Victoria Novak and Emily Buettner

Victoria Novak is the Director of Workforce Innovation at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska. I first met Victoria through the University of Nebraska – Omaha Women in IT Mentoring program, where I was studying IT Innovation. Victoria became my mentor for the school year, and has continued to be a friend and advisor. It’s a role that she clearly loves. We spoke about Omaha’s tech community, supporting women in tech, and MCC’s recently opened Code School.

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April: You’ve been involved in the tech, non-profit, and education communities in Omaha for quite a while. I’m guessing there are many connections and intersections between those different industries.  What has that path been like for you?

Victoria: Actually, it’s four industries, if you look at the 22 years I worked in the debt collection industry. In doing that, I wasn’t your traditional “go to college after high school” person. I jumped into an industry where I could make a whole lot of money and not have that textbook background, and in the meantime, start raising a family. So, for me, it was a perfect fit to be able to raise three amazing humans and make a really great career – until external markets started to shake up, including the mortgage downfall and the recession. I didn’t feel that I could transition to another industry and still make comparable pay. That was 2010. I decided to go to community college. I worked through community college, undergraduate, and master’s degrees over the next 10 years. I rarely talked about my debt collection experience, because everyone wanted to close their ears and say, ‘please don’t call me’ or ‘forget my name.’ There was a stigma attached. It wasn’t until these last few years that I realized how much skill and experience I gained over that 22 years that is allowing me to be as successful as I feel like I am now and what I can do in the future. From my undergrad, where my major was Gerontology and my minor was Women’s Studies, I felt it was best to pivot out of that private sector industry and into non-profit.

This is where the tech comes in – I’m tech-adjacent, I’m not your technical skills person. Working for the non-profit, that was all about building tech careers. That’s really where I got my link into technology. The two and a half years I worked in that industry, what I was really building was the skillset to do business development, marketing and public relations, to build strong networks that were also adjacent to technology fields, board governance… all of these non-profit organizational skills helped to build more skills in my toolbox. In the mean time I was working on my master’s degree in Public Administration. Hence, now, the role that I’m in now, this set me up very well to take on a role in higher education that happens to be a community college. So, I’ve come full circle. It’s also a role that allows me to talk about what businesses and industries need to up-skill and backfill their workforce. About 65% of what we do now is in the technology field, specifically to up-skill. For example, the Code School we just opened  (a project management academy which allows individuals to achieve an industry certification), Lean and Agile methodologies, and all these things that I didn’t even know about four years ago. In the meantime, it’s really still building a community and a network around the audience that MCC (Metropolitan Community College) has, which is four counties where we serve about 45,000 students on campus and online.

Private sector, non-profit, public sector- the only sector I haven’t worked in now is government – if you continue to build those skillsets, you’re going to be able to input into these technology careers in a variety of ways and it doesn’t even have to do with tech skills. All those tech adjacent roles are needed.

 

April: We met through the UNO Women in IT Mentoring program. What motivates you to be an advocate for women in tech?

Victoria: Gallop rleased date from 2012 data about young women in at AP exams numbers: about 19% of girls take the Advanced Placement CS test compared to 46% who take the AP Calculus test, while overall girls account for 56% of all AP test takers. (Note: read more about these statistics here.) When you have young women who already have the challenge of determining whether they would be suited for a class or not, and they take that leap of faith and they go into these classes, and they like them, but they don’t stick with them, I think it’s my job as another woman who’s experienced all types of things in management, leadership, and operations to find out what I can do to help them stay focused in an area I know that is going to be so many opportunities for them later on. So many doors are going to open if they stay in this field. It doesn’t have to be just a programmer, or a project manager, or a data analyst, or a cyber security specialist. There’s so many other roles out there they can take that are going to give them an opportunity to lead, to manage different projects, and to make a great amount of money. I haven’t quite figured out how I can grow capacity in what I’m doing in one-on-one women mentorship in technology, because I know that it’s working. I think 50% of it is relational, and the other 50% is helping to put them in a position where they can see the opportunity and they can go for it. I think that’s my role. Only I want to do it a hundred thousand times over!

 

April: Someone gave you a shout-out on LinkedIn that you had “a great ability to build personal connections for the long-term” and I absolutely agree with that because we’ve built a great relationship through all of our connections right out of the box. Having those kinds of relationships takes a lot of effort, and I know you meet a ton of people. How are you not completely exhausted and are able to maintain those really genuine relationships and discussions with people?

