Archive for January, 2010

Was there a woman in the room?

Last week Apple unveiled the iPad.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only women who heard the name and snickered.  I mean it’ a personal computing device called the iPad.  I couldn’t help but think, was there a woman in the room when they decided on that name?

A few years back Mad TV did a spiff on the iPod on a product called the iPad.  Turns out they were way ahead of the curve.  Here’s a link to the skit.  Trust me, after you watch this you’ll laugh/smile every time you see the iPad too.

I’d like to think of this as a good example of ensuring you have diversity represented in the product requirements and name when coming up with a mass market product.

Speaking at the Silicon Valley DVClub

I’m speaking today for the silicon valley Design Verification Club.  I think the presentation will be linked up to the website with some audio soon.

My topic “Tales from the Trenches: Validation Missteps Making us fulltime Firefighters”.

Connections to Speaking Opportunities

As I finish up the details of the talk I’m giving tomorrow, I can help but think about how I got this opportunity.

I used to work with Doug Russell who became a good friend of mine.  He was based in Austin and I was in Sacramento, but we met periodically and worked on a risk management team together.  We were trying to implement a more robust risk management process for product development teams at Intel.  Doug left Intel and went on to start his own company focused on execute team leadership.

To expand his own network, Doug became an officer for the Austin IEEE Technology Management Council.  He asked if I would speak to the group.  So I combined a trip to see my parents in San Antonio for Labor Day and a talk in Austin this past September.

I was in the midst of managing a difficult product at work which was on the verge of failing.  There had been quite a few mistakes made by the team that was keeping the product from market.  Since it was on my mind, I molded my talk around that.  Afterwards one of the attendees, Eric, came up to me and asked if I’d give a similar talk for the Design Verification Club he ran.  My response- “sure, in fact since I work in validation, I could probably cater a whole talk around that”.

Years ago I listened to a diversity leader at Xerox talk about how opportunities happen when luck meets preparation.  I had prepared for this talk with Doug and was lucky enough to meet Eric.  It created an opportunity for me to give another talk, to an even wider audience.  In fact, now that I’ve done two “Tales from the Trenches” talks, maybe it should become a new theme for me- sharing the learnings from my day-to-day project work.   (Until this year, most of my speaking opportunities outside of work have been risk management classes, panels focused on women in engineering, and encouraging high schoolers to pursue engineering careers.)

Don’t pass up those connections and opportunities that come your way.  You never know where they will take you!

No More Ms. Nice Gal

Depending on who you ask, I think people would say I’m a nice person.  (My sisters would label me as bossy before nice.) As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m a eternal optimist.  I smile alot.  I also think that most of the time people are just doing they best they can at their jobs.  I always default to trying to work with and partner with my stakeholders.

I have read and heard generalizations that women are too nice.  That they bend and give in too easily.  That they avoid conflict to the point it becomes detrimental to solid forward progress.

I do not believe that I bend or give in easily.  I stand up for what I believe in and voice my opinions- even when they are in contrast to the rest of the room.

After some introspection this past week, I realized that I am much stronger in meetings and in front of a group, than I am in a one-on-one negotiation.  Why?

I think I want to work constructively with people.  As a result when we get together one-on-one in a room or over the phone, I usually start by opening up about myself or my time.  For example, I might say “I know I am responsible for some of the communication breakdown, I could have done this or that better.”  Then I would wait for the other party to open up and make some concessions about their own communication breakdowns.  From there, we’d talk about how we could work better together, improve communication, etc.  It always feels like it worked well.  Typically I’ll see results.

My last discussion which followed the script above, did not quite achieve the result I expected.  Let’s call this teammate Bob.  I left my conversation with Bob thinking we had made some good progress.  We admitted there were some big communication gaps and had a plan for closing them.  A day later I got a phone call from a fellow team member who had just talked with Bob.  It went something like this:

Teammate: “Hey Allison, I just got out of a meeting with Bob.  Bob claims that you and your team are responsible for most of the communication breakdown.  He said you admitted there was alot more you should have done.”

Me: “Wait, that’s not true.  Sure there is more I could have done, but Bob was mostly to blame.  I can’t believe he just sold me out like that and blamed it all on me!”

