Monday, February 23, 2015

Age != Experience

(Or Age Does Not Equal Experience, for those of you who aren't familiar with regex notation)

Ever since I was a child, I always felt like I was underestimated because of my age. I was lucky enough to have parents who treated me as an adult and took my ideas and opinions seriously even before I had graduated from Velcro sneakers or learned to correctly pronounce the word "vanilla". And yet, I quickly began to realize that other adults would completely discredit whatever children said based on the fact that we were, in fact, just children. I looked forward to the day I was 18 and  people would magically begin to listen to what I had to say without following it up with a "Did you hear what Vanessa said? That's so cute." 

My first engineering job was actually in high school, because I found another person who had faith in my work even though I had barely just gotten my driver's license. I had my own project, my own goals, and my own equipment, without the coffee-getting and copy-making that is normally associated with a high school job. My boss taught me how to dress, speak, and act like a professional instead of some ditsy teenage girl, and as people heard what I had to say, I noticed they slowly began to listen. The more people saw the work I produced, the more they ignored the fact that I had to go back to high school on Monday morning. To be honest, in the years I spent there I did more real "engineering" than I did subsequently.

I think this is what other people saw when I walked in the room
My 18th birthday came and went, and noticed that the bar for being taken seriously had moved up a few years. As I stacked on more accolades and years of experience, I got used to the fact that people would always either be surprised about my age (if they had seen my resume first), or not believe my experience (if they had seen me first). Eventually, I learned these two opposing perceptions of me would come to equilibrium because I worked hard and I earned people's respect when they saw what I could accomplish. But after almost a decade of having to constantly prove myself to doubters, I always thought there would be a time where I don't have to spend my first six months proving that I have some baseline competence. 

Fast forward to today, where I am well into my twenties, and in a required training class with other new hire engineers. I'm almost a decade younger than the next youngest person in the class, but have the second most years of experience in the industry.

One of the oldest men made a blanket statement of, "Yeah there are a lot of people here with very little experience before they got hired, like Vanessa." I turned to look at him, questioningly. "Well, this is your first job out of college, right?" he continued. 

"No..." I responded, a bit annoyed since we had introduced ourselves with our previous experience earlier that day. He either had the world's worst memory or was choosing to disregard what I had said. 

"Well, I mean you just came from that other thing, but it was just a co-op position."

"No, it was a job."

"Oh, so like an internship?" he smiled, as if he had caught me in a lie. 

"No, it was a job."

"But this is like, your first engineering job, right?"

"Nope, and it's not my second engineering job either..." My computer pinged, and one of the other guys in my class had just walked into the room and had IM-ed me 'Vanessa, be nice'. He's right, don't let this guy make you act unprofessionally, I told myself. 

"But you didn't do actual engineering before now, right?"

"I have been actually engineering things for almost ten years now," I said, being careful to control my tone so I didn't show my annoyance. 

"Well, okay then," he chuckled, turning away, and starting into some new conversation. 

While this particular experience is clear in my mind due to its recent occurrence, it's anything but rare and yet I'm still never sure how I should respond. Should I keep copies of my resume stamped by a notary? Should I have them Google me so they know I'm not full of shit? Should I just laugh it off and let them think that I'm an incompetent young fool who was accidentally given a job she didn't earn?

I know that my other young female overachiever friends often report similar experiences to me. And, while I presume some young male overachievers experience the same thing, I've never witnessed it, and my friends have not admitted such experiences to me. As a result, I'm unsure how much of this has to do with being young, and how much has to do with being a young woman. But either way, I don't see a clear way to tackle this systemic issue more than one experience at a time, except by rising above it myself. 

In a lot of ways, it's these experiences that drive me to be the exception to the rule, like my first boss. To listen to what people have to say regardless of whether they are 5 or 30 or 63 or 92. To judge people based on their potential and their accomplishments. To take everyone seriously from the moment you meet them, and base your opinions on facts and not assumptions. If we can each try to do these things ourselves, then perhaps it will start to dwindle as a problem overall.



