Annika Peterson planned to become an astrophysicist. But after a friend encouraged her to take an intro to computer science class, Peterson discovered a new passion. “What I loved about physics is what I love about software engineering and computer science: playing with data and solving problems,” she says.
While in college, she interned at big labs, but she kept thinking back to her time interning at Cisco Meraki, an IT company. There, she felt like a vital member of the team—and not just an anonymous cog in a wheel. And in the male-dominated tech space, she felt welcomed and supported at the company. After graduating, she went back to Cisco Meraki, advancing to software engineering manager within five years. And she’s currently recruiting for her growing, diverse department.
Here are her tips on how to stand out when you’re interviewing for an engineering job—and how women in tech can speak up for themselves in their careers.
Tell us about your career journey, and what led you to your job at Cisco Meraki.
I went to school to be an astrophysicist. And what I loved about physics is what I love about software engineering and computer science: playing with data and solving problems. While in college, I had a friend who encouraged me to take an introduction to computer science class, and I fell in love. I entered the technology industry, excited to solve more problems for more people.
The summer after my junior year at Carnegie Mellon, I interned at Cisco Meraki. And when I graduated, I knew I wanted to come back full time as a software engineer. Since then, I’ve grown my career with the help of my amazing mentors at the company. I now lead the Data Engineering team and am loving it.
What attracted you to work at Cisco Meraki?
Cisco Meraki has a smaller, yet supportive, engineering culture. In my previous internships at much larger companies, I barely saw my team—or anyone else. However, I didn’t want to go to a startup, since I highly value work-life balance. Cisco Meraki fit everything I wanted to do technically with an environment that made me want to go to work. The people here make that easy. We have computer scientists, philosophers, chemical engineers, biology majors, and a bunch of other diverse minds all in one place. I learn every day. Plus, these people genuinely care about each other. I also wanted to be proud of the work I’m doing. Our devices help people get internet to schools, farms, and other places I would have never imagined.
What do you love most about your job?
At its heart, my job is to help make sure my team has the right resources to do their jobs and to establish processes that make their jobs more enjoyable. That is my favorite part of being an engineering manager. I love helping to grow my team, encouraging them, and writing cool code with them.
What is a recent challenge you encountered in your job, and how did you overcome it?
Transitioning to management from being a software engineer was a challenge. I overcame it with help from my manager, my team, and through continuous learning. Being an engineering manager required me to transition my skill set from one of coding, design, and engineering to one that included how to hire and grow a team. I would not have been able to meet the challenge without the support of my team and my manager. They set me up for success, and in turn, I’m ready to set up my team for success as well.
What do you like about the company culture at Cisco Meraki?
The best part is how open and honest everyone is. Management encourages us to give direct feedback, and they listen and change things for the better. This culture of feedback can be hard to get used to at first. Giving feedback is difficult! But because everyone encourages transparency, it makes it more accessible. The people here are open, kind, and intelligent. We’re working towards a common goal. And that goal is more achievable when we are honest with each other.
Diversity is an issue that the tech industry has struggled with for a long time. How do you approach growing your team with diversity in mind? And how does Cisco Meraki approach it as a whole?
I always have diversity in mind. From how we reach out to candidates to how we create our interview questions to reduce unconscious bias, we try to hire a diverse team. And that requires considering diversity at every step of the process. Cisco Meraki encourages diversity through many organizations for our employees, such as Women of Meraki, and those groups also help play a role in how we grow our team. We focus not just on hiring and developing our teams, but also in ensuring they are all growing and able to participate at work.
What advice do you have for people applying for engineering jobs at Cisco Meraki?
Be yourself. During the interview process, we want to see how you think and how you learn. How do you solve problems, and how do you engineer solutions? So act like how you would if you had the job.
Keep your resume up-to-date and make sure it reflects your career trajectory. And be prepared to tell us what you want out of your next step, especially if you’re looking for a promotion or are changing industries. We want to make sure you’re the right fit for the company and the role.
What’s something an engineering candidate can do to set themselves apart?
When a candidate has researched what we do as a company and the value we add for our customers, that sets them apart. Reading a few blog posts or looking at what the company does to differentiate themselves from our competitors makes it clear you have done your due diligence. And if you already have some background on the company, it helps deepen our conversation about what you would be doing in the role itself.
What do you think it takes to be successful as an engineer?
The most important thing about being an engineer is that you’re always learning. There are many different pathways in software engineering, from being a manager to being a technical architect and more. But you have to continuously figure out what you don’t know—and how to learn it. To be successful, it takes self-reflection and the willingness to try multiple things. And then you have to be willing to learn and adapt.
What is the best career advice you have received?
I struggle with imposter syndrome. It can be hard for me to advocate for myself and what I would like out of my career. One day, a friend gave me some simple advice: Ask for what you want and be ready and open the conversation.
To advocate for yourself, you’ll need a support network and people willing to help. But asking for what you want is the first step to understanding how you can achieve it. After you ask, either you get what you want, or you start the conversation about why now is not the right time. Either way, you’re in a better place than you were if you hadn’t said anything.