Victoria: I’m a problem solver by nature and if I can tell that someone is having a problem, I want to help them find a solution, even if I don’t have it. The larger my network is, if I can remember some of the foundational things about people that I meet, maybe that one thing I remember will help somebody else solve a problem that they have. Even if I look at my non-profit education, the one thing that I learned from my non-profit concentration education is that non-profits aren’t really there to solve all of the world’s problems by themselves. They are there to create resources, but to also engage with other organizations so they can fill the gaps. That’s why I feel so strongly about public-private partnerships and cross-collaboration, because the more resources multiple organizations have, the further you’re going to get. Rather than just one, you’re going to have a team of people.

It’s the same in networking. I don’t want to do it where it’s not genuine, however, I’ve gone that route – I’ve gone to LinkedIn, and I still do on occasion contact people I don’t know. Sometimes that comes back to help you, because what I have here in my current role is an opportunity for somebody’s life or business to grow, and I want other people to be able to see that so they can engage with it and connect to it so they can help solve a problem. My circle – I don’t stay deeply engaged with people who don’t reciprocate, because you have to have that two-way street of communication and connectivity. But the other part of that is that it doesn’t have to be consistent. It could be after three or four years and as long as you’re there to try and help each other solve problems, to me that’s genuine. It doesn’t have to be a day to day thing. I really believe in going deeper with relationships rather than casting a wider net that is meaningless.

 

April: One of the best take-aways I’ve gained from conversations with you was about focusing on having a passion outside of work. What does that look like for you? Is it a very clear separation between work and what your passionate about – is there some crossover, or is it more about being able to step away and do something completely separate?

Victoria: I think you should be ok with both. Somebody said to me the other day, “You did rodeo?” and “You paint?” and “You traveled there?” and “You can cook in cast iron?” and I was thinking, yes, because I want to explore all these things. If I’m not constantly learning, I’m never going to know some of these other things I’m really good at. I think it’s absolutely ok to separate off things, and go to a campsite, and not even think once about work, take all the apps off your phone, and completely disconnect as they say, but I also don’t have a problem with pulling my work out at the camper and doing it there. I had a boss once and I wanted to leave that company to pursue my degree in Gerontology and work in an assisted living facility. He said he really didn’t want me to go, because he believed my skillset was going to help the company grow and help myself grow. He asked me to remember that just because I wanted to leave to get a degree out of a passion for advocating for aging and elderly populations, that I could still do that outside of your life and fulfill that part of my life while doing work. That really resonated with me, but I didn’t stay, because I wanted to open other doors of opportunity for myself. I don’t feel like I’m done either- I feel like I’m just beginning. I think the key is that I need to continue to find other things to take my mind away from the persistence I have in needing to succeed in my actual job. Even though I love my job, I can’t live it all the time.

 

April: MCC launched a Code School this year. What’s it about and why it’s needed in this community?

Victoria: The Workforce Innovation Division at MCC is really about aligning with business and industry and building deep collaborative relationships with businesses so they can up-skill and backfill their workforce. With my team, for corporate training, what we want to do is align with them to either develop training, take vendor-driven training curriculum, customize off-the-shelf type training – whatever is needed to fill those gaps businesses have in training and development. We did a ton of research on code schools, nationally and internationally – best practices, barriers they had, how they overcame challenges, etc.  One of our goals in Workforce Innovations is to do a true needs assessment with businesses. After doing the research, our first goal was to talk to many organizations across the state, not just Omaha, and find out from a 10-question survey, what was it that they needed in their tech talent workforce, what does a Code School look like to them, etc. One of the themes that came back was “we don’t need you to teach students the basics of programming, we need you to teach them how to work in a team, effective communication, how to network” – all of these soft skills that people talk about. Businesses need tech workers who can join a team, work through a project or storyboard and not have to worry about learning Agile methodologies along the way – we need them to know that now.

When you think of Code Schools, you think of applicants as someone who wants to transition to a new career, for example, someone that may have been a chef, learned the basics of programming, and decides that they want to carry that on into a career. Code School is a bit different in that the target is not only the general public – while they are welcome to apply and there is funding available – our target audience is businesses. Applicants need to come in with basic fundamentals. There is an assessment process as this is a very immersive nine-month program. Who in your organization can you see flourishing in this program? These employees become up-skilled – for the business that means there’s a retention factor. The business is investing in their employee’s learning and development.