Monday, January 5, 2015

Why Being A Female Engineer is Awesome: Part 2

It may be 2015, but a lot of people still don't think that women should be (or are) engineers. But in reality, there are many female engineers, and it's a pretty fantastic career to have. So, I'm working on slowly compiling a list of (somewhat silly) reasons why it's actually awesome to be a female engineer. Check out Part 1 of this series if you haven't seen it yet!

Why Being a Female Engineer is Awesome: Part 2

Because An Engineer Is Basically A Superhero(ine)

No matter what discipline, engineering at its core is the study of problem solving. Just like the Xavier Institute taught X-Men how to control their powers, engineering school teaches you how to harness your math and science and reasoning skills to create efficient solutions to problems that plague people every day.

When you look around yourself, you may be surprised at how many engineers helped create the things around you. Obviously the computer, tablet, phone, or other device you are using to read this was created with the help of hundreds of engineers. We all know what computers do, and how they've changed our world.

So let's look at a simpler case, the light bulb. Sure, it was "invented" a long time ago, but there are still hundreds of engineers working on developing new light bulbs that can do everything from save people money to mimic sunlight in order to make people happier, more productive, and less tired than the light bulbs we had just a few years ago. As a result, a small change like a better light bulb could mean that a struggling single mother has a few more dollars to help make ends meet at the end of the year, or that people are less grumpy during the work day and more content with their lives. And, engineers helped make that happen.

And even more basic, thousands of engineers devote their careers to creating electricity so that you can turn on the light bulbs, computers, phones, and tablets you take for granted. And so that doctors can power tools (also created with the help of engineers) that can see past human flesh and find the cause of ailments without drawing a drop of blood. Try and tell me that isn't just as great as when Superman flew so fast he reversed time.

But even things without a plug are made with the help of engineers. There are the sneakers you wear, whose materials are engineered for durability, performance, and comfort. And the windows you gaze out longingly may be engineered to shatter in a way to prevent you from getting injured, or to not let off poisonous fumes in case of a fire. The water you drink has been purified by a system designed and maintained by engineers (unless you happen to live in a remote area with super clean springs where you slake your thirst each morning with Bambi and Thumper).  Even the makeup you wear has a team of engineers and scientists working to perfect it.

I could go on and on, but pretty much everywhere I look- I see something that has been carefully designed by an engineer. And each one of these things makes my life just a little bit nicer. Some women have told me that they didn't choose engineering because they wanted to be in a profession where they could help people, but I truly believe that engineers help people (although often total strangers) every day.

But this just describes why it is awesome to be an engineer, not a female engineer. If I'm being completely honest (which you know I love to be), I believe that a lot of society is built around the idea that women are dependent creatures who need others to solve their problems. In the movies, you always see superheros rescue beautiful women from their problems. And while on the worst of days the idea of having someone fly in and punch all your demons in the face can be quite tempting, the idea of getting to swoop in and save the day yourself is tempting even on the best of days.

As a female engineer, I've haven't only learned how to solve difficult math problems under pressure. Through my experience creating new systems I've discovered that I can at least try to fix any problem that comes my way from broken pipes, to car trouble, to computer problems. I know it sounds trivial to many other women in our profession (of course you can fix anything you set your mind to). But from what I can see, even in our "modern society" the number of women who feel they can't fix the most minor household issue is almost equivalent to the number of men who "can't cook". You'd be surprised how many times my girlfriends have asked for help hanging pictures, fixing squeaky doors, or doing other things that I or the men they ask for help are not particularly qualified to do.

While there is no harm interacting with other people and working as a team, finding your own independence is essential. Between learning that you are capable of fixing complex problems, and getting the bi-weekly paycheck to cover all of your living expenses- engineering is a career that provides complete independence. As an engineer you can not just be a superhero, you can be your own superhero. And from that perspective, it is a pretty awesome job to have.



PS. Why do YOU love being an engineer?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Cars are to Gasoline as Engineers are to... Coffee?

Scene: It was a typical day at the office, 11 am. Sunlight peeked over my grey cube walls, bringing a light touch to the typical harsh florescent environment. I was mid-project and I was in the zone. My fingers were flying across the keyboard documenting new system requirements. I reached for my mug, and took a sip... only to realize that it was empty. It was my third cup of the day. That couldn't be good for me.

