Monday, October 20, 2014

Gender in the Contracting World

Everyone in the contracting world knows that a large portion of business is done outside of the office. Whether it is on the golf course, in a bar over drinks, at dinner, or one of countless other ways, a lot of getting and keeping big clients is about forging personal relationships. People are more likely to hire somebody they feel like they know and trust than some random stranger. So when two men go out for drinks or dinner, it is just good business. But when a young single woman goes out with a man for drinks or dinner... What exactly is that?

The first few times a client asked me if I wanted to go out for dinner and drinks just the two of us, I made up excuses not to go. I didn't want to end up accidentally on a date, and something about going out with a strange (sometimes married) man seemed like I would be targeted as a girl who was "asking for it" even if I had completely genuine intentions. I considered asking my management or HR for advice, but I felt like it made me sound presumptuous and I was too embarrassed to ask. Plus everyone in management and HR was male, so would they really understand? Instead, I just avoided the situations all together. But as time went on (and after many lengthy philosophical discussions with my friends in similar industries), I realized I was screwing myself out of opportunities by discriminating against myself because of my own gender.

I began to ask myself, "Would this be inappropriate if I was a man?" and unless the question involved the men's bathroom, if it was appropriate for a man I decided it was appropriate for me. So I started to accept offers for business dinners, drinks, and other outings, even if it was just me and a guy (although if I knew he was married, I usually casually suggested bringing his wife). I was careful to draw a line for myself by reverse engineering all the typical signs that "she is totally into you" to make sure that my intentions were always extremely clear: no physical contact at all, don't touch my hair, don't talk about my relationships, use a napkin instead of absent-mindedly licking my lips (especially if we were out getting wings and beer), keep your distance from him where possible, and be careful about how you tease them. Even when walking on eggshells, there was still always the chance that something I did would be taken the wrong way.

I realize that it's kind of ridiculous that I went to these great lengths when in a perfect world I should have just been able to be myself. And I realize that if my list of requirements for a woman's behavior at a business dinner was handed out that a lot of people would be all over how anti-feminist it was. But the truth is that if things got weird, I'm the one who would suffer the most. If things got weird my clients would be more likely to drop my contracting firm, which in turn would make it look like I wasn't doing a good job. On their end, they could just fill my place with one many other contractors, and there would be essentially no change. Maybe that's not how it should be, but that is how it was.

Even when I was very careful, sometimes I would find myself slipping into situations where I felt out of control. Like the time a client asked me if I wanted to spend the weekend at his cabin. Or the time a different client invited me to stay over to his house at 10 pm when I was in a nearby hotel. Or the time a client was insisting that he come hang out in my hotel late on a weeknight. If the line wasn't at dinner and drinks, than where was the line? On one hand it still murkily passed the "would this be weird if I was man" test (they might really just want to hang out). But in the context of the specific relationship those still just sounded like trouble and I would decline or figure out a way to bring another coworker or client along. 

Even if there is nothing but a completely professional relationship where both of you are extremely clear on the boundaries, there is always the question of "what does everyone else think"? Once I had forged strong professional relationships with clients, my bosses and coworkers used to note that it was odd that many of my clients would call me directly regarding projects that weren't even mine. My coworkers were especially vocal about teasing me for ridiculous reasons why they hadn't been called first like:

"Joe just wants to talk to you because he wants to hear the voice of a woman."  No, he just knows me and trusts that I will solve the problem. 

"Joe and Vanessa went out on a romantic dinner last night, he's just calling to follow up." No, we grabbed burgers after working a 14 hour day. 

"Joe's totally in love with Vanessa." No. No. No. No. No. 

On one hand, there was no real measurable impact of these comments and jokes. My clients loved me (but weren't in love with me), and my coworkers didn't control the business I got. On the other hand, I felt like comments about me winning business because by being a femme fatale (which was ridiculous) instead of an engineer who happened to be awesome at networking would slowly chip away at my reputation. As my friend Ruby has pointed out to me, people only make jokes that they believe are true on some level. And can you imagine these comments being made to a man in my position? 

My point is that for women (especially single women) in a heavily male dominated contracting world, you are kind of damned if you do and damned if you don't. Our business relationships are often tainted with some level of weirdness, whether it is perceived by us or outsiders, that doesn't impact single gender relationships. It's treated as a weirder occurrence than married guys going to a strip club on their lunch breaks. It seems the only way to try to avoid the weirdness is by installing a glass ceiling above your own head as a barrier, and even that doesn't always work. It's one of the reasons I left contracting, and have moved to the other side of the table where there is no way I can be accused of whoring myself out for engineering work.

