Some people leave school early and return to education, some do apprenticeships, some go to further or higher education and some pursue many different careers before finding success in their current field. The over-riding fact is that there is no one, defined path to success. Different education, training and career options suit different people, and we must be open to considering diverse opportunities including apprenticeship, further education and higher education in order to achieve success in our own lives.

Role models are key to inspiring and encouraging people starting out on their career path. Female STEM role models are particularly important in encouraging young females to consider a career in a STEM occupation and the education paths that can get them there.


In this Q&A, Cathriona Hallahan, Managing Director at Microsoft Ireland, describes her path to a successful career in STEM and offers words of advice to those considering a STEM career.


1. Tell us about your background and how you got started in your career.


"I didn't go to college after school but went straight to work in a small family business in the 80s before the recession hit it hard.  Then, over 30 years ago now, I saw an ad in the newspaper for an Accounts Clerk role based in Sandyford Industrial Estate. I wasn't familiar with the company at the time but soon found myself working for Microsoft! Completely by chance, I had happened upon a company that would test and challenge me, and enable me to develop many different skills over time. I was fortunate to encounter people who felt I had potential - my manager at the time encouraged me to do an accounting technician course and, subsequently, the full ACCA qualification.  From finance, I spent 17 years in operations in various positions before I took up my current role as Managing Director of Microsoft Ireland. I feel like I've had many different careers with one company, which itself has continued to transform and develop."


2. Have STEM skills been useful to you in your career?


"Absolutely. The skills I have learned through working in the technology industry have genuinely been indispensable to me in both my work and personal life.  While I didn't study a STEM subject in 3rd level, I've picked up enough along the way through my maths and accounting background, as well as from my many colleagues, who themselves studied STEM.  Applying critical thinking to solving problems, and not getting bogged down in details, but standing back to see the big picture are great examples of how these skills have helped me throughout my career. I think this approach is reflected in my leadership style too, where I tend to take a coaching rather than directive approach with my team."


3. What advice would you give to someone starting out on their career?


"Always make your aspirations known.  When the role of Managing Director in the EMEA Operations Centre first came up, I didn't get it. I was really surprised by this so I asked my manager and he said "well, you never asked". That was the biggest learning curve for me; I hadn't shared my aspirations, I just assumed everybody would know I wanted the top job!  My own personal leadership style focuses on enabling people to recognise their own potential and then putting the necessary structure in place so they can realise it.  So I encourage young people to voice their hopes and desires from early on - apply for jobs, even if you feel you've only eight out of the 10 requirements, take risks, push yourself outside your comfort zone and put yourself out there."


4. What is the importance of STEM role models?


"There are so many brilliant STEM role models out there, whether you're a young person starting out your STEM journey or you're well established in your STEM career. They help to inspire us and show us the way forward.  In fact America's most admired female engineer Peggy Johnson, works for Microsoft.  She was visiting us in Dublin recently, and spoke at an event attended by 800 young female students.  During that event, we committed to enable 10,000 girls in Ireland to engage with technology in a positive way over the next two years. Through this activity, young women will be encouraged to engage with technology - through study, career or in their personal pursuits. One of our partners in this work is CoderDojo which does important work giving young people the opportunity to learn to code. We're sponsoring CoderDojo's Coolest Projects Showcase 2017 which is a fantastic opportunity for talented young people to show off their technical creations and meeting some interesting role models from the industry."