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Joanna Smith: UCLA IS Alumna Adapts Skills to Aerospace Industry

By Joanie Harmon and Giselle Jose

A software configuration analyst at Northrop Grumman Corporation, Smith draws upon her wide range of library and archival experience. 

Disclaimer:  The opinions expressed in this article are Joanna Smith’s own and do not reflect the views or opinions of Northrop Grumman Corporation. 

When Joanna Smith (’19, MLIS) was applying to pursue her advanced degree at the UCLA Department of Information Studies, she was intrigued by the diversity of career paths taken by its graduates, as featured in the program’s recruitment materials. 

Today, as a software configuration analyst at Northrop Grumman Corporation, Smith utilizes the library and information skills she acquired at UCLA IS, as well as the variety of internship and job experience she had while a student and after graduation, and her leadership roles with the UCLA Library and Information Studies Alumni Association (LISAA) and the UCLA Student Chapter of the Special Libraries Association.

The Latest had a conversation with Smith – a Redondo Beach native, whose resume includes UCLA Library Special Collections and Dreamworks – on her path to a career in aerospace, the wide variety of skills and interests that are gained in the information fields, and how to gain the most from the student experience at UCLA IS.

How can a MLIS degree enable you to enter an unexpected field like aerospace?

Joanna Smith: I am part of the Configuration and Data Management team at Northrop Grumman Corporation. Configuration and data management work typically centers around creating a process of establishing and maintaining the consistency of a product’s performance, design, and operational information throughout its life. This process usually encompasses configuration identification and control, configuration status accounting and audits, data management, and software configuration management. 

Configuration management processes are embodied in different rules, procedures, techniques, methodology and resources to assure that the configuration of the system and/or item are documented, and that any changes made to the item in the course of development, production and operation, are beneficial without adverse consequences. 

Software configuration management is a part of the configuration and data management process.  Software configuration management is a discipline that applies technical and administrative direction for software identification, control, and release. Software configuration management tasks may include reviewing the release of software products, managing the life cycle of software fixes and changes from their creation and implementation to their release, and producing and managing program software builds for both official and un-official testing. 

As a software configuration analyst, I may also be asked to help develop or review software configuration management standards or procedures. Additionally, I may be asked to help collaborate with and train colleagues on the software configuration management procedures and tools we’re implementing for a specific project. 

In my software configuration analyst role, I utilize skills every day that I learned in the UCLA MLIS degree program, including my skills in researching, creating training materials, working on teams, performing project management tasks, and organizing and classifying information. Moreover, while pursuing my UCLA MLIS degree, I worked as a Digital Archives Program Scholar at UCLA Library Special Collections under the direction of UCLA Digital Archivist Shira Peltzman. This role provided me with a great foundation for carrying out my current software configuration management tasks, especially those related to configuration identification and control, and status accounting. 

Furthermore, because of my involvement in the UCLA Student Chapter of the Special Libraries Association under our faculty advisor, David Cappoli, I was able to go on tours of specialized libraries, and to network with people that held MLIS degrees but worked in jobs outside of traditional libraries and archives. This exposure allowed me to see that there were a number of roles out there that require a library and information science skillset in non-traditional library settings – such as in the aerospace industry.

One of the things that you run into in the library world is, there are a lot of jobs that utilize our skills outside of a traditional library or archive. But sometimes it is just a terminology barrier -  for example, how we might define something in library terms, another industry is thinking of in their terms.  We are both thinking of the same thing, but you essentially need a translator to say, “Oh, you're doing that same thing – you should connect.”  

This was the case for me. It was not until the UCLA MLIS program hosted an information session with employees from Northrop Grumman’s Configuration and Data Management team, that I learned about positions in configuration and data management and how my MLIS skillset could be a wonderful fit for these types of roles. Moreover, when I've talked to some people in the configuration and data management field, they have said, “We never even thought about connecting with library students for our work until recently, and your library skills are a great fit for this type of work.” Personally, I’m so grateful that Northrop Grumman was able to connect with UCLA’s MLIS program and I’m hoping they’re able to continue that relationship.

How did you decide that you wanted to pursue an advanced degree in library and information studies?