Teammate: “Allison, I need you to be strong.  Bob will run you over if you don’t stand up to him and make him clean up his act and get his team in line”

Me: “Thanks for letting me know what Bob said.  I’ll be more careful about what I say and how I talk to him in the future.”

I thought Bob and I had a good working relationship.  Sure I’d seen him run over other people.  I had even called him out in meetings before for not telling the truth about what was really going on.  I didn’t think he’d turn on me.  I should have known better.

I value teamwork.  I want my team to do well and look good.  I want to work with my teammates to create successful products.  There are people out there like Bob who put themselves first.  Bob has different values and different priorities that me.  He makes sure that he looks good and successful, even if that means making his teammates look less successful.

Maybe women are too nice.  In this case, I certainly was.  I know some men who have been too nice too- I’ve watched Bob run over them.

The key to success is learning from your missteps.  I let Bob throw me under the bus in front of my manager when I wasn’t there.  He used my openess against me.  I’ve learned my lesson.  No more Ms. Nice Gal when talking to Bob.  From now on, when he and his team are in the wrong,  I’ll let him know- without admitting any faults on my side.

I’ll be keeping my eye out for other Bobs.  When I spot them, I’ll know to alter my normal working style- take away the nice and turn up the bossy.  It was a good lesson in situational awareness and adaptation.  Watch out for those Bob’s in your world!

Empowered American Engineers

I saw this cartoon the other day and it totally reminded me of my time in Israel.  For a few years I worked alot with a team in Israel.  Israeli’s do not have the concept of being “politically correct”.

When I went to Israel for a business visit I was chatting with a co-worker during the work day.  He asked about where I was staying.  Then he volunteered to take me out sight-seeing for the day.  He suggested we go to a beach, “since I would look good in a bikini”.  In the US, that’s sexual harassment 101…in Israel- he was just offering me a compliment.  I just smiled, shook my head, and told him “No thanks.  I’d rather see something cultural.”

Engineering Yarn

One of the new skills I decided to learn this year was how to knit.  I am one of those people who has a hard time sitting still while watching TV.   I am always multi-tasking on my computer or cleaning.  Knitting has been on my radar for awhile.  When my grandmother passed away, my mom mailed me her knitting needles.  I figured it was time I did something with them and signed up for a knitting class this January.

The process of knitting amazes me.  You take a ball of yarn and two sticks.  You move the yard around with the two sticks and create scarves, blankets, hats….  This week was my third class.  The first two weeks we made what you would call a scarf, but tried out different types of stitches.  The result is sort of a hodge-podge of textures and mistakes that somewhat resembles a scarf.  (The first 4 inches of mine was a trapezoid with 3 unintentional button holes.)  At the beginning of this third class, I unraveled the “scarf” to start again.

My amazement really set in as I was unraveling.  To unravel you just take the scarf off your needles, grab an end of the yarn, and start pulling.  There are no knots, nothing to really “undo”.  The scarf I just made was gone in seconds.  How cool that you can just loop yarn around and make an amazing piece of clothing that looks dense and structurally secure?

It reminded me of when I really decided I wanted to be an engineer.  I was a freshman in college and learning about how computers worked, I had a similar sense of amazement.  Down at the core, computers are about moving electrons around.  How amazing is that?  Everything you see on a screen, games you play, videos you watch, skype conversations with people across the world…down at the core,  it’s all about forcing some electrons to move this way or that.

I continue to be fascinated by computers and technology.  My electrical and computer engineering degree focus was on the solid state physics side.  Actually understanding how you fabricate circuits and lay them out, and made that foundation for computers.  As I’ve advanced in my career I’ve added on additional firmware and software and system knowledge.  When you think about it, computers are just amazing complex systems with so many things that can go wrong.  The more I know, the more it seems to be a miracle each time I hit the “on” button and my laptop boots and does what it needs to for me that day.

I am happy I chose a study and career path that allows me to part of creating an advancing this technology.  I’m also happy when my new hobbies make me take a step back and remember how amazing and impactful engineering those little electrons can be.

Haiti Help, Engineering Style

The world seems to be focused on helping Haiti during this past week.  I thought I’d use the opportunity to highlight one of my favorite engineering organizations.

