IBM Engineer Nedlaya Francisco loves solving new problems
“I like the challenge, even if it’s difficult.”
The sacred Shiprock pinnacle peak just south of the reservation of the same name is known in the Navajo language as Tsé Bitʼaʼí, or “winged rock.” It’s named after one of many Native legends surrounding its history, in which a great bird brought the Navajo people from the north to their present lands. For Nedlaya Francisco, her native Navajo culture is an unwavering anchor to home.
Between taking apart remote-control cars and tending sheep with her grandmother, Nedlaya Francisco’s life as a Navajo has always been a rich dichotomy of growing engineering strengths and embracing family life on Shiprock Reservation.
“I’m curious, and I like learning how things work,” she told Industrious. “I like the challenge, even if it’s difficult. And having to figure things out and overcoming failure is a big part of that.”
In her 15 years at IBM, she’s taken part in the creation of 37 patents to date. She attributes her accomplishments to her natural ability for engineering, and to how she was raised. She and her three siblings had to work as a team with other family members to tackle the large responsibility of taking care of her grandparents’ farms.
“We helped with my grandparent’s sheep and cows,” she said, “herding, shearing, branding. It’s the way our parents brought us up.”
At high school on the reservation, she dove into math and science. Both came easily. After school, she immersed herself in sports, a passion she shared with her sister.
“My older sister and I played on the same teams in volleyball, basketball and track,” Francisco said. “We pushed each other. That helped me in school. It taught me to know what my goals are and to try hard—even if you fail.”
Francisco’s drive and dedication to working hard paid off. She was accepted as a computer engineering major at the University of Arizona. She won the Chief Manuelito Scholarship, sponsored by the Navajo Nation, and received other scholarships for students from the Four Corners region.
“I knew engineering was my thing, because it comprises science and math,” she said. “And I love computers.”
College wasn’t initially a smooth transition.
Her high school’s course offerings had been limited, and that put her behind other college students.
“Only three or four of us took pre-calc in high school,” she said, “so I didn’t have a math class my senior year. The physics classes weren’t up to par either. We did have smart people, but we just didn’t have enough students interested in order for the school system to provide an upper level class.”
At UA, she had to take extra classes to catch up. In addition, her introverted personality made it difficult to integrate into typical college life. That’s where her athletic background became a way to not only find friends, but also connect her to the professional world. Through Tucson city recreation sports, she met other Native American professionals. A few of them worked for IBM.
When she was offered an IBM storage testing internship, it quickly became clear the company was a place she’d be able to learn, grow and feel a part of the team.
Francisco had the fortune to be mentored by a fellow Navajo woman, who was key to helping her navigate the start of her career. She soon joined the Tucson Native American Diversity Network Group that focuses on giving back to Native communities. And she was thrilled to see the diversity of IBM female coders and testers.
Of the 37 patents she holds, the first was the most gratifying.
“For my first patent, ‘Universal Personal Medical Database Access Control,’ I worked with three coworkers,” she said. “All women of different backgrounds. It was a great learning experience, which won us an award from the IBM 2008 Women Inventors Community Patent Challenge. After that we submitted several more together.”
Francisco finds new technology, along with the speed it’s evolving, highly motivating.
“The new problems to solve are intriguing: security and personal data protection, faster and more reliable,” she said. “We have to consistently improve the backup of the data, so restoring happens more frequently.”
She sees that growth of data technology moving her work toward cloud, particularly in banking and healthcare.
Francisco often returns to her alma mater to share experiences with Native American students. She also works with students through the IBM Native American Group. She’s led computer insights for STEM days with Tohono O’odham Reservation students and worked with children from the Pascua Yaqui tribe.
“Lego robotics and snap circuits and programming,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun seeing tech through their eyes. We were never taught science through hands-on activities on the reservation, so I can’t say no when I’m asked to participate in giving back.”
Francisco won a Technical Excellence Award from the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) in 2018 for her work on the IBM System Storage DS8000. The system is used in over 25 percent of the Top Fortune 100 companies and protects their most important data.
Her love for athletics remains a big part of her life. She and her sister are running partners and have brought in other family members to run marathon relays. They’ve competed in various lengths of races in Ireland, Canada, San Francisco and even the Las Vegas strip at night.
Francisco and her siblings return to New Mexico to be with family at least once a month.
“We go back to celebrate birthdays, be with family and help with the sheep,” she said. “It would be weird not to.”
Her advice to high schoolers who love STEM?
“Keep learning. Stay on top of the latest technology. Don’t be afraid to try new things and ask for help. There are lots of free courses and groups you can dive into. Surround yourself with people who have the same interests and curiosity.”