While I am much happier on this side of the table, I still wonder if there is any way to fix the Catch-22 situation where female contractors are currently stuck. And I know most engineers have never even considered it, or realize how bad it can be. 

What are your thoughts? Have any of the male readers ever felt the same weirdness as contractors?



Monday, October 13, 2014

The way-too-optimistic blog post filled with sugar and sunshine

A year and a half ago, I was unhappy with my life. I was unfulfilled by work, didn't like my boss, and was very lonely at home. I went from sitting alone in a cubicle to watching TV at home alone every day. Then, a miracle happened: someone within my company approached me and offered me a new position in another department. Not only did it get me out of my old, depressing role and department, but it was actually in an area of engineering/science that I was interested in. I was ecstatic and jumped at the opportunity.

Switching departments was a tough transition and working in my new department required a TON of overtime to keep up with the new demands and with all the learning I had to do to catch up. But, I had coworkers to talk to instead of living in isolation. Plus I found the work to be not just better than before, but actually and truly enjoyable.

Fast forward to a year and a half later, and I've become a star. I've had meetings where I've gotten so much praise that I literally don't know what to say? What do you say when your boss' boss' boss tells you that you've made a priceless contribution to the advancement of this department and to the science in the field? What do you say when they won't accept your "thank you" because they believe they should be thanking you? I am totally willing to acknowledge that this sounds like I'm ungrateful and am complaining about a good thing. But really - what the hell do you say to that when you aren't allowed to say "thank you"?

Let's just suffice it to say that I'm appreciated at work, get what I want when I ask for it, like what I do, and have a somewhat flexible schedule. Some might say that I have it good. Coming from my first job in the company, I'd have to agree. I'd even raise that to saying that pretty freaking fantastic job. So when I was approached last week unofficially about a position in another department, I didn't jump on it. In fact, I was hesitant despite the fact that I was offered a promotion, which would mean I would get a second promotion only one year after my last promotion. I was hesitant despite the fact that I was offered a position in the group that does the work that I eventually want to do. I was hesitant despite the fact that I would get more freedom and visibility across departments.

What I'm saying is that I was offered a pretty good new job and I made an argument against it because I realized that my job is nearly perfect for my needs right now and is fulfilling both in terms of work projects and in terms of work-life balance.

This is just my long-winded way of saying that I didn't realize how happy I was with my current job until I had this offer come and slap me in the face with my happiness. I didn't realize how happy I was until I was forced to reflect on it. And I realize now that I was right in recognizing my unhappiness in my past job, recognizing what would make me happy, and taking the opportunity when it came to me. Yes, part of it is luck. But part of achieving happiness is taking a moment to reflect on what you need, what you want to avoid, and where you want to go in the future. For now, my current job is taking me on the path to the future I want and at the same time is keeping me fulfilled in the present. Keep an eye out for what can get you both those things, and you'll be happy, too.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Scary Cool Science Projects

October means it's almost Halloween. Which means there is an excuse to embrace your inner mad scientist and make some creepy, crawly, sticky, oozing masterpieces. One of the first ways I got involved in engineering was actually tricking out my house as a kid with special effects to scare unsuspecting trick-or-treaters.

So here are a few fun little projects for you (the kids are totally optional):

Oobleck (a classic)

At Halloween,  a good back story for this (because every good halloween tale starts with a scary story) is that you have found a special material that defies worldy laws of material.

Set the stage by letting your subject put their hand in a bowl of water. Note how the water reacts as a fluid. How motion is permitted no matter the speed. Now have the subject put their hand on a table. This is a solid (obviously)  and note how no matter how fast or slow or how hard or soft you push, the table provides equal and opposite force keeping your hand still. It seems silly to go over these obvious actions, but this understanding is crucial to showing why Oobleck is so unusual (it's a non-newtonian fluid).

Make Oobleck with this recipe (if you are working with a kid,  let them measure out everything and put it together with your instruction).

I suggest using some green or red food coloring.  Once you have the oobleck, remember what you previously determined about solids and liquids, and then explore the behavior of your new alien creation.

Send Letters With Disappearing Ink

Ruby suggests two possible scary set-ups for this project: leaving secret wolf paw prints, or writing letters to Halloween ghosts.You can order disappearing ink online, or make it using these instructions or these other instructions. Make sure to discuss the chemistry behind what is happening, and how it might impact other things in the world around you. Ask them to come up with ideas of when they might want or need to use something like disappearing ink.