When I was younger, I wanted to be involved in medicine.  Not necesarily as a doctor, just in the medical field.  I learned about Doctors without Borders and was fascinated with the organization.  How cool is it to travel all over the world, visit new places, meet new people, and help them?

When I was in college I learned that there was a similar organization called Engineers Without Borders.  Just like doctors…but engineers who help build community infrastructure, bring electricity and water into their towns, and creating buildings to withstand the elements.  Quite a few college campuses now have EWB groups and there are professional groups all over the world.

There are 10 EWB groups n the US today who have ongoing projects in Haiti.  Check it out and maybe you’ll be inspired to check out a group near you…or donate to Haiti in a very engineering fashion. 🙂

The Exodus…elephant in the room

My post about the exodus article generated quite a few conversations.  I thought I’d follow it up with some more thoughts.

When you read the article, you can’t help but think there is an elephant in the room that no one is talking about – women having babies.  It’s hard to say that women having babies is the reason for so many leaving the technical/engineering work force because women in all career fields have babies and we don’t see similar exoduses.

What is interesting about the age range where women start leaving en masse, mid thirties to forties, is they have usually already have a few children.  The study doesn’t call this out, but I can speak to what I have experienced and seen during my time working ,  listening to results of similar studies as well as anecdotal stories.

Most technical women do return to work after their first child.  I think most come back after their second as well.  What I’m not sure about is whether the drop off happens due to the number of children- once you get to two or three children balancing the demanding engineering company lifestyle starts to wear on you.  Or is it not the number of children, but the age of those children.  At some point they start getting involved in extra-curricular activities and require more help in getting them to after school events.   Once again, balancing the demanding, fire-fighting, long hour engineering life style becomes increasingly more difficult.

Society makes it ok for women to step out and stay-at-home.  Whether you like it or not, there are many more societal pressures on men to continue working when they have families vs women.  At some point women decide the work of switching off and trying to maintain a sense of balance is not worth the stress.  It is easier to change the job environment you are in- either by staying at home, changing industries, or even taking on entrepreneurial ventures.   With these other choices, women have much greater flexibility in the hours and times they work.  The family balance becomes much easier.

I also believe that a majority of women engineers and scientists are actually talented in more than just math and science.   Most women who pursue these careers are very well rounded.  As a result it is easier for them to do non-engineering jobs as well.  They are not one-sided, but multi-talented.  We can spend 10-15 years doing a highly technical engineering job, then take on a second career as a teacher, and maybe a third 10 years later as a real estate agent.

I believe that one of the keys to understanding the exodus lays around children, not just having children- that’s not the issue, it’s more around balancing life as your family grows and diverges.  It is amazingly difficult to get part time engineering jobs.  Until women feel there are more options, and see other women using those options to remain technical and continue to advance, the exodus will continue.

Barbie as a Computer Engineer?

I was forwarded this earlier today.  As an avid player of barbie dolls when I was younger, I am excited to see that there could be a computer engineer barbie!  Maybe I would have decided to become an engineer before I was 18. 🙂

Do your part to encourage the next generation, and go vote for computer engineer barbie!

The Exodus

Courtesy of the Harvard Business Review

I volunteer a lot of my free time to organizations focused on encouraging women of all ages to pursue & stick with technical engineering and science/technology related endeavors.  (one of the reasons I started this blog)  I was recently invited to an invitation-only luncheon with some senior women in my group at work.  The goal is to get us networking with each other and talking to the GM.  It made me think about an article I had read awhile back by the Harvard Business Review about the Exodus of Women in Science & Engineering fields.  A quick google search later- and an article to share with you, which I think is still relevant today, even though it was written a year and a half ago.

I find the article to be pretty much spot on from what I’ve heard and experienced during my 7 years working as an engineer.

The article argues that there is a lot of science and engineering talent already in the US that is underutilized because they have dropped out of the technology arena.  Who is this enormous pool of talent?  Women in their mid-thirties and beyond.

HBR’s research showed that 41% of young engineers, scientists, and technologist are women, but that over time 52% of these women quit their jobs.   Instead of quiting on a slow linear scale as they get older, women tend to hit a key turning point in life and leave.  I can tell you from my experience- this is true.  It is not hard at work to find women engineers in their twenties.  Pretty much every team has a few.  By contrast, it takes quite a bit of effort to find experienced women who have stuck it out, especially for any length of time after having kids.

