Everyone hears about “designer” sunglasses, shoes, or jeans. Over 50 high school juniors and seniors at Shelton School learned about a different designer concept – that of designing software. Designer toast and concepts beyond were the topics brought to class by AT&T personnel who visited Shelton’s campus March 20.
“If you can work together and design how to make toast, you might be on your way to designing a car, or designing software,” said Andrea Sutton, Vice President of Design Technology with AT&T. Sutton and her AT&T colleague Lead Chief of Staff Nate Zager engaged students with an exercise to explore the process of making toast, ultimately moving the students from their individual ideas to a group think-tank collaboration that resulted in a refined process. Discussions about toast were all over the map: what kind of bread to buy, how many steps it requires, how long to toast the bread. Most students talked about using a toaster to cook toast, but one lone ranger preferred a skillet. Some students mentioned butter and jam for condiments; others liked cinnamon sugar.
“You cannot build software on your own,” said Sutton. “You’ll find that your ideas expand when you talk with other people, just like they did with the toast-making exercise.”
Recognizing that she was in the largest school worldwide for intelligent students with learning differences, Sutton immediately connected with them on a personal level. “I’m a world champion dyslexic who was not diagnosed until age 20,” said Sutton. “I used to be embarrassed by how long it took me to read, and I did things differently. I found a unique way to get out my ideas by drawing my notes, putting the central idea inside a circle. I used to hide my drawings, but somewhere along the way, I learned that this was a part of my creative side.” Today she reads 70 books a year, using assistive technology. She still uses a notebook to draw her notes.
Sutton told Shelton students that AT&T needs employees who do things differently, and that the way they think is a valuable asset in today’s work environment. She leads a team of 50 software designers. “We need people like you who can think outside the box as we tackle gnarly problems, improve products, and build better customer relationships. Big companies are not designed for change. My job today is just to move rocks out of the way, so that change can happen.”
Having fun with the toast exercise was the first interaction between AT&T and Shelton students, and both parties hope to create future experiences, including AT&T internships for Shelton high schoolers, summer jobs for Shelton students, and an ongoing presence by AT&T on Shelton’s campus.
The AT&T collaboration originated with Ryan Stafford, parent to Shelton eighth-grader Ben Stafford and AVP Human Resources Business Partner for AT&T. He connected Shelton’s administration with AT&T, which also led to involvement with The University of Texas at Austin’s Doreen Lorenzo, Assistant Dean, School of Design and Creative Technologies Professor of Practice. Shelton faculty members handled logistics and communication for the Shelton campus visit.
“We love working with AT&T,” says Shelton Executive Director Suzanne Stell. “We seek and value these partnerships for our students, because some of our sharp Shelton graduates will be working for them in leadership roles in the near future.”
AT&T has some 250,000 employees, 100,000 of whom drive around in trucks to customers’ homes to hook up equipment. The process used to require seven devices, and now it just requires one app on a mobile phone. Team collaboration made possible the improvement.
Once mentored by people who saw her potential, Sutton says, “Now it’s my turn to do for others, especially women entering the STEM arena. I design momentum for others, and, at this stage in my career, I look to see how I can give it away.”
Asked one student of Sutton, “So, how do you like your toast?” No answer was given, but it might just involve the lone ranger who made a different kind of toast in a skillet, instead of in the toaster.