A Senior Director for Cisco Speaks at NJIT

Senior John Canela is pictured with Ileana Rivera, senior director at Cisco, and Julissa Ramirez Lebron, an Intel engineer.

To have a successful career, there are five things you must do, according to Ileana Rivera, a senior director of information technology (IT) at Cisco, who spoke Friday to an assembly of NJIT students.

Rivera is a prominent figure at a major Silicon Valley firm: Cisco is a world leader in designing networking equipment and IT solutions, so her advice is well worth taking. She is also the highest-ranking Latina ever to run a major IT division at Cisco. Currently she directs a division of 125 employees who manage IT support for Cisco’s more than 60,000 employees and is a strong advocate for diversity, both within the company and in the high-tech industry at large.

But she’s not one to forget her roots. Born in Puerto Rico to a working-class family, she was one of seven daughters. She never masked her background: Rather, she embraced it, which made all the difference in her career.

“There are five things that helped me become a leader in my career and the first one is authenticity,” she said during her NJIT talk. “Know who you are and make sure people perceive you in the way that you perceive yourself. The word I use most often is ‘authenticity’ and my motto is, ‘Be yourself.’”   

The four other qualities that Rivera cited as being essential to building a career included speaking out, or making sure your employer know what you want in your career; networking, which for her means developing personal relationships as well as using social networks; loving what you do -- to succeed you must be passionate to the point of fiery about your work; and staying both hungry and humble, which means never growing complacent with your job, always wanting more yet at the same never forgetting your heritage.

“Be proud of where you come from,” Rivera said. “I’m from Puerto Rico. I’m from a humble family. I always went to public schools, and I’m proud of my Hispanic heritage.”  

Her talk was sponsored by the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), the student chapter at NJIT, and was part of Hispanic Heritage month. Rivera’s current title is senior director of IT in global user experience and mobility services, but she's also a board member for the Hispanic IT Executive Council and belongs to Conexión and Connected Women, two groups that promote Latinos and women at Cisco.

Rivera came to campus at the invitation of John Canela, an NJIT senior who interned this summer at Cisco. The two met through Conexión, the Latino group at Cisco, and discovered that they had mutual interests: their Hispanic heritage, their love of technology and their devotion to Cisco. Canela invited Rivera to speak at NJIT, and she agreed. She flew out from Silicon Valley to spend the day at NJIT, talking to students and giving them career advice. Before her talk, she toured NJIT’s business incubator, the Enterprise Development Center, and afterward met with NJIT President Joel Bloom, who gave her an overview of the myriad ways in which NJIT promotes diversity, spurs ecoomic development.and provides the nation with the engineers and technologists it needs to remain competitive globally. Bloom and Rivera agreed that having Canela at Cisco will only enhance the relationship between NJIT, a nationally-ranked univeristy for both research and diversity, and Cisco, one of the world's leading firms.    

Canela did so well during his Cisco internship that he recently received a full-time offer to work as an IT engineer within the company’s Computer Security Incident Response Team in San Jose, Calif.

“The offer was given to me in August and I accepted the offer in mid-September,” Canela said. “Words cannot fully describe how excited I am to start my career in Silicon Valley.”

Three other young NJIT graduates also work at Cisco: Chris Sam (2014) works as a program manager in Cisco’s supply chain unit; Zakariya Abbassi (2008, Albert Dorman Honors College) works as a systems engineer for Cisco’s New Jersey office; and Yousef Abbasi (2014, Albert Dorman Honors College) works as an associate systems engineer in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.

Canela, who is vice president of SHPE and belongs to the Educational Opportunity Program at NJIT, hopes to one day be a leader in the tech industry. So he was thrilled to have had such a prominent professional speak at NJIT.

“I’m extremely grateful to have had Ileana Rivera as a featured speaker for Hispanic Heritage Month,” Canela said. “She flew out here from Silicon Valley and it was a great opportunity for students to learn from one of the most influential Hispanics within the tech industry.”

Asked at the end of the day what she thought of the students, Rivera said this: “The ones I spoke with had fire in their eyes -- I could see they were passionate about technology. As long as they have that, they’ll  accomplish amazing things.”    

By Robert Florida