Zaria Smalls

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Zaria is a design engineering student at Harvard University and has spent three summers as a market analyst intern at JP Morgan


1. In layman’s terms, explain what you do both as an engineer and a markets analyst

I study design engineering with social change through an electrical and computer engineering track. Most of what I study here focuses on the ecosystem in which products are developed, from their beginnings to their recycling. This also means understanding products’ impact on particular user groups. To me, it is important to know how you can control this impact and make sure that the impact sparks positive social change. Many of my classes fulfill a lot of the technical requirements of electrical engineering and adds on design courses. I am also taking a number of seminars in the history of science department looking at the interactions technology and society in the past several hundred years.

I have also been a market analyst at J.P. Morgan for the past three summers. There, I work with the sales and trading department. I have shadowed many of the traders to get an understanding of how they'll execute their sales. I also do a lot of market research to figure out which stocks might be good to invest in or what exposure to get. I also look at news and other circumstances may impact the market.

2. Why did you choose to go into mechanical engineering and banking?

Before I was a design engineering student, I was an electrical engineering major, but I felt like a lot of the material I was learning existed in a vacuum. We never talked about what happens after you have created a product, and the impact it can have on the people around you, and the people you are building it for. As much as I love working with my hands, and thinking about the technical aspects of electrical engineering, it almost felt wrong without thinking about all the other implications.

I think that was really drilled into me when I took a class my sophomore year. My professor gave the class a case study where we had to decide whether or not to race a car in a big tournament. In other races, the cars’ engine had exploded but we didn’t have enough information to know the cause of the explosions. It was really unsettling for me to see other students choosing to race knowing that there is a chance that something could go wrong with the vehicle that you're putting a person into. I felt like we were also far from understanding what really happens when we build things and put them out into the world. I just couldn’t keep continuing down that path.

I started working at J.P Morgan in high school. At the time I thought I wanted to go into business, and I thought that finance would be somewhat similar. The thing I really loved about J.P. Morgan was that you are always pushed to the best of your ability and there is always something to learn. It is an environment where I never felt slowed down or like I had learned everything I could learn. I think that is really important. My internships in the sales and trading environment pushed me to be more critical about what is going on around me because things can change so quickly. I also built up decision-making skills and learned how to keep a level head in times of crisis. While I do not plan to pursue finance, the skills it has taught me have been useful in an engineering context.

3. What are your favorite aspects of studying design engineering and your job with J.P. Morgan?

My favorite aspect of being a design engineering student is that I can choose problems that I feel aligned with and I get a lot of agency. I really appreciate being able to look at problems I am interested in and define how I think they should be tackled. I have been looking a lot at climate change and ability status. I have a lot of freedom as I have crafted my own major, so I can take classes that genuinely interest me! I also have access to a lot of resources and have the ability to reach out to experts in whatever I am interested in. This course has given me a strong sense of direction about what I want to be doing with my life. There is never a dull moment!

My favorite aspect of J.P. Morgan is the people. That may sound cliché but the people make J.P. Morgan such a great place to work at! In my experience, every person I've worked with has always taken the time to help me with whatever I needed. They're really interested in seeing you learn and grow. I also appreciate that they have given me the opportunity to talk to a lot of people in a lot of different positions

4. What is the most challenging aspect of your job? What about school?

Because design engineering is a fairly new discipline at my school, and it is mostly taught at the graduate level, it can be difficult to navigate as an undergraduate. Harvard doesn’t have a set design engineering major, it is something that I am creating. There's no clear path laid out. It's scary but also really exciting. I never know if I’m making the right choice or what should I be focusing on. So that's been really exciting but also very difficult.

With work, there is a bit of stress in sales and trading about making the right decision. You learn to manage it as a trader or salesperson, but it is hard for me. I don’t work at JP Morgan full time but the people that do have control over million dollar (or more) accounts. They have to be sure about their decisions as there are millions of dollars of money on the line. I think the most difficult thing is making those decisions, and making them quickly. They are so much more concrete and lofty than anything I have had to face in my personal life so far.

5. What does being an engineer mean to you?

I think engineering really means having the power to change the way the world works and interacts around you. It is something that I have always been interested in. You can redesign everyday objects like cars or public transportation, but you can also invent whole new ways of interacting with the world. The power to do that is so important and needs to be thought through and used correctly. Engineering means the ability carve your own path or leave your own mark in this world and to for those who come after you.

6. What roadblocks have you faced on your path to where you are today?

I’ve faced roadblocks both internally and externally.