Smith: I lived a whole other life before library school. I graduated from UC Berkeley in 2010 and got my undergrad degree in Rhetoric and Film Studies. I knew I wanted to work in the film industry, and I was able to get a job at Dreamworks Animation in their mailroom - you know, the very clichéd mailroom clerk. And then, I moved my way up into production management, and I was a production coordinator for about five years. During that time, I was able to work in different departments in the animation production pipeline, helping to create various feature films, from “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” to “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” to “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.” 

That was the start of my work in a project management role. I learned a lot about how to set schedules, and how to act as a representative for your team. I was taking notes in meetings, tracking progress in spreadsheets and organizing all this information and communicating it to other people in the production pipeline.

While I was there, I also got to informally mentor and teach other production staff about my day-to-day routine as well as how to use different software products for production management tasks. I also took on the role of software vendor/IT liaison for my departments, and I worked a lot with the employee training department. I ended up taking on many roles and gained lots of different experiences. 

In 2016, I ended up leaving Dreamworks Animation. I realized that I wasn't as passionate about filmmaking as I was when I started. I saw the next step up - the role above me - and all the tasks that they would take on, and I didn’t know if that was the right fit for me anymore. I ended up leaving the company and was actually thinking about going to business school. But I ended up using that time to think further about what I wanted to do.

I took on a job as a waitress at a comedy club, and then I started substitute teaching, and also taught my own class at a local adult school on social media. I found that I was more interested in the education sector, and so, that was the career trajectory that I was planning to go towards. Then one day, I ended up being a substitute librarian at a local high school for the day, and I realized that being a librarian might be the perfect job for me. I could plan programs, I could do collection development, I could research, and I could teach, but in a different setting. Those were a lot of my favorite things that I had done at Dreamworks, but they weren't the focus of my role there.

What was your experience as a UCLA IS graduate student?

Smith: I started looking at how you become a librarian and didn't realize that you needed a master's degree. I was like, “Okay, I guess I’m going back to school.“ I wanted to stay on the West Coast, and I started looking at what master’s programs there were and, UCLA was one.  

My aunt had a friend who had attended UCLA’s MLIS program many years ago, and she had nothing but great things to say. So, I attended one of the information sessions about the MLIS program that Michelle Maye (SEIS Student Affairs Officer) ran. I was looking at the information packet that Michelle had given us with samples of students pursuing different career tracks in the MLIS program, and I was inspired. 

At the time, I was thinking, “I love film and I like the idea of librarianship – so maybe I can marry the two.” Then I saw a sample student profile in this information packet, saying: “So-and-so is interning at The Comedy and Magic Club” - which I kid you not, that's where I was working as a waitress at the time - and this sample student was pursuing media archiving. As cheesy as it sounds, I thought to myself, “Wow, is this a sign? I could be that student.” I hadn’t been that excited about something in a long time, so I thought that maybe the UCLA MLIS program might be the right fit for me.

I went home, and I started researching more and it just seemed like there were so many great opportunities with the UCLA MLIS degree. I could potentially do film archiving at UCLA, or I could do film librarianship in the LA area. Basically, if I wanted to go down the film librarian or archivist route, it would be perfect because many of the film and TV studios would be nearby. Or if I wanted to learn more about informatics and information science, I could go in that direction at UCLA too. So, UCLA seemed like a really great fit for me. 

I applied to UCLA’s MLIS program and received my acceptance letter later in the year, which was wonderful. Shortly after that, one of the professors whom I actually ended up working for down the line, Professor Shawn VanCour, reached out to me and said, “I read your application and we're excited to have you here.”  

Once I decided to go to UCLA, I reached out to Shawn and asked, “Can I just come by and meet with you, so I can kind of just dive into this program - even before it starts – to try to get the most out of it?” Shawn graciously agreed to meet with me, and I was able to tell him about my background and to pick his brain about the program. Then later on in August - just before school started - Shawn reached out to me with, “Hey, I have this research opportunity, if you want to work on it with me.” He was doing research related to the history of television production, so it was just a perfect fit for me. And, added bonus - it was a tuition remission GSR opportunity. 