The school is 9 months and is designed so that you don’t have to quit your job to do it – nights and weekends. Student to teacher ratio is 5 to 1. It’s a real-world, project based, pair programming system. At the end of the program you’ll have multiple items in your portfolio that you can include on your resumé.

The Code School was designed to focus on up-skilling the workforce because that’s what industry needs here in Omaha because there’s such a tech talent shortage. There are already great programs that exist for those that are just starting to develop their tech skills. Based on a recent report from the Omaha Chamber of Commerce some of the most critical positions that Omaha businesses need are software developers & programmers.

 

April: Remote work – I see is a lack of availability of remote work in the tech industry in Omaha and the Midwest in general. What do you see as some of the reasons for this? Is it that as a newer tech community we are perhaps behind the curve? Is it a social theme…? In terms of business mentality and the need to fill tech jobs in the area, why are business not considering remote work as a way to solve the tech talent problem?

Victoria: This is probably the toughest question you’ve asked. There are a lot of organizations here who have remote work – the smaller, younger tech companies. But you also have a lot of organizations that are deep seated in conservative culture. We have a diverse set of generation groups in the workforce right now. When you look at more mature generations, their work style is generally 50 hours a week, in the office, in a suit and tie. Then you have baby boomers, who are very much 8 to 5 in theory but work 50 to 60+ hours per week, and don’t go home until the work is done. It’s all an in-office setting. But then you have millennials that come through, and then next generation coming up – it will be interesting to see the research to compare how they work. They probably work longer hours, but in some ways, they work smarter, and they don’t do it in an office setting.

So, we have this cultural difference in thought, that if you’re not in the office, you’re not working. So what does it look like to hire and recruit your people, what does that particular job look like? Do businesses and organizations need to do something similar to a Job Skills Alignment assessment and identify what percentage of their jobs can be done remotely? There have been many companies that attempted to shift to remote work for a while because it was the trendy thing to do, but then they pulled staff back and said, for example, you have to work from the office two days a week because we don’t feel like you’re getting the work done. So that tells me, operationally, are they setting up their processes and procedures in a way that they can identify what success looks like at the end of the day for that job title, and can that be done remotely?

There are multiple issues. It’s a fear of knowing whether your employees are going to be productive in a remote environment. How open are managers to new technology tools that will help their team communicate and manage projects well? The team should know what their vision and mission, is, what they need to do to do their job – as a team and individually – how they’re going to show their production measurements (what are their metrics?) and how do  they meet as a team to make sure all of that is happening? For example, I’ve implemented Microsoft Teams – not fully, because part of it is, I don’t have anyone here to train me on this tool, which is part of my point – do managers put themselves in a position to know what tools are out there for good project management and good team communication? Do they have the opportunity to learn the tool the right way so that it’s the most effective, and have they set their team up in a way that everyone is on the same page and they have buy-in?

With Microsoft Teams set up, if I was away for an entire month and working off-site, even as a manager, I could still communicate with my team in a way that I know the status of every project at any point. There should be no reason why this isn’t possible, unless managers aren’t given the opportunity, or perhaps they are a little tech-adverse and don’t want to try new things. But the tools are there.

 

April: Any thoughts that come to mind as we’ve been talking?

Victoria: Yeah, I want to work remotely! I want to work from my camper! But seriously, I’m in a really good job, working for a really good organization, I have my master’s degree, and my kids are grown and living on the west coast. When they start building families, I need to be able to travel and see them and be in a position to work remotely. My choices are: become an instructor, speak more, or start my own consulting business. In my current role, based on the culture and everything that’s expected in this job, I wouldn’t be able to travel and work remotely. On the flip side of the coin, I am not looking to work remtely right now.

April: It’s an interesting place that we are in culturally right now. Even though we’re talking about something so technical, it still comes back to family, friends, and being able to manage your life in a positive way.

Victoria: Right, I don’t want to have life pass me by and have people say “oh, she had a great job, and she affected the community – I don’t know what my obituary would say, but ultimately, at the end of the day, I want to be able to have the freedom and  access to go and enjoy the people and the stories that are created with those that I love.  The job needs to ultimately help me fund that.

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