Stephanie C. Hill calls herself an accidental engineer. The vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin excelled at science and math when she was in school, but she had absolutely no idea how to pursue it as a career.
Though her parents were very well-educated and had friends in a variety of professions, they didn't know any engineers. Hill was completely unaware of the career path, and majoring in economics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She was planning on becoming an accountant until she took a course in programming and fell in love with it. With the encouragement of mentors and academic counselors, she changed course so she could also study computer science. And that support, she said, made all the difference.
"That's why I have such a passion for sharing how amazing this industry is and what a difference you can make in peoples' lives around the world if you decide to pursue a career like this," HIll said.
Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education is critical to Hill — she has made it one of her biggest priorities throughout her 27 years at Lockheed Martin, an aerospace, defense, security, and advanced technology company. She began with the company as a software engineer in 1987. "I wrote a whole lot of code," she said. She later served as VP of Electronic Systems-Mission Systems & Sensors, managing Army and Navy launching systems, Coast Guard air and surface systems, and Army persistent threat detection systems.
As the vice president and general manager of the Information Systems & Global Solutions Civil business, Hill oversees almost 10,000 employees. She now works with all the federal civil services like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the FDA, the FAA, and all over federal cabinets that are civilian. Lockheed Martin delivers all kinds of IT solutions to these customers, including cyber solutions for big mission development. The company also contracts for NASA and the Department of Energy.
It's a challenging role, but Hill said she hasn't been bored one day in her 27 years.
"When you have such a diverse set of opportunities, it's almost like I've worked in different companies because I've worked [on] so many different things," she said. "I've never really thought about leaving them. I say I bleed Lockheed Martin blue."
Hill's team has very constructive open dialogue, which she said is key to their success. With massive customers and problems that are difficult to solve, it's as important to disagree as it is to come up with a solution. And in these discussions, she includes everyone — not just executives or higher-ups in the company.
"It's important to empower teams doing the work. While I have insight and my team has insight, our project team on the ground with customers, in the labs working through challenges, we need to empower them to work through their problems," she said.
Another reason Hill has stayed with Lockheed Martin for so many years is because of the company's dedication to STEM education efforts, particularly for minorities and women. Hill pointed out the gaping hole in the number of STEM graduates. In the next decade, the US will need one million more, according to the Obama administration.
Hill is consistently recognized for her efforts in the field. Earlier this year, she was awarded the Black Engineer of the Year Award by the Career Communications Group and in 2013, she received the AFCEA Heroines in Technology Award. Her goal is to reach as many students as she can across the board.
"That's why I like to tell the story that I didn't know I was going to do it, I didn't know it was possible for me," she said. "I was able to figure it out because [I had] a lot of wonderful people to guide me."
Winning awards like these is important to Hill because it allows those types of stories to be shared. Many people, she said, are simply unaware of volunteer opportunities, or just don't know where to seek them out. Her hope is that her efforts are contagious — and that soon, a pipeline for STEM graduates will be created.
When she started her career, Hill was a bit of a "GPA snob," she said. She always wanted the 4.0 MIT graduate until one day, her staff helped her see that was not always the best decision. It's important for new hires to be able to deliver and have a great track record, she said, but it's not everything. Equally important is attitude.
"I believe that the most significant contribution I can have is to create a safe environment where everyone can bring their whole selves to work, where people are not only willing to give their ideas but they are eager to give them and know that when they give them the organization is going to value them," she said. "If you can create that kind of environment, that speak-up culture, creativity and innovation is really limitless."
In her own words...
How do you unplug?
"One of the things I established early on so that in the midst of the intensity of the day — and we have intense days — as I transition to home (I have a husband of 21 yrs and three children) so as I transition home in my long commute, if I don't have teleconferences, I listen to books on CD. What that does for me is it decompresses me. The books on CD are mysteries. It allows me to transition from the intensity of the day so I can walk into the door and be the wife and mother that I want to be and not have the baggage of the intense days."
What do you like to cook?
"I love to cook and I'm actually a pretty good cook. I cook almost every night if I'm not on business travel. I make fresh vegetables, in the summer I probably grill three times a week. One of my favorite things to do — as a cook, you love it when people like your food — every holiday I host for my family. I cook like three different meats, four vegetables, three starches. And I let other people bring dessert."
What are your hobbies?
"I sing in my church choir. I have been on a church choir since I was 12 and I've almost never missed a Sunday when the choir that I'm on sings, and I'm a soloist. One day I'm going to make a CD. I don't know when that is going to be, but I'm committed to doing that. It may be post-career, but I love to sing. I'm fortunate to have a venue to do that in."
How did you get started singing?
"We didn't have children's choir, we had sanctuary choir. My mother was on it and I would go to practice with her and sing. For a little bit, I was part of a gospel band. We don't have an album out, but stay tuned for a few years, I'm going to really work on that."
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.