This article is part of a broader feature on women working in key engineering and technology roles in the telecom industry. To read other articles in this series, click here.
As chief network officer for the largest wireless company in the United States, Nicola (Nicki) Palmer is responsible for planning, engineering, building and operating Verizon Wireless’ voice and data networks and overseeing the design and deployment of the company’s 4G LTE network.
She began her career at Bell Atlantic in 1990 and has held a number of leadership positions in engineering, operations and program management supporting advanced data and IP products. She has been responsible for the planning, design and operation of Verizon's global voice, data and IP networks, which span more than 2,600 cities in 150 countries touching six continents. She also led the engineering and operations of the fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network, which enables Verizon's FiOS data and TV services.
Early on in her career, after a couple of engineering jobs, she was given the opportunity to work on the operations side of the business, something she initially hesitated about doing because it wasn’t engineering. She ended up taking the operations job. Looking back, “I learned more in that job than maybe any other one I’ve had,” she said during a WE15 keynote in October 2015. “I learned how work really gets done. I learned about people,” and no matter how much design optimization or control charting or linear programming goes on, “it’s people that will make it work or not work.”
How did you get to where you are now? “I feel so fortunate that my father (an engineer) was a strong role model and both my parents encouraged me to turn my interests in math and science into a career in engineering,” she said. “Not every young girl gets breaks like that. I have also been given great opportunities at Verizon, where hard work and passion are rewarded. I have to tell you, it’s a fantastic place to work and build a career.”
What are the biggest obstacles you've faced in your professional career? “I’d have to say that the biggest obstacle I have faced was combating stage 2 breast cancer. I’m incredibly grateful for the support I received from the Verizon team during treatment and recovery,” she said. “Being a survivor has helped me realize we can never take anything for granted. Professionally, I find I approach every day with gratitude and the desire to be as helpful and useful as I can be.”
What advice would you give to young women entering the workforce in your industry? “When I was graduating from high school, thanks to valuable guidance from my teachers and my family, I chose a field of study that relatively few women pursued at the time: engineering,” she said. “I’m passionate about encouraging young people, especially young women, to pursue careers” in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
“I’m proud of the work Verizon has done to attract and cultivate our technologists, including many women. Yet, there is always more we can do, individually and collectively, to ignite the interest of females in STEM studies and expand the number of highly qualified people at all ranks in STEM careers, … and it starts early,” she said. “For example, let’s discover the joy of math and science in our everyday lives with our youngest girls, point out technical female role models to our middle-schoolers, and encourage our teens to follow their interests and abilities into university-level STEM studies. And connecting young women with mentors all along the journey is something we all can do.”
"How exciting it could be for a young woman today, to envision herself contributing technical solutions to address challenges in healthcare, education, or the environment. Who knows? Maybe she will, all because she was encouraged to take that next step."
In terms of advice, “I would tell young women that building a support network is enormously important. The lessons that can be learned from those who have already been in the trenches, so to speak, are invaluable for weathering the inevitable tough times and achieving longer term satisfaction,” she said. “And of course, the best way to get support is to give it freely.”
What are you most excited about in the future? “I am excited for a future where 25% is not enough. Women make up half of the U.S. workforce, but hold only 25% of technical and computing jobs," she said. "Clearly, women are underrepresented in STEM fields and women that hold STEM-related jobs earn, on average, 33% more than women in other fields. So STEM careers are both rewarding and lucrative for women. The technology sector will never reach its full potential with women underrepresented in its workforce. We need the diversity of women’s talents and perspectives to fully realize the promise of the digital age.
“I am energized by a future that uses the best of technology to enrich people’s lives and solve the world’s most difficult problems. I’m grateful to be with a company that is on the leading edge of innovation. Wireless technology changes the way we learn, work, play and interact. It touches every part of our lives.
"I’m extraordinarily proud of the work our Network team does every day to keep our customers connected through the largest, best-performing wireless network," she added. "This is particularly true in times of crisis. I was once again reminded of that in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. Customers count on our service; we take that responsibility very seriously. That same commitment to service excellence continues as we usher in the next generation of wireless technology—5G. I am proud to say that Verizon is taking a strong leadership role in 5G for our customers, building on the foundation of being the first to deploy 3G and 4G LTE networks nationally.
"Bringing technology to life through customer-focused planning, disciplined engineering, and collaboration with the brightest people in the industry—that’s what I love about my job! Building brighter futures through the next wave of technology innovation—how can you not be excited?"