Success in STEM
Just Enjoying Life
By Jessica Calleja, Jobpostings Magazine
Neil Graham studied math at the University of Winnipeg before completing his Masters in Computer Science at the University of Toronto. Five years after being hired at IBM, his lengthy title of Manager C++ Compiler Front-End and Runtime Development sounds a lot more technical than his actual role, which finds him working more with people than computers. But Graham is not complaining. He is the company’s first blind manager in its history, a position he is very proud of, yet pleasantly surprised to be in.
Back in the fall of 2000 Graham was a recent graduate working for the University of Toronto. He attended a random career fair where he introduced himself to recruiters from IBM. As he puts it, “Apparently they liked me a bit, because within three weeks I had joined the company.”
He started off with IBM as a Staff Software Developer, which is primarily focused on programming and is one level above entry-level positions. His shift to management was the result of a circumstantial turn of events when he backfilled for his manager in 2004 while she went on maternity leave. It was during this time that Graham discovered how much he really enjoyed management and even though his manager has since returned, he himself has moved on to become manager of the C++ compiler team.
“Interestingly enough, given my background in math and computer science, I have really enjoyed working with people. It’s great that they pay me to sit down with each of the folks who work for me for considerable periods of time every month or so. That’s a lot of fun and that’s definitely the thing I most enjoy about the job,” he comments.
Taking an active role
Throughout his seven years in university, Graham says he encountered some challenges, but comments, “Everyone encounters at least one professor who is not entirely sympathetic whether you have a disability or not. In general, people were quite willing to let me assume the risk of taking whatever kind of study plan I wanted to take.”
Throughout university, taking a proactive role with his education is what seemed to work best for Graham. He stresses that things worked better when he played the strongest role throughout the process and generally never left things up to special services to finalize. “I tried to develop direct relationships with the people producing books and with professors about tests. I found things almost always went more smoothly and timely when I took responsibility for that,” he says.
When it comes down to the accommodations he needed throughout university, Graham explains that they fell into two categories, the first being of a technical nature ensuring he had all of the hardware necessary. Through the Manitoba Program for Disabled Students he was able to get refreshable Braille display, as well as a laptop computer.
The other category of accommodation was Braille books. “I was in a very technical program, so the courses I took were of a very strong mathematical nature using a lot of statistical methods. It’s relatively obvious that Braille is the only sensible medium for that kind of information.” For this accommodation Graham dealt with a provincially funded organization. “I was fortunate to get quite a number of the books I needed for grad work in Braille. That’s about all I needed. In terms of tests and accommodations for time, I mainly took care of that myself by talking to professors directly.”
Surprisingly enough, Graham says he actually needs less accommodation for his job with IBM. Contrary to popular belief, “The job of a programmer tends to involve less mathematics than the education of a programmer,” he says.
“I suspect an awful lot of technical people find that in the practical world you don’t tend to model things in formal methods or statistics to nearly the extent you would in a university setting. I continue to need technical accommodations for using computers, and IBM is quite good about providing whatever hardware and software I need. But I don’t need the same kind of Braille hard copy material I needed in university.”
Speaking from experience
When it comes to the job arena, Graham was lucky to start on with IBM so quickly after graduation. He acknowledges his good fortune and believes it is important to help others with disabilities reach their full potential. “Despite the fact we have an unemployment figure of 6.6 percent, the lowest in 30 years, there are still an awful lot of talented disabled people who have a lot to offer to the labour market. Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done. The tremendous amount of employment we have isn’t rippling through to the disabled community to the extent it needs to.”
His advice to students looking for a job upon graduation follows his personal mantra of assuming as much responsibility as possible. “I think sometimes people in the community tend to rely on others to find and create opportunities, and to a degree that comes from disabled folks being medicalized and marginalized. I think driving things yourself is the foundation to success in the labour market because it’s likely you will exploit opportunities better. One thing employers always look for is people with a lot of initiative.”
When it comes to addressing his own disability, Graham takes a realistic approach. “I think we should look at disabilities for what they are. They are characteristics that happen to involve a degree of limitation. But setting that aside, there are certainly things one has to do to be successful as someone with that kind of limitation, and these are useful experiences you can exploit in later life.”
In the long run, assuming responsibility and acting as the primary catalyst in his own education helped Graham develop skills that are now useful in his role as manager. “One of the advantages of making my own role as large as possible is that it made me do a lot of work coordinating, understanding how people work and cross-teaming. I hadn’t realized how much of an advantage that experience was until I became a manager. Now a lot of my job is understanding what people do and making sure different teams cooperate effectively. So there are aspects of what you have to do to be successful as a disabled person that are useful.”
Throughout his seven-year academic and five-year professional career, it seems Graham has definitely made an impact. Acting as both an example and advisor he looks to the future with optimism. “I’m enjoying life at IBM. I enjoy being a manager. I certainly hope to continue down that path and gain additional responsibilities. My general career thought is to try and experience as many different things as I can. I’m enjoying my current job, but in time I’ll be looking to try a different kind of role to see what that’s like. Personally, I hope to keep on traveling and keep on enjoying life.”