During my first two years of college, I joined a lot of clubs and took a lot of classes without much direction. I don’t think that was necessarily a bad thing, though it poses an obstacle in how I choose to move forward and what I can produce. I think that period of time gave me a lot of breadth, and ultimately helped me figure out what I really wanted to do, but I was not challenging myself.

I grew up in South Jamaica, Queens and the school system there is just not the same as what many of my classmates had. I wasn’t introduced to engineering, or much STEM at all until I got to high school. I think getting past structural obstacles were probably the biggest roadblocks I’ve faced. Getting to Harvard is a big achievement for me. Not everyone gets the opportunity to have such amazing classmates and amazing teachers surrounding them or even have someone to believe in them, and give them the room to try things out and make mistakes.

7. What do you think is the most important thing for girls to know before pursuing engineering?

I think it's important to know your voice is not only important but absolutely necessary. When technology is created only by one particular demographic it is made for that particular demographic in mind. That means its uses can be way off mark. If you are interested in STEM, if you want to make change, you should go into engineering 100% wholeheartedly. Expect some failures because that just the way engineering works. You're bound to fail at something and it's OK. Not every project can succeed, but you can learn why you failed, and really grow as a person, and an engineer. Your voice is absolutely needed in the field. You are not just desirable for some superficial diversity but representation and diversity are absolutely imperative if you want to have effective change across the board.

8. How do you think your field will change the next 10 years?

I hope that it will become much more central to how we operate and build technology. I think tech companies are thinking more about how they are building their products and what are their products’ impacts are. I'd love to see that happen on a much larger level. I'd love to see all technology being built with a purpose and a direction in terms of the social impact. I definitely see more people studying the things that I'm studying, changing the way that technology is even invented or thought of being made.

9. What motivates you?

I try to be very self-motivated. I will say like the thing that motivates me to work on projects is creating solutions to problems I’d like to see fixed. I’ve worked a lot in activism and social justice, and have heard about issues that impact people other than me. Asking myself, “what am I doing to help?”  really motivates me help mitigate or solve a situation.

10. How do you define success?

I think success should always be self-defined. For me it is knowing that I put my strongest and best effort into the situation, I accepted critiques and was willing to develop change. Even if I am not proud of the end result, if I can check off at least two boxes, I feel like I was successful in some manner.

11. I forgot to ask this What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

            I can’t think of the singular best advice I have ever received but I definitely think seeing how much family and friends believed in me and continued to motivate has been a huge motivator. The best advice has really been people telling me that I can achieve whatever I put my mind to and even if the dream I desire most doesn’t yet exist, it is well within reason and my ability to make it happen.

12. What one book do you recommend everyone read and why? 

I don’t really have an answer. I love reading, but I try hard not to idolize any particular figure or book. It is important for people to try to figure out themselves and how they want to live on their own. Of course, books help, but there is no one universally helpful book. I also think that everyone’s path is different, and it is not productive to try and exactly follow someone else’s. I see a lot of students trying to do that, and comparing themselves to their idol at every step. I don’t think that’s really productive.

13. If you could go back in time what advice would you give your high school self?

One thing that I would tell myself is that always ok say no and stop working on a project or in a group. In high school, I held the belief that once I joined a project, I had to see it through to the end. It just is not possible to see every project through to the end. One of the key parts of engineering is knowing when something will not work, it's just as important as knowing when something will work. If you see a project that is in some sense doomed to fail, why keep investing time and resources in it? I think I would tell my high school self to try and figure out when enough is enough.

14. What would you say are the top three skills or traits needed to be successful in your field?

  • Curiosity
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Creativity

15. How would you say your gender and race has impacted your experience in your career?

Speaking from where I come from to where I am now, it is a lot less likely that women, especially women of color get a lot of exposure to many of the STEM fields before high school or college. A lot of studies have shown that we are discouraged from entering these realms so there are a lot of structural barriers you have to beat, just to get to the front door of the STEM world. We are not given the same resources to be at the same place as many of our peers. I have personally had difficulties in classes being a woman of color. I’ve had partnerships where a male student would not talk to any of the women of the group. It was really frustrating as we were all from the same school, and were equally qualified to be engineers. That was really difficult for me. I’ve also had a teacher who would only talk to my male, even if I was the one to pose the question. There have been students who feel ok interrupting my questions at office hours when they don’t do that to their peers. There are some very obvious barriers that are faced by women in the STEM world, and we are still not fully given the space we deserve to take leadership and express ourselves. It is hard not to see a ton of representation in those that came before yourself, it makes the path a lot murkier. I hope in the future, this can change.

Shreya Patel1 Comment