As winner of the Women in ICT Awards (WIICTA) Achievement (Vendor) award in 2021, Vanessa Sulikowski claims more than 30 years in the industry and is recognised as a leading technical talent.
Vanessa is renowned for her knowledge as a pioneer with an eye for technology insights. In 2015, Vanessa became the first female globally to become a Cisco Distinguished Systems Engineer (DSE) and, in 2019, she was awarded her first United States Patent on Computer Vision and Wireless Data.
How did you get your break in the IT industry and progress to the role you have today?
When I finished my high school studies I decided to study computer science at the University of Newcastle in 1990. I chose this path as I really enjoyed problem solving and personal computing which was very new.
While in my first year of study, I started working at a local computer company that made clone PCs (XTs, Ats and x86s) from the base shell up – all to order. It was a great opportunity to work while studying, and I learned a lot.
It was an amazing start in the IT industry, as I was getting technical and practical experience as well as learning the theory at university. Being able to gain experience helped put me a step ahead of my peers.
The role progressed to field maintenance work and then evolved to building servers and networks all the way through my degree. It became an enormous technical experience grounding for me. By the time I had finished my bachelor and honours degree I had gained valuable experience in the industry, which eventually led me to Cisco.
What have been some of your career highlights and proudest moments?
There have been many proud moments for me, and I’ve found a career in the technology industry can be very fulfilling and exciting.
I’ve had many career highlights and I am proud to have become the first female systems engineer in Australia and New Zealand for Cisco in 2000. I also became one of the first engineers in the Asia Pacific, Japan and China region to pass the Voice Cisco Certified Network Engineer (CCIE) exam in 2005 – a technical accolade.
The greatest highlight in my career was when I became the first female systems engineer at Cisco to be awarded the title of distinguished systems engineer. I am so incredibly proud to help pave the way for female engineers.
What are some of the key lessons you've learnt along the way?
I have learnt many lessons. In the technical arena, it’s important to be honest. If you don’t know the answer – say you will research and find out. It’s easy to guess or make assumptions when it comes to technology, and it’s easy to get it wrong. Be honest in what you know and what you’ll do to find out more.
I believe in always volunteering and putting your hand up, even if the assignment or project sounds unappealing, very difficult or maybe you feel you are not up to it. If you have a try you will always be amazed at the skills you will pick up or enhance and the new people you will meet and get to know.
What are some of your professional ambitions in the months ahead?
I genuinely enjoy presenting on stage at physical events, so I’m looking forward to being able to get out in front of more face-to-face audiences again at various events around the world. This is something I’ve missed over the last couple of years – though virtual presenting is great to share new technologies and technology innovations, that buzz you get from being on stage and working off that energy to share new ideas with others is the best.
I am also mentoring several engineers to achieve similar technical achievements to the ones I have, and I really look forward to their successes. The beauty of the technology industry is the camaraderie and support network – no matter what you’d like to tackle.
Who or what has influenced you professionally?
I love science fiction and was fascinated by the technology possibilities on Star Trek and Star Wars. It’s influenced me quite a lot: to be curious, question why things are the way they are and think about a sky with no limit. It helps me to think of innovation in a different way and how we can utilise technology to find new ways of working, thinking and living.
I have also been in awe of many female leaders, particularly strong technical minds like Gwynne Shotwell of SpaceX, trailblazers like Julia Gillard and inspiring women like Jacinda Ardern. I really look up to them.