MSU alumna shares advice with female students at annual engineering dinner

Thursday, March 14, 2019

MSU photo by Marshall Swearingen

Margaret Mitchell was the keynote speaker at the 16th annual Women in Engineering Dinner on Friday, March 8.

In a working world in which men still dominate the fields of engineering and computer science, women need to be able to channel their inner superhero to break down gender barriers and reach their full potential.

That was the message that Margaret Mitchell had for a room packed with female students at Montana State University for the 16th annual Women in Engineering Dinner, which was held Friday to coincide with International Women’s Day.

“You need to be able to tap into your superpowers,” said Mitchell, an MSU alumna whose career has included heading up information technology for American Express.

While giving practical advice about dealing with conflict on the workplace, investing in new skills and inspiring others, Mitchell recounted her 25-year journey in the corporate and startup worlds after earning her bachelor’s in computer science from MSU in 1988.

“I can’t imagine having a better career, one that has allowed me to follow my curiosity, meet smart people and have flexibility. And the money’s not bad either,” she said with a laugh.

One highlight was leading the launch of American Express’s first website in the mid-90s. At the time, most people within the company “didn’t think the internet was that big of a deal,” she said. Her small team was marginal and somewhat obscure within the company. “We were like hobbits in the Shire.”

When the internet took off, however, so did her career. In five years, she went from being a senior engineer to the company’s vice president of software development.

That success, combined with supportive mentors, helped propel her through limitations that often confront women in the upper echelons of the corporate world. But when the company re-organized in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, her world was turned upside down, she said.

Faced with new supervisors who didn’t share her leadership style and incidents that demonstrated her new limits in the company, she was forced to reflect on whether her approach to her work was also holding her back.

Despite having led multiple initiatives within the company, she realized that she often fell into a pattern of being a “sidekick” — the standby who supports the superhero, she said. That realization led her to cultivate her own superhero strengths.

“It’s not bad to be a sidekick,” she said. But sometimes finding success in the workplace means asking tough questions, initiating discussions, defending one’s ideas and championing change.