I didn't feel like I was addicted to caffeine because I could go days without it, but in the office I would always find myself at the coffee pot as I was deep in thought. I wasn't sure how this had happened, in high school I thought that coffee tasted like mud.

But as a freshman engineering student at a hard-core school, I was often still at school studying when the clock struck four in the morning. The tiredness was overwhelming, and the rest of my study group was chugging free coffee like it was already tomorrow. Between the sweet seduction of caffeine to make up for my lack of sleep and the irresistible nature of free things to a college student, I eventually caved. I began to drink coffee just to survive all nighters, when I was too tired to even process how much I hated the taste.

After I had gotten over the mud-like taste I started to drink it when I had to stay up late, when I needed to focus, when I got up earlier than I wanted to, and even when I was just meeting friends at coffee shops. Coffee became embedded into my every day activities, and like most young engineers I've met was intertwined with my social life. Sound familiar? It's a common story for a lot of us.

And that's how I ended up here as a professional, on my third cup of coffee by 11 am. While I don't  think I was ever physically addicted to caffeine, I also knew that the volume of coffee I was drinking couldn't be healthy. And part of me just didn't like the fact that something I had despised not so long ago had become such an expected part of my day to day life.

So, like any good engineer, I did some research about caffeine detoxes. There is surprisingly little information about this considering the prevalence of caffeine consumption in our society. Apparently while "long-term caffeine use can lead to mild physical dependence", "true compulsive use of caffeine has not been documented" (Malenka RC, Nestler EJ, Hyman SE (2009). "Chapter 15: Reinforcement and Addictive Disorders". In Sydor A, Brown RY. Molecular Neuropharmacology: A Foundation for Clinical Neuroscience (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Medical. p. 375. ISBN 9780071481274). I find that hard to believe considering the number of people in my office gulping coffee like air. Maybe they just need to do a study in an engineering firm.

I'm not claiming here that my propensity towards drinking coffee is anywhere as bad as any "real addiction" that people suffer, but I do find it curious that even in an environment where I am regularly drug tested that it is socially acceptable for me to be at all dependent on any particular substance (other than water and air). At the same time, it makes me wonder why it's socially acceptable for us to have jobs that can be so intense that they are difficult to perform without a caffeine kick to push us through.

Engineers often work long hours with a high amount of mental (and sometimes physical) energy and focus required the entire time. College teaches us that Awakeness = Hours of Sleep + Grams of Caffeine, and real life teaches us that power naps on the job are socially unacceptable. So whether it is a placebo effect or a legitimate solution, when I've worked on the same calculation for four hours without a break and my mind feels like it's turning to mush I reach for coffee. Part of me worries that if I don't have that extra kick of focus, that my work will suffer. The other part of me worries that I (and the others around me) are constantly performing these herculean mental tasks, and that eventually there won't be enough coffee in the world to push us though. And somehow, we (and our respective managements) often don't recognize the increased coffee consumption as a red flag of employees who are overworked, but it's often just an accepted part of our day to day life.

Pumpkin spice lattes could push anyone over the edge
I'm not saying that any one calculation, or design, or problem itself is impossible. I'm saying that the cumulative effect can be exhausting. This is especially true if you have a sales department who promises that you'll walk to the moon by next week, or if you have other external deadlines piling up around you. And, I'm saying that I think that other forms of regaining focus (like taking a walk, or talking to your cube neighbors about nonsense from time to time) can look like laziness to managers (especially those without engineering experience who don't understand why you can't spend every minute making progress on deadlines).

What do you think? Are you and/or your coworkers hooked on coffee? Is that a problem?



Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Holidays!

Wishing all of you and your families a happy and safe holiday season (and a well deserved break from school and/or work)!

I know this time of year can be great, but it can also be very hard. If you happen to be having one of those harder holiday seasons (difficult family, couldn't get off of work, living in a new place without any good friends yet, etc.), know that it's just a few days and things will get better soon. But in the meantime, here's a British guy to show you some Christmas science!

We'll be back with posts next Monday!


