CompTIA’s AWIT Mentoring Program Helps Alaskan Map Her Trail

by Michelle Peterson | Mar 04, 2014
Mariah Sexton found great success through the mentorship program of CompTIA’s Advancing Women in IT community. With the help of her mentor, Nellie Scott of Lenovo, Sexton now handles PC diagnostics for Alaska’s second-largest public school district.

In just a few months’ time, an Alaskan woman with a dream of an IT career — and the energy to chase it — moved from working the front counter at a small-town computer shop to handling PC diagnostics for Alaska’s second-largest public school district.

Mariah Sexton’s career change got off on the right foot with the help of her mentor, Nellie Scott, Lenovo’s manager of services sales support and enablement. The two met through CompTIA’s Advancing Women in IT community (AWIT), which established its mentorship program in 2012.

“In successful mentoring, you have to have the ability to quickly assess where [the person is] and what [he or she needs],” said Scott, who has mentored about 20 other people in the last 12 months. “You don’t have five years to [get to] know the person, especially when you talk to people over the phone. You have to use your listening skills to understand what they need.”

Born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, Sexton was struggling to find a career in IT that would pay the bills and offer health insurance – critical for a mother of two who suffers a chronic illness.

“I tried for a little while to attend school for computer science but, financially speaking, it wasn’t working out,” she said. The cost of living is already high in Alaska, and she couldn’t add student debt to her house payment, family needs and rising fuel bill. So she went back to working counter sales at Computer Werks and tried to regroup.

She spent two years on the job hunt, landing interviews but not jobs. “Everybody wanted a specialist; either a security specialist or a network specialist,” she said. “For the plain old hardware guy, there are not a lot of places for them to go.”

She earned her CompTIA A+ certification in July 2012, which turned her on to AWIT’s mentoring program. She signed up and was paired with Scott, who quickly assessed Sexton as a bright, articulate young woman eager to set her career in motion.

“She didn’t have a lot of experience in the IT market, so we had to figure out how she was going to communicate an eagerness to learn and a passion for IT in a business setting, and in business terms,” Scott said.

Mentors can impart their ideas, but the person being mentored must also be receptive.

“You can only coach so much,” Scott said. “The execution is the hard part. They’ll either implement it or not.” Sexton’s approach sped up their work, which focused mainly on how to perform in an interview.

“She really helped me learn how to interview on a professional IT level,” Sexton said. They worked on responses to interview questions — “I have a strong natural ability to create win-win scenarios” and Sexton’s favorite, “Do you have any concerns, based on this interview, about my ability to do this job that I could address for you now?” They made sure her online profile was healthy and up-to-date, while Sexton volunteered on area IT projects to pad her resume.

The two also mapped out Sexton’s career goals, which were fairly loose when they started. “I told her, ‘Something where I can support myself; I don’t care,’” Sexton said, reasoning she could make a plan after landing a job.

Like she often does during the mentoring process, Scott tapped her professional network to help guide Sexton into specific areas of study. “To me that’s the broader scope of networking: tapping into people’s network of people,” Scott said.

They also utilized CompTIA’s IT Certification Roadmap. “That is such an excellent resource,” ” Sexton said. “It really was easy to look at and [ask], ‘If I want to get here, how do I get there?”

CompTIA’s Roadmap and Scott’s IT network gave Sexton real answers to her questions about working in the IT channel. “It’s really nice to have somebody on the other end saying, ‘Most of the security professionals I know recommend these steps or this certification or these classes.’ Trying to map all of that out independently is surprisingly difficult,” Sexton said. “Asking for guidance and having somebody who actually knows what’s on the other end of this is great.”

As they worked, Sexton continued to interview. A long job search can wear on just about anyone. “If they’ve been looking for well over a year or two years, sometimes you have to go into the confidence level,” Scott said, “even to the point of ‘I’m worthy of this. I’m worthy of an interview.’”

And it was true in Sexton’s case: she job hunted for two years, and while Fairbanks is a major metropolis by Alaska standards, its population of 32,000 doesn’t offer many IT jobs. In one instance, she was turned down for the same job five times.

“You can get really discouraged after a year or two of trying to look for a job,” Sexton said. “Having somebody on the other side of the situation saying, ‘You can do this; let’s try it this way,’ even if they’re not imparting the world’s greatest wisdom on you, means a lot.”

Thanks to Scott’s positivity and Sexton’s tenacity, the right opportunity finally came along. Sexton applied for the position at the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, knowing she was qualified and ready to take on the interview.

“A lot of the jobs I had been applying for were slightly above my level, but I felt confident I could learn quickly,” she said. The school district, though, was offering exactly what she was looking for. “Not everybody hires somebody who supports the physical hardware and the physical box. This was a job that I really knew that I was good at, and that I could handle, and when I did the interview, it was a lot more technically based.”

The interview, which featured progressively harder questions about IT troubleshooting, stretched from its scheduled hour into two as Sexton nailed question after question. “I was so nervous, though, checking the clock thinking I was going to lose my other job while I was in this interview,” she said.

But it didn’t matter. She landed the job and around Thanksgiving 2013 began orientation at the district, which operates 35 schools for about 14,300 students. The job not only fulfills her current career goals, it requires her to train and earn certifications so she can continue to grow. She’ll first take configuration and enterprise desktop support technicians for Windows to become a Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate, and follow that up with CompTIA’s Network+, Security+ and CASP certifications. “The classes I’m taking now are specific to my job as it stands, but I want to go back to the network stuff, and CompTIA has a really good foundation for that,” she said.

AWIT’s Many-to-Many Approach

Mentoring success stories don’t always happen this fast, especially because a one-to-one mentoring platform can often be a long process, Scott said. To enhance its mentoring program, AWIT’s is moving toward a many-to-many model, bringing together many different perspectives and many different experiences.

“We’ll be collecting a lot of different best practices and advice, tips and resources that will hopefully help many,” Scott said.

AWIT’s members share career-related tips about things like salary negotiations and dealing with conflict. “All of us are here to help each other,” Scott said. “I’m very grateful and appreciative to be a part of this on a larger scale.”

But whether the mentorship is from one person or a group of IT professionals, Scott gives all the credit to the person who actually lands the job.

 “We really just provide guidance, and tried and proven methodologies, and a lot of coaching,” Scott said. “But we’re only a small part of the success story. They do all the heavy lifting.”

CompTIA’s AWIT community works to empower women with the knowledge and skills necessary to pursue successful IT careers, and works to inspire women to enter the IT field as a career choice. In addition to mentorship, they provide resources and networking opportunities, develop member-driven initiatives and programs, and remain active in legislation involving women and careers.

The AWIT community has several face-to-face meetings each year. The group meets at CompTIA’s Annual Member Meeting and ChannelCon.  It also holds community meeting via conference call between the live meetings and hosts educational webinars. If you are interested in attending the meeting or joining AWIT community, please contact Cathy Alper at

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