Kathryn Shontz is an enterprise strategist focused on data products and innovation in NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite and Data Information Service (NESDIS) Office of Systems Architecture and Advanced Planning (OSAAP).
By Leah Dubots, Pathways Intern
Kathryn Shontz is an enterprise strategist focused on data products and innovation in NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite and Data Information Service (NESDIS) Office of Systems Architecture and Advanced Planning (OSAAP). She leads change within her organization by overseeing the execution of the NESDIS Cloud Pilot, which just completed its first phase and has successfully demonstrated an enterprise commercial cloud solution. Additionally, Kathryn is also a detailee to the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction, performing the duties of Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere dedicated to building a NOAA-wide common data repository in the cloud.
How did you get where you are today, and who/what helped you along the way?
My undergraduate and graduate degrees are both in Atmospheric Science. Towards the end of graduate school I presented at an American Meteorological Society (AMS) conference and my presentation won the student oral presentation award. Following this presentation, I was offered a position at the Environmental Modeling Center (EMC) with the National Weather Service (NWS). Not too long after that I also had an interview opportunity with NESDIS and decided to take that job instead. It was something different and I was excited to learn. I started as a liaison and have learned a lot about satellites and the cloud in the last ten years that I’ve been here. I am very curious and like asking questions, which are two traits that have helped get me to where I am today. I’ve learned to take opportunities as they present themselves, ask experts for help, and always empower those around you.
What has surprised you the most about your career path?
The most surprising thing about my career path is that I am not a forecaster, but I still have a passion for atmospheric science that shines through a lot of the work that I do. The work just looks a little different from forecasting and is on the information technology (IT) and development side of things. I had never considered doing this before, but I love it. It has given me an opportunity to grow and learn, as well as innovate. As a civil servant, I get to see science and art marry and come to life in the innovations we create at NOAA. These could be small or large, but are born from the creativity of our workforce to benefit the communities that we live and work in.
What are your research interests? Have they changed over time?
My research interests have definitely evolved over time. They were originally about science but have evolved to be about people. Amazing innovations need to have buy-in. Understanding human psychology helps us to understand why we choose to accept some innovations and not others. Understanding people helps us think outside of the box and helps to move our organization forward. Change is difficult and we may face resistance, but if we can understand why people are resistant to change we can develop strategies to help reduce resistance to change.
How do you define your leadership style?
A mentor once shared the following quotation with me: “the best managers bask in reflected glory.” As a manager, I always empower people to do their best. I trust the people I work with and encourage them to own their own process. My job is to manage up, empower my employees, and course-correct to ensure everyone is working towards a common vision.
I don’t see my role as telling people what to do and how to do it. I want my team to take ownership of the work and make it their own. My goal is to make sure they have the resources and support needed to be successful. I wouldn’t be where I am in my career today if people didn’t do this for me, and I want to pay it forward.
How do you achieve work-life balance?
I am currently working on this and, frankly, don’t have it figured out. Work-life balance is not easy. There is guilt associated with not being at home and guilt for not being at work. I’m trying not to think of this as achieving work-life balance and instead prioritizing the things most important to me and working from there. I’m thinking about where I am and where I want to be in the future, then identifying where I need to give myself space to grow to reach these goals. For anyone trying to do this, I recommend adding intentionality to your actions and giving yourself a pass. There is always space to improve and changes won’t happen overnight.
As we move forward as a workforce and as an organization, I think it’s important to remember that we don’t have to keep doing things the same way that they were done before us. If someone prioritizes something in their life, such as family or education, before work they shouldn’t be penalized for this. We need to be the change we wish to see. For me, this means allowing myself the space to take breaks and allowing my team to prioritize the things in their life most important to them. Work might not come out number one on that list. It’s my job, and everyone one my team’s job, to respect this prioritization for each and every person.
What was the most impactful lesson you’ve learned so far in your career?
Two lessons stick out to me as the most impactful of my career: failure is okay and relationships matter. Let me expand further:
Failure is okay – We are all humans doing the best we can and mistakes will inevitably happen. We have to own them and hold ourselves accountable. People will forgive you, and we need to be open to change when we’ve made a mistake or know we’re wrong. It shows strength and resilience to take ownership of a misstep and work to resolve it. Don’t be afraid to own it!
“Relationships Matter – People want to work with you because of the relationships you build with them. Building and maintaining positive working relationships is such an important lesson to learn. Focus on building relationships with people who know what you don’t and allow each other the opportunity to grow and learn. Growth is hard and happens by striking a balance between building personal trust and advocating for your position. You never know who might be your boss or coworker in the future and how your peers’ careers will change over time. Everyone that you meet wants good people surrounding them. Pull each other along, bring your networks and the knowledge they share into the workplace, and create a culture that brings in other people. We make progress because of individuals working together.”
What do you think the future for women in science will look like?
It is great to see the number of women and minorities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields increasing, but we have a long way to go until we reach parity. Ensuring more women are in leadership positions is an important step. We need to help each other grow, empower each other, and help to foster a culture where women and minorities feel comfortable and accepted in the workplace. The more diverse and inclusive our workforce is, the better we are as an organization moving forward.
I am very hopeful that we will have a workforce representative of the world we live in in the future. Especially as more women enter the workforce, we can continue to create a culture where women feel comfortable, welcome, and encouraged to stay in the workforce after starting families (of course, if that is what they choose to do!). Women in the workforce should promote healthy work-life balances, allowing people to prioritize the important things in their life for themselves — modeling this behavior and giving ourselves grace when we inevitably fail is key to promoting a better balance.