A woman with tied-up blonde hair smiling and wearing a green jumper. She is a software engineer.
Stephanie Boomsma. Image: Johnson & Johnson Technology

How taking creative breaks can lead to unique solutions at work

27 Mar 2019

Those who work in technology tend to use a logical brain at work. But sometimes, it’s the breaks to do something creative that can really unlock your problem-solving abilities.

Anyone who works as a software engineer will tell you that problem-solving is one of the most critical skills you will use. It often employs the logical side of your brain to explore solutions for technical problems. However, Stephanie Boomsma has another way that helps her.

She is a senior software engineer at Johnson & Johnson Technology, the global health giant’s EMEA development centre. Here, she talks about her career journey in tech, what she does to unwind and how creative breaks help her in her role.

What drew you to a career in technology?

I developed an interest in computers at a young age, which was highly encouraged at home. At the age of 11, I joined a website called Neopets (a virtual pet website), which had an area on their site for meeting other players and creating clubs. I quickly learned HTML and JavaScript so that I could add graphics and animations and get people to join my club. This quickly morphed into creating websites for myself and others, and it gave me the opportunity to learn other languages.

I enjoy problem-solving and puzzles, so programming really appealed to me. When it came time to decide what I wanted to do in university, software engineering would be the obvious choice for me.

What’s the best thing about working in technology?

Information technology is a continually evolving industry with new ideas, applications, technologies and languages being constantly developed. Hence, it is an area where there are so many great opportunities and career paths that can be taken. With the variety of work and new things emerging every day, it gives me the opportunity to further develop my skills. I can’t see myself getting bored any time soon!

What’s the most exciting development you’ve witnessed in your sector since you started working in it?

I’ve had the opportunity to work in big data for many years now, and during this time it has moved from being a buzzword to an industry standard. As a software engineer, the most exciting and challenging aspect of the job is the huge volume of data that can be stored, retrieved, processed and analysed in real time.

The opportunities for using this data to progress society are massive. It’s a great time to be involved since there continues to be major technical advancements stemming from the advent of big data.

What aspect of your job did you struggle to get to grips with?

One of the great things about this industry is that it is constantly evolving and there are always new things to learn. However, on the flip side, this can at times become overwhelming as there is never enough time to learn everything that I would like. I have learned over the years to pick and choose those languages and technologies that most interest me, and to master these well, rather than being stretched too thin trying to cover everything.

What’s been the hardest thing you’ve had to face in your career?

The hardest thing I have faced in my career has been balancing multiple projects and identifying how to best to schedule them and utilise my time. It is always challenging to properly estimate how long a project or task will take, while also balancing multiple other projects. It is something that has become increasingly difficult as I have progressed throughout my career and taken on larger tasks, while also leading or managing a project or area. I haven’t necessarily solved the problem but, over time and with experience, I have got much better at managing my time and making accurate estimates.

If you had the power to change anything within the STEM sector, what would that be?

I would love to see more diversity in STEM. When I joined Johnson & Johnson, I noticed and appreciated that we have a diversified workforce. It would be great if this became the norm for all STEM companies. I think that the best way to achieve this would be to avoid the current stereotyping of the STEM industry and start introducing STEM subjects such as programming in schools. I believe that more people would become interested in it as a career path if they were exposed to it at a younger age.

Which of your personality traits makes you best suited to your job and this sector?

I am determined, creative, and a logical, problem-solving person. Such traits are a natural fit for software development. I also feel that my practical and friendly nature helps with the soft skills required.

Is there something in your personal life that helps you in your job?

While I try to find a balance over the course of my career, I frequently find myself working long hours and I also like to challenge myself. I am lucky to have a great husband and family who are a great support system to me. During such times, they keep me motivated and ensure that I take essential breaks. In my spare time, I like to pursue my creative and artistic interests; this helps me to switch off my logical brain.

Since I like to be kept busy, sitting around watching TV isn’t something that appeals to me. Being creative by drawing, knitting or doing yoga gives me the opportunity to declutter, and at the same time it gives me time to relax. More than often after taking a creative break, I find that when I come back to a work task, I can generate some unique solutions.

How do you make connections with others in the STEM community?

I’m a sociable person and like to maintain relationships with people I meet in industry even when I have moved job or city. I have found long-lasting friendships throughout my career. I think that people in STEM are generally very open. If you take the first step to reach out to someone, more often than not they will do their utmost to help you, and friendships or work relationships can form.

There are also lots of meet-ups in the software engineering space that are great opportunities for networking, learning about a new technology or finding like-minded people who may be facing similar industry challenges as you are.

Has mentorship or coaching been important in your career?

I’ve been fortunate enough to find a mentor in every job that I’ve had. Sometimes this has been a formal process and other times my mentors have not been aware of the impact they’ve had on me or my career. I also like to look externally to people in industry that I admire for their career trajectory, or people from a completely different background and career path who I can draw inspiration from.

I have also been a mentor for others. I think it’s important for people starting their careers in software development to have someone to guide them, offer feedback and allow them to bounce ideas off each other.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about a career in software engineering?

Always be open to continuous learning and developing your skills. If you get the opportunity to learn how to program either by teaching yourself or doing a course, or if you are younger starting with CoderDojo or taking a class in school, then take it. It’s an exciting and evolving industry with tons of opportunities, so go for it!

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