Dream Jobs and Diamonds: Communicating Success with Maria Sexton
Over three decades in IT, Maria has applied her skills to a variety of industries, including consumer packaged goods, gaming and entertainment, and local and federal government.
“In IT and security, you can work…for any industry, anywhere in the world. We are absolutely blessed in that sense,” she explains.
However, it was the mission-driven aspect of healthcare that led her to discover her true calling. Being part of UMC, the sole county hospital in Nevada, allows her to contribute to essential care, and Maria finds immense satisfaction in making a positive impact.
“This is absolutely my dream job,” she enthuses.
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Authenticity over pretense
During her conversation with Steve, Maria reflects on a pivotal moment in her career during the mid-90s. At that time, she was striving to secure a more stable financial future for her three children. Her role as a secretary (“Back in the day that’s what they were called,” she laughs) wasn’t cutting it. Recalling her childhood interest in computers, she pursued certifications to become a systems engineer.
This journey demanded tenacity and self-assuredness, but Maria is quick to dispel the hackneyed career advice, “Fake it ‘til you make it,” especially in the security sector.
“No one should be faking any of this,” she concludes. “I think we just need to be able to say, ‘Listen, I’m good at two or three things… I recognize I’m not great at these [other things]. I don’t know them yet. I’ve only been doing this for five minutes, but I am committed to learning those things, and as I learn, I’m going to show you that competency and come up that way.’”
As any security professional knows, breaking into the IT field is no easy task, and Maria’s story offers valuable insights into the “tenacity and diligence and hand-raising” required.
After securing a loan to become a Certified Novell Administrator (CNA), Maria transitioned from her secretarial role to her first help desk job at the American Medical Association’s Chicago office. However, her triumph was short-lived when she learned that technology continually evolves, even when it is deeply inconvenient: “Somebody says, ‘Why did you bother to waste six months on a NetWare certification when everyone is moving to Microsoft?’”
Thankfully, Maria remained steadfast. She returned to the bank, secured additional funding, enrolled in a Microsoft certification program, and ultimately became a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE).
“So in a year, I’m holding two of the most coveted certifications at that time,” she recalls.
Soon, applying for a help desk role at the Department of Energy spiraled into an opportunity to become a network engineer. The hiring manager took a chance on Maria, and rather than shying away from the risk, she rose to the occasion.
“I told those individuals, I’m a hard worker. I clearly have an aptitude. I just passed 13 tests and got certifications. I’m willing to learn,” she explains. “…I could have easily said, ‘No, no, I’ll just pursue the help desk position. I don’t have the experience.’ But I was very clear and I said, again, I’ve got the aptitude. Yes, I want to take the chance.”
Undeniably, Maria is skilled in the art of communication, which can be a superpower in the often insular world of IT.
“I was never going to be a gifted engineer,” she details. “I wasn’t going to develop elegant and beautiful networks and systems. It’s just not really the way my mind works. But what I did discover was that being detail oriented, taking notes, articulating that back to individuals, whether in writing or in person, I was able to communicate technology in a sense to others who really didn’t understand technology. And I recognized that they needed to hear it in layman’s terms.”
Over time, Maria identified and leveraged her skills: effective communication, empathy, and the ability to discern nonverbal cues. These strengths propelled her into more leadership roles.
“I’ve just become very comfortable with communicating information to people,” she explains.
“I like to see their reactions. I like to inject a little bit of humor. So it wasn’t really any formal training, but again, it was a recognition early on in my career of the strengths I had and really positive way of exploiting those strengths, developing them, and really understanding I was never going to be a great technologist, but I was very effective at communicating at organization and operations. And those have served me very well.”
Be a diamond, not a dinosaur
Maria also recalls one of the questions she is asked the most: “What’s more important experience or certification or higher education?” It may seem like an either-or question, but the answer may surprise you: They’re all important. Together.
Maria explains, “The more facets you have, the more brilliant you are, just like a diamond.”
In 2023, a diverse, robust skillset, paired with education and experience, seems to be the recipe for success. As Maria emphasizes, ”We’re not one-trick ponies anymore in technology. We can’t be, I mean, you can be, but we’ll be calling you a dinosaur very soon.”
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