Dry Ice Fog and Fun 

Make sure to use proper safety precautions when handling dry ice, and communicate these precautions to any kids involved. Dry ice and hot water can make a cool, creepy fog. Try using these instructions for a basic dry ice fog. 

If you want to step up your dry ice game, Steve Spangler has some great ideas for cool experiments with dry ice. The following video is an example of some of his ideas, no copyright infringement is intended. 

Yes, all of this is fun to play with, but it is also really interesting science. Talk to the engineer-in-training about different forms of matter. A great example to discuss is water. The solid form is ice, the liquid form is water, and the gas form is steam. When H2O changes from an ice cube, it melts to water before it becomes steam. Dry ice experiments are a great example of sublimation, where matter is able to change directly from solid to gas forms. Here is some more scientific information about dry ice if you want to know more.

Electronic Special Effects

If you are looking for an electronics project, this website has some instructions on how to make a rustling leave special effect to spook some of your trick-or-treaters. Be sure to use proper precautions when using soldering irons, or just use a breadboard instead. If you don't want to go through the whole process of making your own special effect, get one of those tacky (read: awesome) animatronic Halloween decorations and take it apart. Figure out what the different parts do, and why they work. Does it use a light sensor? What does the sensor look like? How does the animatronic make sound? How does it move?

Whatever projects or experiments you decide to try, encourage kids to ask "why", and "how" all of these experiments work. If you don't know the answer (or even if you do) go to a computer or a library or a text book, and help them learn how to look up the answer. Perhaps the most helpful part of experiments is teaching them how to question the world around them. It's that questioning attitude that is the foundation of a great engineer or scientist. 



PS. What are your favorite ideas for creepy science experiments and projects?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Questions to Ask Before Accepting a Job

So you've already owned at a career fair, had your interview, showed off your engineering prowess, asked good questions during your interview, and you secured a job offer. First of all, congratulations! Secondly now is a good time to ask some harder questions, and clarify what your life would be like at the job you are considering. Obviously, you should also be working on negotiating salary and benefits at this point in time, but learning about the work environment, job expectations, etc. is also important at this stage. Some of these questions are less important for internships than for full time positions, since sometimes bad work environments for a short period of time just make for entertaining stories later. So here are some questions my friends and I wished we'd asked before accepting job offers.

What are the facilities like? The environment in which you work can have a massive impact on your experience at your job. Some jobs have you in the field working with or around dangerous equipment with only porta-potties nearby, and others are working in cubicles in shiny office buildings with glass walls. If you are interviewing on site, then this may be self evident. Otherwise, if you have any doubt about your work environment and one of the possibilities is unacceptable to you, ask a specific question to get clarity.

Some people aren't cut out for "roughing it"
What are the core working hours? Some companies require that you be in at a specific time in the morning, others only require a certain number hours of a week. If you cannot function before noon or after 3 pm, this may be a particularly important question.

How much overtime do employees work on average? How much overtime is expected? A lot of jobs end up requiring "unexpected" overtime regularly. The two questions may provide slightly different answers and can help you ascertain if you can maintain the work/life balance you want, and if working 40 hours a week will make you a below average employee.

Is the position exempt or non-exempt? AKA are you paid for your overtime? If not, are there performance bonuses? A lot of times engineers work endless hours and feel like they are taken advantage of. If there isn't a financial award system for people who work longer and harder hours, then there is a good chance there are also a number of dissatisfied employees.

What is the n year attrition rate? Pick a number N that is acceptable to you. I'm partial to 2 years- because many people in the younger generation are only willing to stay 2 years at a job they don't like. This question is important to save until after you've been offered a job, since it may hit too close to home for certain companies.

Am I expected to be on call? How often? This is another requirement that people often find out after starting a job. Some manufacturing, utility, and other engineering jobs require employees to be on call like doctors. That means no drinking and no travelling when you are on call- and the potential to be interrupted from everything from a hot date to a good nights rest. It also means you may not be guaranteed to have regular holidays.

With these questions out of the way and information about salary and benefits, you'll hopefully have all the information you need to decide if you want to take the job or not.



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Monday, September 22, 2014

How to Find A Mentor

The other day I was telling my friends a story that an old mentor told me, and I realized me saying "my mentor" was about as specific as Henry VIII of England saying "my ex-wife". Even though I learned all sorts of theories in school, the moment I stepped foot into a real office I needed somebody to show me the ropes and teach me how to actually do what I had practiced so many times in theory. Many work environments have assigned mentors or particularly helpful people who will watch out for you. But if they don't, finding a mentor can be a scary proposition.

