Posts Tagged ‘engineering’

Stereotype Reminders

I spent Tuesday this week at my alma mater doing some recent graduate recruiting for work.  Unfortunately, it also ended up being a reminder that gender stereotypes continue to exist- even with those in college today.

The career fair lasted for 5 hours and I was talking to people non-stop.  I would guess I talked to about 75 eager job hunters.  Three people out of those seventy five assumed that I was an HR person.  They were somewhat suprised when I responded that I had graduated with a degree in electrical and computer engineering from this very school and had a very technical job at work as an engineer.

Now I’ve never been a man.  But I would venture to guess one of students approaching a guy standing in front of a technology company booth at a career fair  would not immediately assume he was with HR.  I can hope that the other 72 people I talked to thought of me as an engineer and did not immediately categorize me as probably being with HR.  But I’m really concerned that here in 2010, where women have been pushing to break down those stereotypes for over 60 years, 4% of the engineering population at a very established, highly regarded school, still verbalized the stereotype.

In fact, just last week we had a senior women’s lunch at work.  I was chatting with the most senior technical person in my division.  She mentionned that a few weeks prior she was doing interviews for an open position.  She walked into the interview room and the young man vying for the position said “hi, nice to meet you, this must be the HR interview”.  She nicely put him in his place and replied with “no this is a harder technical interview than your last one with the most senior developer on the team”. 

Just typing this takes me back to one more story.  A few years back I won a very presitigious achievement award at my company.  There were just over one hundred winners from around the company.  They flew us and our spouses to San Diego for the weekend to accept the award and party with management.  As my husband and I mingled, person after person walked up and congratulated him.  Each time he would smile and say, “no I’m just the husband, Allison won the award”.  Needless to say, there were a lot of red faces and “sorrys”.

Sometimes when I hear all the push about increasing diveristy and breaking down stereotypes I start to wonder if there is too much hype.  Maybe we’ve been talking about this all for too long.  Maybe women have gained enough of a footing in the technical space that we don’t need to keep pushing the equality.  Then I have an experience like this week and it reminds me- there has been progress, but there is still a way to go.

Friday Funny

I am always in need of a little laugh on Friday.  Earlier today I was deep in discussion about change control boards and I felt like we were addressing problems I didn’t even know we had.  Which happens to be a good example of engineers trying to engineer solutions to communication problems, resulting in complicated process, rather than just people talking to people. (thus the 1st cartoon).  I had seen it before, and in searching for it, I came across the second one, which is just so appropriate for anyone who has had an IM chat with me and seen all the misspellings that come with my fast typing 🙂

How to avoid firefighting in validation

One of the attendees to my DVClub talk last week just blogged about my talk.  I thought he did a good job summarizing what I said.  Cadence sponsored the lunch.  Here’s the link. (and a picture of me in the process of talking- not so flattering 🙂 )

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”.

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.

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.

Pulling a Fast One

I had a great mutual complaining chat on Friday with a co-worker about a two members of our project team who were attempting to pull a fast one over the rest of us.  Here’s the context…

We are simultaneously working on two products- Product A and Product B.  A is the money maker for our division and flagship product of 2010.  B is a strategic product being developed in parternship with another company.  They share some common development peices.  Each one is very important to the organization, but at the end of the day, it is all about making money in 2010.  It’s about being a sustainable, money making organization.  As a result, the priority if we have to make tradeoffs between the two is Product A.

Here is where the “fast one” comes into play.  One of the lead engineering managers is actually prioritizing B with his team, in hopes that no one will really notice and he’ll still get A out on time.  Unfortunately, his manager knows this and is in on it.  Whenever anyone else on the team questions him about the priorties, he always says A first.   We can’t really prove he isn’t telling the truth, but you can sense it by the program updates.

Why does he feel he can do this?  Does he really think he’s smarter than the rest of us?  Does he just think he can get away with it?  It’s not really a problem if both products get to market on time and adhere to their schedules.  It does add unnecessary risk to product A in several ways- less ability to compensate for slip ups and unknown issues we encounter, other functional areas of the product have to work extra to compensate, and general lack of transparency within the team.

In my company pretty much everyone is an engineer.  What I mean is that our marketing team- they’re engineers, our manufacturing team- engineers, our project managers- engineers, our people managers- engineers.  You get the picture.  Engineers think they can do everything.  We’re the people who think we can do it ourselves better than almost anyone else can.  We know we’re smart and think we can learn fast and execute well.  For the most part we can- though sometimes it’s alot better to have someone with expertise and skills in that area.  (that’s a whole other post…)

Part of thinking we can do everything also means we typically think we’re smarter than those around us- even fellow engineers.  So some believe they can pull a fast one over the rest of the team.  They really can’t though.  You look at their body language, the words they use, you poll their team- it’s pretty obvious what is going on.

The sad thing is how much this single action affects both product teams.  Without transparency, and with the engineering director supporting this manager, not correcting him, other people will start to follow suit.  They will start saying one thing, and doing something else.  Pretty soon, the whole team suspects everyone else of not telling the complete truth.  We start pointing fingers and blaming each other.  We spend more time covering our own asses than working together to constructively solve problems and get products out on time.

It’s a vicious cyle that sadly starts with just a single pair, thinking they can sneak something past of the rest us.  That they’re just a little smarter.  That their great engineering skills will enable them to solve their way our of whatever issue this priority change will get them into.  I just hope our team confronts them and are able to change it before we become completely dysfunctional.

Engineering, the voice of reason

This pretty much sums up the day I had today.  (Kudos to my friend Deb for sharing) Sometimes my team gets a little over zealous in their commitments and doesn’t think through the technical details and dependencies in putting a system level product together.

My Day Today

A few years ago when I left my individual contributor engineering role and became a project manager I was scared of losing my engineering.  I felt like I had worked so hard to get that engineering degree that I had better use it to do true engineering design and test work.

What I found out is when you are a good engineering, those good engineering skills shine through.  I’m a good project manager because I’m not afraid to get into the technical details of problems or brainstorm creative work arounds to pull in schedules.  My first year as a project manager I wanted to tell people “hey I’m an engineer”.  I just somehow felt so much less technical.

As that year went on, I gravitated towards technical discussions and wasn’t afraid to share my technical opinions.  Now, a few years into it, and even with a whole new team, people by default think of me as an engineer first and project manager second.

I’m happy to know that when it comes down to making products, engineers are the voices of reason.  We look at the data, we have open discussions, we’re objective, and we often can recommend alternatives.