Shamma Mustapha speaking at a women in STEM event

Rugby fan Sham on Fitz and an engineering career

Shamma Musthapha (Engineering 1991) shares her experience of Fitzwilliam and her career to date, and her desire to get more women into STEM careers

What was your first experience of Fitzwilliam and what were your first experiences?
I went on quite a few open days around other colleges in Cambridge and a few other universities. As nice as the older colleges were with their history, I liked the more cosy feel of the modern colleges. I chose Fitz because I was blown away by just how friendly and helpful everyone was. It made it a lot easier to move away from home for the first time. I liked the fact that Fitz also had a good focus on sport. The people and the feel of the college that I got on the open day played a big part on why I joined the college.

Did your experience meet those expectations?
Yes – everyone was great. I also got involved in sport. I was really surprised at just how many societies there were at the university. I am involved with the engineering department as part of my current job as we sponsor engineering society projects. There are so many student societies from an engineering perspective – it’s quite incredible how they manage to fit all of that in with their degree work! I played rugby when I was at Fitz as I’d tried this in sixth form and liked it and also played some hockey. When you first join you want to do everything so I also did some rowing, but that didn’t last long – it’s probably the hardest sport I’ve tried from a physically demanding perspective! It was quite challenging to fit everything in with the degree work as well. When I left uni and started work I played rugby (full 15s) for a team in Farnborough, where I lived. They were just starting up a team. I played for quite a few years after I left and really enjoyed it - I guess I have Fitz to thank for that! 

Shamma Mustapha and the Fitzwilliam women's rugby team


Why did you choose engineering?
It was a really difficult decision. There were so many things I liked doing when I was at school. I liked maths, physics, chemistry and biology. I thought that for a career I’d want to pursue something to do with STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), but I wasn’t sure what. My mum wanted me to go into medicine and my dad was a civil engineer. What tipped the scales for me was probably that I watched far too many action films with cool car chases and fast aircraft and thought ‘wow – doing a job where you get to be involved with those would be great!’ so engineering it was!

Please tell me about your career path to date.
Boeing is the fourth company I’ve worked for. When I left university I went to work for the MoD at DSTL which is the Research and Technology side of the organisation.  I first worked in signature control technology and then I worked as an engineer on weapons systems. That was a really interesting first job. I then moved to Thales, based in Crawley where I worked on unmanned systems. Next I went to Ultra Electronics, a small, medium-sized UK defence company. That was a really good job, because we had a lot of contracts and opportunities in a lot of different technology areas. I was a System Design Authority there and worked on a variety of different things, for example mission systems, geospatial intelligence, counter-mine technology, data links and video analytics. Then I made the move to Boeing, where I’m Systems Engineering Manager for the defence side of the business. I manage a team of really talented engineers and our job is to make sure that systems engineering is executed well on programmes that we get involved in. We also support winning new business as well and get involved early on campaigns to support strategy development. I also roll out some of the engineering training across the UK, so I get to liaise with my US colleagues who bring over training and engineering best practises, but tailored to the UK needs and customers. I’ve been lucky enough to go to Australia with work which was a great experience. I also get to work with academia to grow a talent pipeline and encourage the next generation to pursue careers which is hugely rewarding.

Shamma Mustapha at Boeing


How important is it for you to encourage female engineers?
I do think we need more women in STEM careers, because to get innovation and creativity you need a really diverse workforce and gender is just one aspect of that diversity. I’m hugely supportive of women and trying to encourage them to think about careers they haven’t thought about, but I’m also a big advocate of getting the best athlete for the job, regardless of gender. 

With the benefit of hindsight, what advice would you give to your younger self?
We get so caught up when we’re at university doing the studying bit and when it comes to achieving the exam results everyone’s up there with the best. Looking back on it all, I would highlight to myself how essential soft skills are to be successful, for example communication, influencing people, teamwork. They are just as important. It doesn’t matter how good you are when you’re at work, you can only get results when you can influence people around you, communicate your ideas clearly and get people to ’buy in’ when you don’t necessarily have the authority to do what you want to do by yourself. Doing things the right way from a behaviours and ethics perspective is just as important as getting the technical results. Time management is really critical as well. Also, be confident. Nobody’s right or wrong – there are just different ways of looking at things and the experiences that each of us has had shape the way we approach things.

Shamma Mustapha with friends from Fitzwilliam


How do you sum up your experience of Fitzwilliam and Cambridge?
I loved every minute, although sometimes it was very challenging, like the exam period, which seemed like a real rollercoaster at the time. I think it was really the people that made it for me. I had a great group of friends and we’re still in touch which is great. We go for weekend breaks together and see each other every couple of months. That was just as important for me. I still get excited when I visit Cambridge as I have so many happy memories from my time there and the friends that I made at uni are the best friends I have to this day.