Why?  Let’s go through the articles reasons, with some comments from what I’ve experienced…

  1. Machismo & the hostility of workplace culture. I don’t really agree with this point.  Most of us with engineering degrees have been friends with and interacting with groups of men for long time.  We’re used to their comments, their machoism.  In my mind it comes with the territory.  I feel like it’s a victory of acceptance when they don’t change their mannerisms or language when I’m in the room.  I’m accepted as just another guy.  That’s not to say I act like them.  It’s important to be genuine and authentically you.  To be accepted as you are.  I find the unhappy women- the ones who complain about always being around guys are typically attempting to act differently around them.  I think if you’re you and you don’t let their machoism mannerisms bother you much, then this should not be any reason to leave the work force.
  2. Dispiriting sense of isolation that comes when a woman is the only female on her team or at her rank. I can tell you I’ve felt this isolation.  I’m a very competitive person by nature.  The first few times I found myself in room of men, typically the most junior in the group on top of that, I felt the adrenaline rush of success.  “ah ha, here I am, representing women.  I’m so smart & capable that I’ve been invited into this group of more senior guys.” Most of the time, I am the only woman in these groups of men.  I stopped recognizing I was the only women.  Periodically I’ll be on a team with another women, or even a few other women, and I’ll feel this amazing sense of connection and relief.  “wow, another woman!  Cool, ok we’re going to make eye contact, encourage each other, support one another’s good ideas” I didn’t think it affected me so much, but it does.  You can only sit in a room with people dissimilar to you so much before you start to wonder if you really do belong.  Having other women there, even a few, really does make a big difference.
  3. Strong disconnect between women’s preferred work rhythms and the risky “diving catch” and “firefighting” behavior that is recongized and rewarded in these male-dominated fields.I never thought too much about the firefighting behavior in which I work until reading this article.  For me, this one is probably number one item driving my daily frustrations.  I seem to work in an infinite loop of reactively dealing with issues and problems.  I work day in and day out against this tide- focusing on risk management and planning.  More often than not, I feel I’m the only one leading the team away from this behavior.  Sure, my peers pay lip service to it, but at the end of the day, they still do the diving catches themselves and reward each other for addressing issues only after they occur and thrashing the team around.  It is almost solely this behavior which makes me consider leaving and taking on a different career.
  4. Long work weeks & punishing travel schedules  (esp because most women in two-income families still bear the brunt of household mgmt) I have had jobs where I travel alot and some where I travel little.  In pretty much all of them, I’ve worked some pretty long weeks.  When I look up the ladder at women who are foraging a path ahead of me, I see a lot of travel and long week.  I’ve had long talks with many female co-workers about what these senior women go through in their jobs.  Most of us agree we would not want to slave away like that and do the constant travel.  It just takes you away from family too much.  The few women that I do see who take these vice-president paths have amazing family structures and support.  Some have stay at home husbands, others have mothers, sisters, and in-laws who live with them and take on many household responsibilities.  It is certainly a trade off, and one I think only a few women are willing to take.
  5. The mystery around career advancement, lacking sponsors, and being unable to discern the pathway that will allow them to make steady upward progress. This is a big reason for the discouragement that many women feel.  I go to many conferences and listen to lots of panels with highly successful men and women.  Almost all of them will comment about how a few key people sponsored them and mentored them through the ladder to the positions they hold today.  Most will also talk about their career plans, how they set specific goals to hold particular jobs, attained them, and consequently moved up.  It all sounds great until you try to do it yourself.  How do you find a sponsor?  How do you make a job-jumping plan that will work?  How do you execute this plan?  It is a mystery.  I believe it is a mystery to both men and women though.  I know plenty of men stuck in the same situation.  This one is a numbers game- more men out there, a few of them will get into “the club” and get sponsors & pulled up.  It’s a proven fact that people are attracted to those similar to themselves.  By default men at the top will pull up other men.  With fewer women up top, fewer women are pulled.  Sometimes men will sponsor women, but it doesn’t happen at the same rate as men sponsoring men.

At least companies are become aware of the exodus phenomenon.  Awareness is the first step to putting a solution in place.  It’ll take time and effort on the part of the companies and women both.  I have faith we’ll get there.