT) event, featuring WIT leaders Dona Munsch and Anna Schlegel, something Tuo says was a highlight of her shadow day. “The WIT panel was something I didn’t know was a regular event at workplaces, and the speakers were engaging and inspirational in their description of how they achieved leadership positions in an influential company like NetApp,” she said. In addition, the students also got a tour of one of NetApp’s engineering labs.


Tuo’s mentor-for-a-day Shalmali Joshi says she was interested in hosting a student because she’d been a member of SWE when she was a student at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis). As a hardware engineer who does hands-on work in NetApp’s labs, Joshi felt she would have a lot of interesting things to show her mentee. Since most of what students learn in the classroom as they pursue their majors is theoretical, Joshi wanted to illustrate how that theory can be applied in practice every day.


“Being an electrical engineering major in college, I had no idea what I was getting into once I actually started a job,” Joshi says. “I wanted to help her see that as an electrical engineer, this is the kind of career path you would take and this is what you can do with your major.”


Joshi says she took Tuo to meetings with her, toured the Sunnyvale campus and took her to the WIT event. Because Tuo is still trying to decide if she’s more interested in pursuing a major in electrical engineering or computer science, Joshi also showed Tuo “what real hardware looks like in our labs, including the cool toys we use to test the hardware. ”  Joshi, who came to NetApp nearly two years ago after she graduated from college, also introduced her student mentee to other recent grads from the University Graduate Hire group who had gone to UC Berkeley so she could get a perspective from them on their jobs.


“I knew where she was coming from. If someone had done this for me, it would have made my life so much easier,” Joshi says.


Tuo says she was particularly interested in NetApp because she wanted to learn more about how a well-established tech company operates, particularly one whose products combine elements of both computer science and electrical engineering.


Senior manager, Performance Engineering, and WIT Sunnyvale site leader Nayla Nassif also hosted a SWE student that day. Nassif says she wanted the opportunity to show her student what performance engineering is all about.


“Not a lot of students understand what performance engineering is, so I love to do this to broaden their horizons and show them a whole different world from systems engineering. There’s more to engineering than writing and testing code—there’s systems engineering, performance modeling and analysis but there’s also management. As a senior manager, to someone early in their career, they might also come in and wonder what a manager does,” Nassif says.


In addition to exposing her shadow student to a variety of types of engineering and the management chain, Nassif also wanted to show that it’s important to wear many hats in any role.


“It’s about leadership, communication—it’s about all kinds of soft skills, negotiations, all of that—that’s what makes you effective. It’s not necessarily all about writing code, which is what a freshman student might think. Yes, you will be doing that but let’s not forget there are other skills you need to have, and let’s demonstrate some of them.”


With management responsibilities, budget meetings, conference calls, program reviews and doing CapEx planning for next year, Nassif’s mentee was able to get a real feel for the “day in the life” of a manager.


Multiple Paths, Mutual Benefit

Both Joshi and Nassif believe providing opportunities for students is important, particularly for female engineering students. Nassif feels strongly that showing students that they need a variety of skills to succeed in the workplace is particularly important for young engineers.


“Helping other women early in their careers learn the value of those soft skills, I think that’s important,” Nassif says. “That was the theme of the WIT panel, and I engaged with her on those conversations. Hopefully that’s something that will stay in the back of her mind to do this, whatever it is—negotiations, clarity, communications, leadership—whatever it is will help later at some point.”


In addition to learning that the workplace requires skills beyond what a student might learn in an engineering textbook, Yannan Tuo says that she really enjoyed hearing about the paths that Joshi and her co-workers took to get to where they are now. One of the things that most piqued her interest was the fact that there can be multiple paths to the job you end up doing.


“I was intrigued to find out that a handful of people had degrees unrelated to their job—shout out to the project manager who got a biology related degree for undergrad!” she says.


Although these students grew up in Silicon Valley and may have parents who work in tech, Joshi says she also believes it’s important to show young women that pursuing engineering as a woman is a perfectly normal thing to do.


“I think it’s important to show them what life is like as a female engineer and that all the challenges they face in getting their engineering degree are worth it in the end,” Joshi says.


Of course, programs such as these are equally important for NetApp.


“The opportunity to visit NetApp made me especially look forward to working in industry, especially in an interdisciplinary environment and getting to interact with people in all kinds of fields from all kinds of backgrounds,” Tuo says. “Of course, it was exciting to see the physical manifestation of all the perks people hear about—from the open gym to foosball tables—but what resonated with me the most was the flexibility of career paths following graduation that I saw through conversing with people at NetApp. As a freshman, I still want to see where the next few years take me, but receiving advice from professionals at this stage in my college career was encouraging. I’m thankful for the great time I had shadowing at NetApp.”


And that kind of introduction to what NetApp does is invaluable.


“Exposure to new talent and exposure of new talent to us is important,” says Nassif. “It’s hard competing for quality engineers, so we want to impress them with things other than free dinner. We want them to see the way we run the business here—the way we run projects, how this can give them an opportunity to grow, how they can shine in an environment like this. It offers a lot of benefits to NetApp obviously. Then they can take that info to their friends and buddies, and the next time they see NetApp or see that NetApp is on campus interviewing, they might make a comment to someone. It’s good to send people off with a very good impression of us.”


In Part 2, we’ll look at an ongoing program in Sunnyvale that brings local high schoolers to NetApp for a shadow day each spring.

Lisa Melsted

Lisa Melsted develops culture strategies and content for NetApp’s Employee Engagement team. A tech industry veteran with more than 15 years’ experience in various communications and marketing roles, she holds Master’s degrees in Creative Non-Fiction from Emerson College and English from the University of Iowa. She has also written articles about technology for publications such as Forbes BrandVoice and TechPageOne.

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