Debbie Ferguson is Gusto’s Head of Accountant Segment and has been in the STEM industry for over 30 years, using technology to solve critical global problems and develop others into great leaders.
how did you start
Ever since elementary school, I’ve always been interested in building things. I drew floor plans of houses I wanted to build. I thought I would become an architect. But as I learned about computer science, I realized that I used to be able to build more things than necessary to eventually become an architect.
When did you know you loved STEM?
I learned, I knew I loved STEM when I was introduced to Ma.Pac-Man because it was a game that came out when I was in high school. And I was fascinated by how it all worked. And how would you actually make such a product? And it turned out that I was about to go into my junior year of high school, so I took a computer science class and bought a computer and started playing around and that’s when I fell in love. When I first started learning all the things I could do, I never built Ms. Pac-Man, but I got to build a lot more things once I got into computer science. I just played Ms. Pac-Man last night. I still play it to this day.
What’s your top tip for someone aspiring to a career in STEM?
My number one tip for someone considering a STEM career is: Be mindful of where you get your energy from early on. What drives you? What motivates you? Wherever you find those things that excite you, maybe it’s the way you work with a team. Maybe it’s a specific technology. Maybe it’s a specific type of problem that needs to be solved. Lean on it, because that is where you will draw your energy from. That’s where you’ll have the greatest impact. You will naturally be motivated to work hard in this space as opposed to something that saps your energy and feels more like a chore.
What is the hardest thing about working in STEM subjects?
I think the biggest challenge of working in the STEM fields is working with a lot of other bright people who are headstrong. And if you’re debating how to solve a specific problem and the answer isn’t entirely clear, you can have multiple opinions in the same room. And how do you deal with it when other just as smart and passionate people argue from a different angle? How do you work towards an understanding and how do you then move forward together? That’s probably what I’ve spent most of my time coaching and learning for myself how to really listen well, get to core areas of understanding and then build from there. But that’s always, I like to say, often every problem is ultimately a problem for the people. And if you keep that in mind and know when that’s happening, you’ll probably have a better chance of getting great results in whatever you’re working on.
What to look for in potential employers
When I look back on one thing in my career, it was extremely important, namely to be connected to strong mentors from whom I was able to learn a lot, particularly early on. So really pay attention to who is around you that you can learn from, even as you enter the industry. And if a particular job has to choose between two different jobs and one looks like there will be more learning and the other might have a slightly better base salary, choose the one that allows you to learn and grow. This will serve you the most throughout your career.