Nicola Palmer: Portrait of a digital pioneer

February 27, 2024

A TMC Interview

TMC: Nicola, you have provided inspiration to many women and men over your stellar career in digital technology, as a pioneer and trailblazer for the role and contribution of women in what was traditionally considered a male domain. How did it all begin?

Nicola: I began my career at Bell Atlantic in 1990, immediately after graduating from college. Over time, Bell Atlantic transitioned into Verizon and I remained with the company for over 33 years. It’s unlikely that graduates today will be with one company for so long but I think in my case the longevity was really due to the pace of innovation over the years – my job changed frequently and the work never got boring.

TMC: Nowadays, young women are encouraged to study STEM subjects and to focus on engineering or IT degrees as a prerequisite for digital technology-based roles. What drew you to STEM?

Nicola: My father was a mechanical engineer and my mother believed nothing was off limits for her children if they kept at it. I always loved math and science and figuring out how things worked, but it’s the support I had and the role models around me that led me to Penn State where I completed the engineering program, following in my father’s footsteps. I later rounded out my formal education with an MBA from UPenn’s Wharton School.

TMC: So how did you gravitate towards communications?

Nicola: I found the idea of connecting people through technology more intriguing than other lines of work available to me at the time. And the landscape was completely different in 1990. It was the dawn of the digital age, with the internet still in its infancy and mobile phones virtually non-existent. Little did I know what the next three decades would hold, as we witnessed remarkable transformations in all areas of business and society driven in large part by communications technologies.

TMC: Starting your career at the beginning of the digital revolution, you must have had some incredibly exciting and challenging roles throughout your career, helping to build a new industry from the ground up. Can you tell us a bit more about some of these highlights?

Nicola: I can certainly attest to the incredible technological and network transformations over 30 years. I feel privileged and proud that I was a small part of such enrichment in the way we live, work, and play. I held interesting jobs in operations, engineering, planning, program management, and product development, among other disciplines, but I always tried to stay close to emerging technologies and customer needs and wants. Initially, I was involved in our wireline business, as we transitioned from copper to fiber and began deploying high speed networking services to business and government entities. I worked on Verizon’s to fiber-to-the-home services from the start and was proud to see it emerge as an award-winning triple- play home network offering called FiOS. Later, I transitioned to the wireless sector, as we ushered in unprecedented coverage, speed, and utility of Verizon’s 4G and 5G networks and services. I served as the Chief Technology Officer of Verizon Wireless, the first female to hold this role.

MC: This all sounds amazing and incredibly challenging, and enough to fit into anyone’s career. But I understand that even more important roles were to follow?

TMC: This all sounds amazing and incredibly challenging, and enough to fit into anyone’s career. But I understand that even more important roles were to follow?

Nicola: After the CTO role, I became responsible for all engineering and performance aspects of the combined wireless and wireline operations as Verizon underwent some significant corporate restructuring. Subsequently, I took charge of product development across all business units within Verizon. This involved overseeing our well-known wireless services for both consumers and businesses, as well as our wireline based products such as FiOS and large-scale, mission critical enterprise solutions. An important part of that role was developing a robust ecosystem of partners for our newly deployed 5G network. The interplay among devices, network elements, applications and systems had never been greater and only through close collaboration were we able to ensure the best customer experience.

TMC: I understand that your career took on a new dimension over recent years, one that has a direct correlation to the GTWN’s interest in the digital generation and the future of the digital tech sector. Can you explain to us what this entailed?

Nicola: The last year and half of my time at Verizon I embarked on a new strategic role that we called the Chief Technology Ambassador. The primary objective was to ensure Verizon had the right mix of technical talent to fill today’s jobs and to fuel tomorrow’s growth ambition. The context is the current shortage of technical talent, unprecedented pace of technology change, and rapidly evolving post-covid work norms. The focus of this role lies in inspiring, attracting, developing, and retaining the right technical talent, with a strong emphasis on diversity. Diversity is severely lagging in tech, and it is critical that we attract individuals with the right skills, in the right numbers, and with the desired diversity mix. Not doing so, suboptimizes (at best) the potential of the digital age.

TMC: Could you elaborate on some of the significant challenges that you faced over your career?

Nicola: I am extremely fortunate to have been in the industry at a time when the landscape underwent such dramatic transformations, particularly in wireless connectivity. I recall in particular the evolution from 2G to 3G and eventually to 4G and 5G, with each new “G” representing new capabilities, new opportunities, and new challenges. Young people who use their smartphones to run their lives today are amazed when I tell them that in the early days of 2G, mobiles phones were limited to essential functions only, often humorously described as having only two buttons: SEND and END. With the advent of 3G, we began to experience limited internet access and early applications that expanded the phone’s utility beyond mere calls. The widespread adoption of 4G revolutionized the mobile experience, offering consumers and businesses many new capabilities and providing a launchpad for entire business models. Throughout, I always found it helpful to ground our teams in the essential mission of each new generation of network – to deploy the newest technologies reliably and at scale while ensuring customer satisfaction and value.

Skills for the future

TMC: As a trained engineer yourself, and after a lengthy career in the communications industry, what is your view now about the skillset companies need for the future? And how can we better align the skillset of today with the needs of tomorrow?

Nicola: All CIOs, CTOs and CEOs must concern themselves with equipping their current workforce with the skills necessary for the future… and it’s harder than ever to keep up with the rapid pace of change. This challenge extends beyond technical roles and impacts all aspects of the workforce, including sales, marketing, HR, legal and more. As technology evolves, having a degree of tech-savviness across the entire workforce becomes increasingly vital, as it can yield unexpected benefits in terms of insights, utility, and efficiency. The demand for STEM graduates is growing at 25% to 35% per year while colleges and universities are growing the STEM grad supply by about 10%. This shortage of skilled professionals necessitates efforts to retrain and upskill existing employees while deliberately planning to increase entry into these important fields.

