Published in UT San Diego, April 27, 2015
Women remain underrepresented in technology positions in the United States, especially in the higher ranks.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2013 women accounted for just 25 percent of the workforce in computer occupations, a category that includes software developers, programmers, network architects and information research scientists. Increasing both the number of women and men in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields is essential to the future competitiveness of our innovation economy.
With this in mind, I talked with Joan Tang Waltman, 51, an engineer who joined Qualcomm in 1990 and rose to become division president of Qualcomm Enterprise Services.
Growing up in Fullerton, Waltman remembers only one other Asian family in the neighborhood. Her parents, who graduated from the University of Southern California, had moved to the U.S. from Shanghai at the age of 13. Both parents worked in STEM fields — which was extraordinary, particularly then. Her mother was a cancer researcher at USC, and her father was an engineer, inventor and department head at Hughes Aircraft. So her interest in engineering truly started at the dinner table.
(Neil’s note: Immigrant family, important focus on education, early involvement in science.)
At Cal State Fullerton, Waltman was one of a very few women majoring in engineering. “I never thought about being female in a male-dominated field. My mom raised me to do the thing that you think you should be doing and not let race or gender deter you,” she said.
In college, Waltman met her husband, Tom. She later moved to San Diego where Tom was attending medical school at UC San Diego, and she earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering.
The timing was fortuitous. During her graduate program, Waltman used a textbook, “Principles of Communication Engineering,” co-authored by Irwin Mark Jacobs, a UC San Diego professor who was one of the founders of Qualcomm in 1985.
After stints at two other companies, Waltman took a pay cut to join Qualcomm in 1990 as employee No. 461 to work with the team developing the San Diego chipmaker’s CDMA wireless technology. The company now has almost 32,000 employees worldwide.
(Neil’s note: Pay cut to join. Opportunity more important than initial paycheck.)
Over the next few years, she had several promotions. Then her husband, who had become a cardiologist, was offered a position in Las Vegas.
“That was a big moment for us. I had two sons — a 6-month-old and 2 years old. My husband said this is super-important, and I remember going to Rich Sulpizio (then the president of Qualcomm) to tell him that I was moving to Las Vegas. They offered me the option of working from home as an engineer or helping to build a backup satellite station for OmniTRACS, a mobile communications system for the trucking industry,” she said.
Waltman chose the OmniTRACS option, which meant a 50 percent pay cut. “I didn’t worry about the salary and the title. I just wanted to keep my career moving in a new direction.”
(Neil’s note: If you can become indispensable, no glass ceiling.)
In retrospect, she said, “It was the smartest thing that I’ve ever done” because she learned new skills, gained exposure to a new part of the company, and she solidified her belief in the servant leadership model, a philosophy that emphasizes success through ensuring that the needs of all team members are met.
After four years in Las Vegas, Qualcomm offered her a position running a key new technology project in San Diego. For 18 months, the company paid for her to fly between Las Vegas and San Diego from Monday through Thursday. She got up at 4:30 a.m. and was home by 6:30 p.m. — ensuring her two boys saw their mom home for dinner. Then she worked at home for hours after they went to bed.
When she was offered another promotion, the family returned to San Diego, and her husband was also offered a position to return to the cardiology division at UC San Diego. In 2005, Waltman was appointed president of Qualcomm Enterprise Services, a position she held until 2008. Currently, she works part time as a strategic adviser to Qualcomm’s in-house innovation program and its intellectual property group.
Clearly, Waltman has achieved exceptional success in a male-dominated industry for myriad reasons — parents who were great role models, excellent mentors, a company that was willing to accommodate her personal needs, hard work, the ability to handle increasingly challenging leadership positions, a supportive spouse, good timing and the willingness to take what looked like backward steps in her career. There were sacrifices and trade-offs. There always are. Men in STEM make trade-offs also. But to quote Ginger Rogers, “I did everything Fred Astaire did, except backward and in heels.”