Vanessa & Ruby

Monday, December 8, 2014

Nerdy Christmas Gifts

How frustrating is it when every time you search for "gift ideas for nerdy girls" or "gift ideas for the college student" you end up finding a bunch of electronics or something useful that has been made nearly useless by making it into a Doctor Who Tardis shape or a Minecraft Creeper form? When we am looking for cute nerdy gifts for our girl friends, we want something that has a subtle hint of nerd, not a blaring neon sign saying "NERD ALERT HERE." We're proud of our nerdy heritage, but we still want to be both functional and fashionable.

To help you solve this problem, we (Ruby and Vanessa) created a list of gift ideas for your nerdy girl friends. We aren't getting any sponsorship out of this (even though this seems like a giant Etsy add). Mostly this is a list of things we found to be awesome and would secretly like one of our friends to find, be influenced by, and buy for us this holiday season. *hint hint*  If you don't like Pinterest, then you should probably just come back next Monday when we write something more substantial and aren't just posting links and photos.


Jewelry is a simple gift, but getting something that re-purposes electronics and other engineering things makes it unique and more thoughtful than your standard pair of cubic zirconium studs. It's only secretly nerdy, because most "regular people" don't even recognize this stuff as being related to engineering.
Geekery Heart Necklace - Circuit Board Heart Jewelry - Steampunk Industrial Jewelry - Nerdy Geek Love
This necklace is geeky, but totally wearable. It's $31 on Etsy.  

This necklace is handmade, and can be found on Etsy for $20
If your scientist/engineer is not really into electronics, you could try this cool solar system necklace (which is being sported by the Chief Scientist at NASA so you know it's out of this world)...
This solar system necklace was worn by the Chief of Science at Nasa! It is $400 though, so perhaps out of the average price range.
Maybe that engineer likes cool materials, which would make this glow in the dark necklace a pretty sweet gift.
It's $31.95 on Etsy.

Or you can always go the superhero route. Here is an example of a superhero piece that isn't too bling-y or blaringly obvious.

This Wonder Woman necklace is $49 on Etsy

Other Wearable Things

This T-Shirt comes in all sorts of colors and sizes and cuts, and is $28. 

And while we're still talking about clothes, what about the batman apron. It's not subtle, I grant you. But it is both nerdy and practical if you have a nerdy friend who likes to cook. Or in Ruby's case, if you're a nerdy girl who likes to bake and bake and bake. It also has the added benefit of supporting your friend's habit of feeding all of her friends tons of sugary treats. This means that she (and you since you know her secret) can look good next to them in all the holiday pictures this season. 

Note, these aprons also come in other superhero options like Captain America, Iron man, and others.  

Christmas Tree/Hannukah Bush Ornaments

Einstein Ornament $12.50
Darth Vader Ornament $27

Odds 'N Ends

Okay, I straight up give up on trying to even categorize these things. 
I didn't even know coffee stencils were a thing, but these are $24 for a set of 3
Tap into her creative side with this cool 3D pen. It combines some interesting science (electronics, materials science, even structural stuff), with out of the box thinking and is just all together cool.

Or if your nerdy friend is in the car a lot for commuting to and from her off-site plants, conferences, and meetings, an audiobook can be a practical and thoughtful gift. Plus, something as amusing as "Confessions of a D-List Supervillain" is going to have her considering becoming a super villain herself and joining the dark side of the force.

You can get this from amazon here!

No matter what you get or give this holiday season, we here at Pocket Protector and Heels wish you all a very happy holidays!


Vanessa and Ruby

PS. What "nerdy" things are you hoping for this holiday season?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Company Holiday Parties

It's that time of year... Companies all over are having holiday parties. Whether they are for Christmas, New Years, or generic "holiday", 'tis the season for people getting drunk in front of their boss and regret it for the rest of the year.

So here as our gift to you this holiday season, Ruby and I have compiled some advice on company parties.