The importance of diversity

TMC: What is your view of the business value of diversity and inclusion programs? Should the communications sector put more emphasis on recruiting and retaining more diverse talent, and if so how should they do this?

Nicola: Numerous studies have shown that diverse teams yield superior outcomes. However, diversity in the computer science and engineering fields is stagnant at best. This crisis demands focused interventions, including targeted initiatives to inspire the next generation, spanning elementary, middle, and high school education. Collaborations with colleges and universities are essential to ensure that the academic curriculum aligns with the evolving requirements of the workplace. Upskilling the current workforce is paramount to address the current tech talent shortage and ensure workers obtain the necessary skills to participate in the new digital economy. If done strategically, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach, gender diversity can actually be improved through upskilling. Above all, companies must be intentional and purposeful throughout the talent life cycle.

TMC: As a pioneer female leader in the digital communications industry, how much progress do you think has been made in ‘normalising’ the role of women in STEM related jobs?

Nicola: While the number of jobs in computing and other STEM related fields continues to expand, women still only fill a small percentage of them, especially at senior levels. However, technical aptitude will be increasingly required to fully partake in the digital age in which we live. I often tell young girls that whether they want to be a farmer or a fashion designer, technology will make them a better one. So while we can certainly point to female leaders and role models in tech, the answer is that it’s not enough, the stakes have never been higher, and #weneedmore.

TMC: When do you think that this gender stereotyping begins? And what can we do about it?

Nicola: Gender stereotypes around STEM fields persist from grade school all the way up through our adult careers. A survey commissioned by Microsoft across 12 countries in Europe a few years ago now found that young girls start to lose interest in STEM topics by the age of 15. The study found that girls are falling out of the sciences because STEM classes simply aren’t cool in their schools’ social ecosystem for a variety of reasons, and institutions don’t sufficiently intervene to change girls’ perceptions. This is a trend that hasn’t really changed since the survey was performed, or even since I was 15, walking the halls of Union-Endicott High School in upstate New York. This is why it is so important to publicise the many interesting jobs that are available in the digital tech sector – they are rewarding, lucrative, and purposeful. And, as they say, you can’t be what you can’t see – girls need to see role models that look like them. The work of GTWN and others is vital to ensure gender parity in tech. It’s through diversity that we will realize the full potential of this exciting digital age.

The role of mentors

TMC: We all need a little help along the way in our careers. Who have been some of your mentors?

Nicola: As I’ve mentioned, my parents played a vital role in helping me throughout my journey, both professionally and personally. Their unflagging support and the fact that they really listened and backed me every step of the way, was critical in the early years. In addition, I was fortunate to have a few special math teachers and coaches who offered guidance at a time when girls weren’t generally encouraged to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. At work, some very key leaders took an interest in my abilities as well and their advice and feedback helped me immeasurably. Last, but far from least, would be my husband. I’m known to joke with young women that the most important decision they can make for their career is to choose the right mate. The truth is that careers involve tough life decisions and life in general is unpredictable… best to have some partnership along the way. So I’ve been extremely fortunate — it’s one reason I try to pay it forward by helping others.

Words of advice

TMC: Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve received along your journey?

Nicola: First and foremost, take care of yourself. Nothing else matters in your career if you are not “fit to compete” and it’s far too easy to lose sight of this fact when you’re engrossed in work. Second, the most meaningful accomplishments have two key elements: hard work and teamwork. And last, know yourself and how you want your work to make a difference. Aligning your aspirations with your skills and how you want to contribute will help shape your career and guide you to satisfaction.

TMC: Thank you, Nicola, for your insights into your career and for your advice to the digital generation.

Nicola (Nicki) Palmer is a distinguished technology executive with over 30 years of experience in various leadership positions at Verizon. Most recently, Nicki was Verizon’s Chief Technology Ambassador where she worked with business leaders, industry partners and consortiums, nonprofits and universities to ensure Verizon remains at the forefront of technology and innovation. She also served as Verizon’s Chief Product Development Officer, overseeing the exploration of new technologies and creation of products and platforms that solve problems for individuals, enterprises, and society.

Nicki began her career at Bell Atlantic, a Verizon predecessor company, in 1990 and has held a number of leadership positions in engineering, operations, and technology supporting advanced data and wireless products across customer segments. She has served as Verizon’s Chief Engineering Officer as well as the Chief Technology Officer of Verizon Wireless where she led the 4G and 5G network deployments. She is widely recognized as an influential leader in technology and telecommunications. Her awards include being named one of the Most Influential Women in Wireless, a Top 10 Women in Telcom, a Top 10 5G People to Watch, a Top 100 CIO/CTO Leader in STEM, a Top 10 Leader in Mobile Diversity Equity and Inclusion, a POWER Woman by Moves Magazine, and highlighted as a Female Distruptor by Authority Magazine.

Nicki is a passionate advocate for promoting education and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), especially for women. She serves on the board of directors for the National Academy Foundation and chairs its STEM Advisory Committee with the mission of providing more opportunities for high school students to be college, career, and future ready. She also serves on the advisory board of BreakThroughTech, an initiative of Cornell Tech that works at the intersection of academia and industry to propel more women and underrepresented communities into technology degrees and careers. Nicki is a member of Penn State’s Corporate Advisory Council as well as a board member of the GTWN.