Reaching the height of your career doesn’t happen overnight. Behind every person with the word “executive” or “president” in their title is a journey full of twists and turns, wins and losses, and peaks and valleys that led them there. For me, that journey began when I stepped foot into a coding class at my alma mater, North Carolina Central University (NCCU).
Now, as Vice President (VP) of Global Customer Service and Operations Production Enablement at MetLife, one of the world’s leading financial services companies, I’ve been able to enjoy an illustrious career, one that has spanned more than twenty years and encompassed everything from computer programming to information technology (IT) to enablement.
You too can crack the code to success in STEM—and here’s how.
1. Don’t fear uncharted waters, dive in.
Sometimes you have to leave the places where you’re most comfortable to discover the places where you belong and, throughout my career, I’ve done just that.
In college, I was initially a psychology major, but my entire trajectory shifted when I took a coding class that inspired me to switch majors. Soon after, I began working at helpdesks and taking certification courses in Lotus Notes, a client-server software platform. It would later be my certifications in Lotus Notes that would help me land my very first job – as a software developer at IBM – after graduating NCCU with a bachelor’s degree in computer information systems and an MBA.
But switching majors was just the beginning of my foray into taking chances and experimenting with new interests.
Within two years at IBM, I began to make another transition—from software development to project management. And although still in the technical field, I inched my way closer to project management and further away from programming, leading me to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Agile, an iterative approach to project management and software development, may be popular today, but at the time, was less well known. Always searching for new ways to grow, I found a window to lead Agile transformation at IBM and ultimately traveled the world to teach over 2,000 students about how they could apply Agile to their projects.
But it was after more than 16 years spent pushing the envelope and seizing new opportunities that I made my most important career move to date, one that landed me in the place I belonged.
I joined MetLife.
2. Define and design your destiny.
When you find the home of your dreams, you still refurbish it over time to support your evolving desires and needs. The same goes for your career. And when I first joined MetLife in 2014 as part of the project management office within its Global Technology practice, I was sure to make the most out of my career.
Setting my sights on how I could continue to grow not only professionally, but personally, I networked my way through different roles and opportunities at MetLife. In doing so, I managed to traverse the financial world, oversee a portfolio of governance, step into an assistant vice president role, and supervise a group of project and program directors in the process—all while remaining in Global Technology.
This internal mobility and career flexibility that MetLife enables is what empowered me to take on the role of site lead in MetLife’s Cary, North Carolina campus—one of its largest sites overall. My role as site lead helped me to eventually became a candidate for promotion into my current role, which involves leveraging technologies to fulfill service level agreements and streamline the customer experience.
I also found an avenue for personal growth: MetLife’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. As the point of contact for MetLife’s partnership with the National Black MBA Association and chair of MetLife’s Black Executive Leadership Forum, I get to keep the doors that were opened for me, propped open for others to walk through—and that means the world to me.
3. Claim your stake, keep your seat.
It goes without saying that discovering, navigating, and defining your career is a journey that, while fruitful, has its fair share of obstacles along the way. But instead of bailing out, I encourage you to lean in.
As a young, Black woman in a male-dominated field like technology, I’ve constantly had to prove my worth and ability to everyone around me. Like too many, I can recall several times where I was the youngest and only woman and/or person of color in the room—an experience that feels especially isolating.
And when you’re sitting in those type of environments, you can start to become introverted and act as the support staff for your team. But I didn’t want to do that. I had to be more intentional, make sure that I found my voice, and not allow myself to be intimidated by the other people sitting at the table because I knew that I deserved a seat just as much as they did—and you do too.
Even in the moments when I reached new career heights, earned new titles and opportunities, and garnered impressive results—moments that should be cause for celebration—the doubters didn’t go away. I still felt the weight of affirming that my achievements were valid and rightful, not just a mere result of filling DEI quotas. I had to combat that other people may have thought, “Oh, she got that job because she’s Black,” or “Oh, she got that job because she’s a woman.”
Luckily once I joined MetLife, I found a support system that not only believed in my value but fed and cultivated it—my manager, Merrilee Matchett. I sing her praises every single day because it took someone taking a risk on me and saying, “I think you can do this,” to get to where I am today. Merrilee was that person. But she’s also sure to remind and reinforce to me that I am the one who’s doing the work, solidifying my place, and keeping my seat at the table.
You may need someone to open the door for you, but once that door is opened, it’s up to you to make sure that you stay there.
As a VP at MetLife, I’ve found a home where I can connect my IT knowledge and project management passion, feel supported and believed in, and not only have a seat at the table, but help create more for my peers. My advice to anyone who’s navigating their career or looking for success in STEM is to not let anyone steal your joy.
No matter how high up you get, you’re going to encounter people that make you feel like you don’t belong. Even if you don’t have all the knowledge that your peers do, never let anyone push you into a corner. Instead, show up every single day with joy and you’ll conquer every goal you set and every obstacle put before you.
To explore open roles like Anika’s, visit MetLife’s Career Site today.
Anika Wall is a Vice President of Global Customer Service and Operations Production Enablement at MetLife, one of the world’s largest financial services companies. She is passionate about helping other women find success in STEM and beyond. Connect with her about STEM and careers in tech on LinkedIn.