Before I started the program, I also reached out to Snowden Becker who was the MLIS Program Director at the time. She had these Tea Breaks, where she would bring in people from different fields in the library and information science community and they would come and talk to current students about their work. I started going to those and learned that there were a lot of opportunities and a lot of diversity of jobs in the library and information science field.

By the time fall quarter started, I was ready to go back to school and get started. I ended up taking a class with Professor Christine Borgman titled “Privacy and Information Technology,” and I learned so much. I thought, I think this is the path I want to go down with more of a focus on informatics. I felt like it was going to be big in the future with a lot of job opportunities. Plus, Professor Borgman was my faculty advisor at the time, so she was a good person to go down this route with. 

In the program, there are different degree tracks that you choose from, but I ultimately took more of an interdisciplinary approach – combining informatics with librarianship and archives. I tried to take classes that were of interest to me, but veered a little bit more towards classes that had a bit of a technology aspect to it, or where you were learning about a more technical skill. For example, in one of Professor Johanna Drucker's classes about the history of the book, our final project involved creating a webpage - which we learned how to do over the course of the quarter - and then presenting our final project’s research on the webpage instead of in a traditional paper format. 

To supplement my classes in the MLIS program, I also tried to attend some of UCLA Library’s various workshops that provided lessons on different software products that could be utilized for performing research, which was great. 

Additionally, while in the MLIS program, I had the opportunity to get hands-on learning experience through my internships at NBCUniversal’s Archives and Collections and at El Camino College’s Schauerman Library. These experiences allowed me to get practical experience in the library and information science field and to see what working in the different organizations would be like.

How would you encourage prospective students to choose UCLA for their MLIS degree?

When I was thinking about which library program I wanted to attend, I knew I wanted to attend something that was in-person. I knew that I wanted to make the most of it. And so, for me, UCLA was a big pull for that reason, because it was one of the few programs that was in-person and close to where I wanted to be. 

I think people are really open to helping you however they can too. Typically, if you reach out to anybody in the library and information science field, they want to help as they came into this field to help provide services to others. Especially when you're in your master's program at UCLA, people want to help you. They want to give you their thoughts, they want to help you network. Even this past year, when I reached out to people, even cold-messaging people on Linkedin with, “Hey, I’m interested in learning more about your career - would you be open to talking?”, more often than not, people were happy to speak with me and give me pointers.

Another advantage of this program is the great staff, including but not limited to Michelle Maye, Diana Ascher, Amy Gershon, Andrew VanSchooneveld, and Annie Lee, who are amazing resources and who often provided me with information about events, job opportunities, and the different processes and procedures necessary to get your MLIS degree. Additionally, the faculty advisors were another wonderful aspect of the program. I was fortunate enough to have two advisors – Professor Borgman and Professor Miriam Posner -- over my two years in the program. They both provided me with unique perspectives, helped me to find work and learning opportunities outside of the classroom, supported my goals, and even provided letters of recommendation as needed. 

UCLA’s MLIS program also provided me with a ton of opportunities to get involved in various student groups related to anything from special libraries to student government to archives and more. This was another wonderful way to get leadership experience, to network and to get exposure to different types of careers within the library and information science field. 

The other thing about a program like this is there are so many different tracks. When I was a grad student, there were tracks for rare books, libraries, archiving, media archiving, and informatics.  I tried to take classes in each specialty if I could, and I took classes that sounded interesting to me or that I heard, “This professor’s amazing, you just have to take it.”

I recommend that if a class sounds interesting, then take the class, even if it's outside of the scope of your career track. I followed this philosophy, and while some of the classes I took were less aligned with my career-goals, these classes often ended up being some of my favorite courses, including Roger Kelly’s course on children's library programming which I absolutely loved. Even though the focus of the class was more on creating programs and story times for children, I could take those skills and apply it to adults or other audiences. I also took a class about current issues in public librarianship with Professor Sarah Roberts, which opened my eyes to the world of public libraries and all of the vulnerable populations that they serve. I’m so glad that I had the chance to learn more about this topic in this class. 

Something that’s great about this program is there's a lot of opportunities to take different types of classes, even though they may seem far off from what you're trying to do. Ultimately, it’s about learning about that topic and seeing how you can pull it into the area that you want to focus on or creating a connection with that professor. And who knows where that could lead to.