By Rodika Tollefson
Some families play tennis together and talk about sports at the dinner table. In Nicole Reineke‘s family, the conversations centered around technology and software. She was only 6 or 7 years old when she began coding, starting with using ASCII to “make a stick person walk across the screen” on her TI computer.
“I love to solve complicated problems,” says Reineke, distinguished engineer at Dell Technologies Office of the CTO. “For my birthday, I used to ask for puzzles and logic books.”
This isn’t surprising, considering her father was a software engineer who retired from Dell EMC. Computer science was embedded in her upbringing, high school experiences, and family lifestyle. Yet Reineke didn’t see it as a career path. She chose English as her undergrad major, focusing on her interests in creative writing and singing. “I thought for sure I was going to go into theater,” she says.
But after a summer of acting, singing, and movie gigs, Reineke decided the life of a struggling actor was not for her. That’s when the rest of her background—including her passion for math, her coding skillset, and her high school software development internships—helped to steer her in a new direction.
Designing Meaningful Solutions
Right out of college, Reineke landed a job in software engineering at a pharmaceutical company. This launched a two-decade career of designing and innovating systems and technology solutions.
Along the way, the mother of two filed for 27 patents, created an industry magazine, co-founded and helped grow a startup into a multimillion-dollar company, went back to school for a master’s of business administration in information technology, opened a consulting firm with her father, and designed numerous software products. Much of this work centered around technical product management, a discipline that was just emerging during Reineke’s early career days. She thrived in a field that combined her multiple skillsets, ranging from developing software and managing teams to marketing and writing.
But she was especially compelled by bridging the gap between what engineers and designers create and what customers need.
“When you talk to customers with compassion and listen to them, you learn their language and their challenges,” she explains. “I go in with a technical approach, but I also use my marketing background, so I can get a ton of information and give them back something that’s meaningful.”
This is Reineke’s goal in her current role at Dell Technologies, where she focuses on projects like intelligent data management research.
“I try to look at a three- to five-year horizon to understand how technology may impact Dell Technologies and our customers, and create new ways of using technology to make the lives of our customers better,” Reineke says. “My team is at the forefront of designing solutions based on anticipating and caring about what people are on the verge of experiencing.”
A Perfect Fit
Reineke came to Dell Technologies in 2019 by serendipity. After working at startups and small companies—mostly part-time while raising her son and her daughter—Reineke wasn’t looking for a full-time job in a large corporate environment. She ran into an old colleague who mentioned an innovation role focused on incubating ideas and using agile processes for short project turnarounds.
The position offered exactly what Reineke wanted to do at the time. “I like to dig into a project for four to six months, finish it, and then move on to learn something new,” she says. “I needed a company where I could continually learn.”
Many people have impacted Reineke professionally, starting from the women in leadership roles at her first employer, and later her boss, Dave Cane, at the fledgling startup where she led the rapid response engineering team. She is uncomfortable with the term mentorship; however, she is adamant that friendships that cross gender, generations, and interests play a huge role in her growth personally and professionally. “In my first job, a hardware guy in his late 60s befriended me,” she says. “Over lunches, he taught me everything he had learned over 40 years of manufacturing. Because of him, I added an integration perspective to my software projects, something the teams had previously missed.” It was his support, among others, that led to an engineering leadership promotion.
But the most influential person may have been her father who, incidentally, had worked just a couple of cubicles over from Reineke’s workspace at Dell Technologies. Even when Reineke’s colleagues encouraged her to become a Dell Technologies distinguished engineer, she remained hesitant. It was her father who convinced her that she was eligible for the role.
“Although I didn’t see myself that way, he saw me that way—and it gave me the confidence to pursue the goal, despite the fact that it had never been given to someone with the title of technical product manager before,” she says.
Never Too Late to Start
If Reineke were to think of herself as a rebel—which she humbly denies—it would be based on her refusal to get knocked down.
“The biggest hurdle is to figure out how to pick yourself back up and move forward when you feel as if you have failed,” she says. “Figuring out how to stand back up has been my greatest superpower.”
But it took another type of rebellion to get to this point of her career: not playing by the rules.
“There’s a lot of beauty in finding innovative ways to play within constraints,” she says. “That’s what invention is—you have a set of known rules and when you can create something fundamentally new with these constraints, that’s glorious.”
To be able to do this, Reineke has constantly walked “directly into the face of failure,” something she advises every girl and woman to do in their personal and professional lives. “I learned that the second I realize I’m terrified, that I’m going to fail at something, I need to lean in because it’s something that’s meaningful and valuable to me,” she says. “If you’re afraid you’re about to fail, that’s a sign that what you’re doing matters. If you don’t push forward, you’ll regret you didn’t try.”
Her final piece of advice would be to women who think it’s too late in their life to start a new path, including as a technologist. Her mother and her mother-in-law both began successful new careers in their late 40s or 50s. Reineke herself didn’t file for her first patent until she was in her mid-40s. She’s making up for that now, having submitted more than two dozen over the past two years alone.
“It’s never too late to learn or embark upon whatever excites you or causes you to think, I hope I don’t fail at that,” says Reineke.
“My mantra is just go for it”.
Nicole Reineke is Dell Technologies Distinguished Engineer, a distinction given to the most accomplished technology leaders in the company.
This article is part of the “Rebel Women” series that features female trailblazers in technology as they share the stories of their careers and advice for women interested in STEM.
Interested in an inspiring career in tech? We might just have the right opportunity for you. Explore our career page here.