Problem solving: expert advice on dealing with any challenge, by our Tech Woman of the Year and NMITE’s President and CEO, Elena Rodriguez-Falcon.
Elena Rodriguez-Falcon is an openly LGBTQ engineer and Professor at NMITE, one of the most ambitious Higher Education projects in the UK, and was Woman of the Year at our 2020 FDM everywoman in Technology Awards. Here she presents a masterclass in problem solving — and discusses facing up to the biggest challenge presenting women today.
What are the main hurdles you’ve overcome to get where you are today?
Once, I was asked: ‘Elena, as a gay, female, international, catholic engineer, what is the characteristic that has caused you the most difficulty in progressing?’. There are two and they have nothing to do with sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity or religion. It has to do with perception of what an academic should look like i.e. research intensive, with a PhD. I came from industry and my academic credentials, whilst varied and several, are not typical of academia. But perhaps the most complex problem was that I made it my professional goal to innovate in education. That was the hardest challenge to overcome in gaining my Professorship.
What problems are you specifically trying to solve at the moment?
I am leading the creation of a new Higher Education Institute which, by definition, is challenging, but doing so whilst navigating a global pandemic is doubly difficult. Through this project, we are trying to address the shortage of skills in engineering, the gender imbalance in the profession, and the work readiness of our engineers, whilst also trying to improve the learning experience of engineering students. Of course, in doing so, we will train engineers who will help future generations have a better life.
Who do you turn to when you face a professional challenge, and what’s the best advice you’ve been given about a specific problem?
Professional problems are also personal problems; it is very difficult to separate them as one inevitably affects the other. So, my partner is the person I offload to and who supports me. However, I am a strong believer that professional problems first and foremost need to be tackled by the team experiencing them, and I am very open with my team about the problems we face so that we can resolve them together. I also have a network of mentors and peers that I call on, on a regular basis, to pick their brains when I am stuck. A good piece of advice I’ve been given is to sleep on things before reacting. I work fast and try to resolve things quickly. That has its pros, but when you are dealing with problems or conflicts, it is better (and safer) to reflect on what you are going to put out there before you do it.
Thinking about the biggest problem you’ve faced so far, what steps did you take to resolve it?
I approach every single problem the same way, regardless of the size or impact of the challenge or whether it’s technical, strategic, ethical or personal. First you have to clearly define the problem to solve — what is its root? In other words, what criteria needs to be addressed. Secondly, generate as many ideas as possible to address the problem and suspend judgement until you then evaluate the ideas against the criteria set and against the stakeholders (those who will benefit or be impacted by the solution). Choose the best idea according to your evaluation and implement it, or in other words, test to see if it works. If it doesn’t, go back to check your criteria were correct in the first instance and follow the process again.
What are the qualities of a problem-solving mindset?
People with a problem-solving mindset see problems as challenges, and then as opportunities, not as a burden. They are curious, creative, resilient, courageous and resourceful. They take advantage of any given opportunity or create their own opportunities to bring about change and they make things happen.
How did you meet the challenges of moving into a male-dominated industry?
I think I was fortunate that I grew up in an industrial city in Mexico, where engineering was seen not only as ‘common’ but also as an opportunity to succeed, which in turn led to a higher representation of women in the sector, and as a result meant that my experience during my degree was less male dominated that it would have been in the UK. Perception matters, role models matter, normalisation matters. Of course, if I hadn’t had the encouragement of my parents to see challenges as opportunities to be embraced, the story may have been really different. The challenges of working in a male-dominated world, not just industry, are very real. Structural, as well as, attitudinal barriers do exist. The barriers are not always external to women. Sometimes, they are internal barriers we have to remove, deciding to take the plunge and apply for the jobs we may not think we can get, or for that promotion we may not think we are ready for, or for that recognition we may not think we deserve.
To what extent do female role models help solve the problem of a lack of diversity?
Good role models are definitely needed and helpful, but they do not have to be female role models only. We need inclusive role models regardless of gender who are willing to coach, mentor, remove barriers, help with networks and open doors to those coming behind us.
Aside from the global pandemic, what do you think is the biggest challenge faced by women today, and how might we begin to resolve it?
In general, the world is still a man’s world and women are still the main carers in families. Structurally, rebalancing the opportunities for women to be able to enter different paths remains one of the biggest challenges. But as I said earlier, women need to be empowered to take the ‘bull by the horns’ and know that whilst normally, that bull is tamed by men, we can also do it. However, there is also a big issue in terms of social justice, and this has been clearly evidenced by Covid-19. So many people do not have access to technology and whilst this is not a woman’s issue alone, I suspect it affects women in particular, due to added responsibilities. If we don’t have access to technology right now, we don’t have access to much at all. This is what we should all be worrying about.
What advice would you offer our readers for improving their own problem-solving skills?
Choose a framework, apply it consistently and practise, practise, practise. Do not be afraid of getting it wrong, as long as you learn from your mistakes and try again. The tragedy would be being too afraid and not discovering the great difference you can make by trying.