  • Always wear something at least as nice as you wear to work. If your company is business casual, do not wear jeans. Company parties are often where management sees how well people can socialize, and determines if somebody can be promoted. If you are wearing a ripped t-shirt and stinky sneakers, you don't really seem like "management material". If you bring a +1, make sure he or she is also dressed appropriately. 
  • How many drinks do you normally have when you go out to dinner? Subtract one, and this is how much you should drink at your party. You don't want to be the drunken mess everyone talks about for the next year.
  • Always be gracious and cheerful. If you're bitter about how little time you get off for the holidays, forget about it for the duration of the party. If you're bitter about your raise, forget about it. If your bitter about your holiday bonus (or lack thereof), forget about it.  If you're bitter about your workload, forget about it. If you're bitter about your seating arrangement, forget about it. If you're bitter that your Secret Santa got you a snuggie, forget about it. Rise above, and be cheerful because nobody likes a Grinch, especially during the holidays.
  • Avoid gossipy conversations. Especially in party atmospheres where everyone is mingling, the chances of you being overheard while you make fun of your manager are dangerously high. So keep your comments about your boss's ill fitting suit to yourself.
  • Keep everything PG. Remember that even though you are in a social setting you are still essentially at work, so now this is not the time for dirty jokes or politics.
  • If you are invited to bring a +1, make sure you only bring someone who will represent you professionally. In other words, it's better to go alone than to bring some guy you met at a bar last week or a roommate who is on the rebound (and likely to hit on your coworkers).
  • Use this as an opportunity to network. Company holiday parties are one of the only times that people from multiple departments and varying levels of standing come together. Brush up on your small talk and try to talk to some people you don't know, and take it as an opportunity to get face time with your superiors.
  • Be thankful, where appropriate. A lot of times management pays for these socials out of their own pocket. Even if it isn't a legendary party it's the thought that counts and nobody likes being taken for granted.

Have a happy holidays!

Vanessa & Ruby

Monday, November 24, 2014

Why You Should Date a Female Engineer

For whatever reason, this is one of the top questions people ask Google that lead to this blog. So, curious people of the internet, I will give you a <sarcasm> totally unbiased </sarcasm> answer to your question.

  1. She's too busy to be clingy. Engineers can work some pretty ridiculous hours, so you can't expect her to be sitting around waiting for your text.
  2. Years of working with socially inept people makes her forgiving of your social faux pas. You'd have to be super awkward in order to make her feel weird. Your bad self can probably still get away with sandals and socks on occasion.
  3. She's trained to consider facts over emotional responses. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn't mean she is dead inside. 
  4. If you are a technical person, she's interested in what you did at work today. No more eyes glazing over, she understands what you did and can ask you questions to show she was actually listening. 
  5. She knows how to be one of the guys. She won't embarrass you in front of your boys because she knows how to blend into a group of dudes. 
  6. She can apply a deep understanding of physics, biology, and chemistry to your relationship. Yup. I went there. 
  7. She likes nerdy movies just as much as you do. She won't judge how much you like the Avengers or X-Men, because she loves them too. 
  8. She's good under pressure. If anything in your relationship is more stressful than her job, then you are doing something wrong. 
  9. She will support you in your endeavors to make your own sandwich. And you should really acquire this life skill and not expect a woman to do it for you. As they say, give a man a sandwich feed him for lunch. Teach a man to make a sandwich, do more useful things with your engineering degree. 
  10. She won't call you to fix things around the house. She can fix them herself, thank you very much. Unless it's a gross bug, or a dead animal. Then all the rules go out the window; they don't teach that stuff in thermo.
  11. She is a pro at building a solid foundation to any relationship, and knows how to make sparks fly. Yeah, I'm not sure what this one ever is supposed to mean. It's 100% here for a reach pun. I hope you enjoyed it.
  12. She will laugh at your lame puns. See the number 11.
  13. She's low maintenance. She's learned to sacrifice wearing fashionable dresses and stiletto heels for coveralls and steel toed boots in the name of practicality
  14. If you have a problem, she'll fix it. Engineers are problem solvers, and we are trained to fix problems instead of just feeling sorry about it.
  15. She's not desperate. She knows plenty of guys, so she won't shack up with just anyone.
Really, why should a female engineer date you?
If you couldn't tell, this list is a joke.  While female engineers are a smaller group than most, there is still a wide range of personalities involved. So, not everyone fits inside the box of what you may think of as a stereotypical female engineer.  There is about as much reason to date a female engineer as there is to date a scuba diver, or a waitress, or a teacher, or anyone else. A woman's (or a man's) chosen profession is only a piece of the story of who she (or he) is, and shouldn't be a deciding factor in whether or not you date her (or him).



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