Turning a negative into a positive. Today, UMN Crookston alumnus James Sparkman 2014 makes a living on strategically
implementing processes, navigating problems, and finding solutions for the betterment of the company. For Sparkman, he has been problem solving and turning a negative into a positive for years. As a junior at UMN Crookston, Sparkman saw his basketball career come to a close after not one, but two ACL injuries derailed his plans. But the Ypsilanti, Mich., native has risen up out of a gloomy ending to his basketball journey and built a profession for himself in software engineering.
Sparkman originally embarked on a position as a software engineer for St. Jude Medical, now Abbott, once he received his degree from the University of Minnesota Crookston. The degree helped get his foot in the door, but it has been the work he has done as a leader and problem solver that has defined a career on the rise.
“Throughout the last six-plus years, I worked my way up from being an entry-level engineer where I did a lot of implementation and coding,” Sparkman stated. “I moved into leadership roles within that organization starting in project management, where I was assigned to different projects working with various project teams to help them be more efficient. I worked to a program level where I had multiple projects under my belt.”
Sparkman worked mostly with software engineering in the medical devices field before Target contacted him needing someone on the software side to fill a gap in their team. “Target reached out and thought it was a good role for me,” Sparkman stated. “I took the knowledge I gained from the program management experience and with software and have been able to pair it with the business side of solving problems and taking a strategic leadership view of the processes in the company.”
The role as a lead process engineer with Target is different from the other jobs he has held. “I sit in a unique organization in Target,” Sparkman said. “The role I am in currently, related to operations, is not the way you would normally view it. A portion of the job is operations, but strategy and implementation is the other side. It is a very different role than I am used to. I have a degree in software engineering and my prior roles have been in software engineering and medical devices.”
Sparkman has thoroughly enjoyed his time at Target, a role he began in August 2020. It has been a new challenge for him and has built on his previous experiences at Abbott with project and program management. “I look at different processes within the business and try to make them more efficient,” Sparkman remarked. “With my software knowledge, I usually get assigned to systems and processes that are deeply involved with software and go through problem solving with the stakeholders in the business. This could be writing a purchase order for a vendor, sending that purchase order out of a distribution center, and all of the software that goes into that process ensuring we have the right quality, quantities, and product. If there is a gap in one of those processes, usually software processes, I work with those teams to document the process, where we currently are, and the dollar amount or opportunity we are losing and assist the teams and bring them together across the business. Each of the teams is usually focused on their daily tasks or their portion of the business and I connect that full line to solve the bigger problems and the strategic initiatives we have going on.”
Sparkman’s time at UMN Crookston prepared him for his current role. Whether it was adversity faced on the basketball court, his injury, or his time within the software engineering program, he felt he was ready to embark on a career because of his experience as a Golden Eagle. “Knowing and being able to test and build software is what got me in the door and prepared me to know the business structure that goes around creating a product. I don’t think a lot of junior engineers know much more outside of coding and testing that goes into software engineering. The one that piqued my interest is project management and dealing with timelines and budgets and being able to connect people together. That, along with my time in basketball, helped give me more of a connective and full life cycle view of software engineering. It has continued to help me throughout my career even now at Target,” Sparkman stated.
He reflects fondly on his experience at UMN Crookston, especially how the professors would work one-on-one with students and make sure they were set up for success. “For me, being in software engineering and playing basketball, professors were really good if I was out of town and they would take time outside of class to help you out,” Sparkman commented. “Many of my friends who I played basketball with in Montana went on to larger schools with 300 people in a class. They didn’t get one-on-one attention and struggled getting through some things. Being able to have those conversations with professors really helped along with knowing the leadership at your school. I don’t think there was a leader on campus I didn’t know and felt comfortable talking to.”
Enduring tough losses and injury on the basketball court may have been difficult. Being able to reflect on the negatives and build on the positives, along with the lifelong bond he created with teammates made it an experience that helped set him up for his career. “I was involved in sports for a very long time, but being able to go through the ups and downs with the team and being able to take some of the negative things that happened and reflect on those and make them into positives as much as you can,” Sparkman said. “Outside of getting through those things you build relationships. It is exactly the same when you go to a work environment. You have time when you are building relationships, but you also have times when the work gets tough and when you don’t agree, and it helps you work through the relationship building of getting through problems, reflecting on those problems, and learning from them which has helped me a ton.”
Sparkman had a tough end to his basketball career, suffering his second ACL injury in the second-to-last game of his junior season in what would end up being a big win over St. Cloud State University. He still reflects on his time fondly and has remained close to many of his teammates. “I attended the weddings of Almir Krdzalic 2014 and Broderick Schmidt 2013 and I see Abdou Niang 2014 usually once a year. Tomas Parker 2015 works for Target as well, and I saw Ashton Harrell 2014 when he came to Minnesota before COVID hit. I talk to Dominique Wright some. We had a big group come back for a reunion three or four years ago. It was fun.”
Sparkman has maintained friendships with people outside of the basketball team, including former football player Joe Stearly 2013, and many others who he has still remained in contact with since graduating. “My fondest memory is hanging out with the guys,” Sparkman said. “We had a pretty crazy group who were hilarious. Between Almir and Bo and really everyone had their own unique personalities. Having a close-knit group of guys where we went through what I would say is really rough times of losing a lot of games, but still made it a great atmosphere and great fun.”
He has come a long way in his career, rising up the ranks from his time at Abbott and now on to Target. While he has had a lot of great memories in the workforce, it is still his time at Abbott and working on Abbott’s Cardiac Mapping System, a software which helps create 3D models based on the anatomy of the cardiac chamber of the patient. “My senior leadership team at Abbott had the faith to pull me in and ask if I was interested in a new role putting me in a position where I lead multiple teams.” Sparkman remarked. That, and seeing the product we put out, for instance, the EnSite™ Velocity™ which helps with heart surgeries for people who have atrial fibrillation, along with having some of the patients who we helped change their life through that product come in and talk to us were some of the best moments of my career of our work as a team being appreciated.”
Sparkman has had an outstanding start to his career and wants to continue to rise up as a leader, eventually becoming a senior vice president or a member of a leadership team. He has big career ambitions and it all started at the University of Minnesota Crookston, rising out of adversity, and finding the positive and making the most of an experience.
Written for the Spring 2021 Torchlight e-Newsletter.