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Professional Life

Innovation is Key to Staying Competitive
By Gale Horton Gay
Jul 17, 2014, 14:08

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Sharolyn Farmer
Innovative thinking can be a game-changer for entrepreneurs and corporations; however, many don’t fully understand or appreciate the value of expanding one’s view of the applications of innovation.

That’s the opinion of Sharolyn Farmer, and she should know.

Farmer is director of AT&T’s platform, business and network solutions for the company’s information technology arm—a position she’s held since November 2013. Innovation has been central to practically all the jobs she’s held throughout her long career in telecommunications. Previously she spearheaded the opening of the Atlanta Foundry in August 2013. The Foundry—AT&T’s fifth such center—is responsible for innovation of advanced video and converged applications, proof of concepts for mobile broadband services, emerging devices and more.

Farmer said many people don’t have a broad enough view of how creative ways of thinking can be applied, limiting it to the production of new products and services but failing to see how it also can be applied to enhance existing goods and services.

“It’s not necessarily creating something new but how do you make things better, faster, easier to use,” she said. “Innovation can occur on anything, at any point in time and from anyone. Some of the best innovators are people outside [the industry].”

She said innovation is key to staying competitive and forging ahead.

“We live in an increasingly competitive world. It’s very important in all aspects of business to innovate new products and services. We always need to differentiate what our company offers to its customers,” said Farmer.

Those interested in bringing more innovation to their projects should consider different ways to do things more efficiently, and they should ask questions such as “How can I add unique features and capabilities?”

She said we should avoid continuing to do things in the same old way and shouldn’t fear taking new approaches.

“Understand that sometimes it’s going to work, sometimes it’s not,” said Farmer. “Failure is a natural outcome. Learn from your failures.”

Farmer, who holds two telecommunication patents, has been in the engineering field for more than 20 years. Initially when she was in high school, she imagined her future as a teacher, however, all that changed.

Farmer pursued an engineering degree in the 1970s, partly because she had an aptitude for math and science and partly because a friend’s brother who was studying engineering at Southern University spoke at her high school during a career day.

“Then he said the three magic words ‘We have scholarships,’” she recalled.

She was accepted by Southern University in Baton Rouge and received one of those scholarships. At Southern, she felt right at home, enjoying the environment and loving the engineering classwork.

During college she completed two internships with Exxon—one at a refinery in which the work involved monitoring instrumentation. Farmer had taken an instrumentation class the previous semester and found the work fascinating.
“I understood the data readings and how it would be applied,” she said.

Upon graduating at the top of her class with a bachelor degree in electrical engineering, Farmer was deluged with job offers in a variety of fields. She said she chose the position with AT&T’s Bell Labs because it involved working with hardware and software at a time when “the country was just starting to understand the power of software development.

“I had a chance to be on the leading edge,” she said.
Also the company offered financial support and time off to pursue a master’s degree. (Farmer obtained an electrical engineering Master of Science degree from the University of Colorado).

Farmer’s first job with AT&T was as a member of the technical staff working on developing processors for telephone systems.

In her current position, Farmer’s specific responsibility is to support the company’s transformation to a software and platform driven business through the realization of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). In this role, she is responsible for advancing innovation and development of new platforms and APIs supporting growth opportunities for mobility, home solutions, emerging devices, and technology and network operations.

During her tenure at AT&T and BellSouth, Farmer has held positions as research director of an engineering group, director of business development, research manager in the science and technology department and as a technical supervisor.

Farmer also said she’s a “people person” and enjoys collaborating.

“One of the things I enjoy most about my job is the opportunity to engage other people, brainstorm new ideas, solve problems…working to bring those ideas to fruition,” she said

She cited the opening of the Atlanta Foundry as one of the highlights of her career.

“The centers are places where our vendors, start-ups and developers come to collaborate about new ideas that they have,” she said, adding that AT&T helps get them connected and advance their ideas through AT&T technology.

At the Foundry the goal is to figure out how best to combine resources and deliver something innovative to the marketplace.

AT&T’s other Foundrys are located in Palo Alto, Calif., two in Plano, Texas, and Israel.

Farmer credits her corporate climb to a number of factors.
“I became an engineer back when it wasn’t a particularly popular career for women.”

“Clearly I was in the right place at the right time in an industry that was growing,” she said, adding that preparing herself and recognizing trends and which technology was emerging were also strategic maneuvers in her favor.

Farmer said the engineering field offers tremendous opportunities for minorities and women with strong economic rewards and an array of positions and areas in which to specialize.

“I think it obviously is an excellent opportunity to make a positive impact on our way of life. I encourage young people, particularly those still in school, to think seriously about the field. Explore as many courses in math, science, technology and courses related to problem solving. Look at courses and extracurricular activities that can better prepare them for college coursework.”

Farmer added that the benefits of internships are immense—helping young people to understand real work situations, showing how theory taught in classroom is applied on the job and providing an excellent environment for networking.
Of her decision to go into engineering, Farmer now said, “It was one of the best decisions I have made.”
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