Here's some tips I've learned over the years about finding mentors:

No "Define The Relationship" talk is required. Before I started full time work, I read a lot of books which suggested walking into someones office and asking if they would be your mentor. A mentor and mentee relationship doesn't have to be a formalized process involving three letters of recommendation, weekly progress reports, and regular meetings. In my mind, a mentor is just somebody who you can count on to provide guidance. In engineering, I've noticed a lot of experienced people can be intimidated by the idea of having a formalized mentoring relationship because of the time commitment required. By just casually asking questions when you need help, you get to avoid an awkward conversation and most people are more than happy to spare a few minutes here and there to help you.

Nobody wants to deal with this awkward moment

Have multiple mentors. In most environments, everyone has something different at which they excel. Each mentor you have can offer a different perspective on your work and your career, and splitting the work of mentoring makes your personal improvement less of a burden on the mentors themselves. You don't have one professor in college, so why learn exclusively from one person after you graduate? Identify what you want to improve about yourself, and find someone (or multiple people!) to help you do that.

Don't limit yourself by your job description. Sometimes the mentor that you need for a specific task is not in your department. Sometimes they are not even an engineer. For example, I've learned a lot from the union workers and technicians about how parts actually function in the real world (not just on paper), and I've learned from administrative assistants how I can fast track processes.

Communicate your questions clearly. If you are worried about seeming incompetent for a question you need to ask, pretending you know what you are doing could lead to disaster. You can always ask questions by saying "I understand that *basic information about how the system works*, but I was wondering if you know how *specific question*". By stating what you know as part of the question it both gives relevant background and shows that you are competent.

Ask your own questions. While asking questions is not a bad thing, being the funnel for answers is not a great thing either. When you are new somebody asks you a question you can't answer, give them the information to try to ask the question themselves.

Thank mentors for their time. It's common sense, but when people take time out of their day to help you succeed, make sure you at least say "thank you".

Mentor somebody else. If you expect for other people to help you, remember to give back to the circle of mentoring by helping someone else out. That can mean helping other people learn something you do well, even if they are generally considered more experienced than you. For example, I taught one of my technical mentors how to write basic scripts in Excel.

Mentors are not always right. Getting mentored is great, accepting facts without questioning and understanding them is not. Like all human beings, even mentors can be wrong. So make sure you think about the advice critically.



Monday, September 15, 2014

Moving and Making New Friends

When I talk to my friends who have moved to do awesome things around the world, there is one theme that transcends different culture, environments, and industries... everyone feels like they have a hard time finding new good friends. It's something I call the "reverse empty nester syndrome". When people finally grow up and leave the security of home and school, they find themselves excited about their future but very lonely in a strange new world.

In school, making friends is relatively easy. You sit down next to somebody in class, introduce yourself, and you immediately have a ton in common (the class, the school, mutual friends, etc). For seventeen years (give or take for various degrees) you essentially make friends professionally. But as soon as you move the tassel to the left side of your cap, making friends is suddenly a complex game. What's worse is that when you still Skype, SnapChat, Gchat, Facebook message, tweet, iMessage, text, and call your old friends, you often can barely find time to make new ones.

Cue you eating delivery pizza and drinking wine in an apartment filled with unpacked boxes watching reruns of TV shows on Netflix. And then telling your friends who are hundreds of miles away about it on Skype, SnapChat, Gchat, Facebook, and Twitter. Sound familiar?

While a night in can be great and old friends are "gold" (according to Girl Scout campfire songs), making new friends is an important part of starting your new life somewhere. Starting fresh can be difficult, but it is also a great opportunity to reinvent yourself. Life isn't about wallowing in sadness, so take ownership of your move and try a few of the following ways to meet new friends.

Sit With People in the Lunchroom

If you have a lunchroom at work, take it upon yourself to find an empty seat and introduce yourself to some new people. Sitting at a new table can be oddly scary, but it is a great way to get to actually talk to people at work. You will definitely not make new friends by sitting alone at your desk, so what have you got to lose?

Go to a Meetup

Meetup is a great way to find people nearby who are looking to do things with new friends. If you are worried about safety, go to ones organized in public locations. In bigger cities, you can find people who have specific similar interests. In smaller towns... you can find people!

Try Volunteering

Try doing something good for your new community, and meeting nice people at the same time! If you don't have a charity with which you have a particularly strong connection, check out VolunteerMatch to find new opportunities.

Those were supposed to be hairnets, but they came out looking more like colonial garb.  Again, I never said I was an artist. 

Find a Cultural/Religious Organization

If you identify with a specific culture or religion, try to find a branch nearby. These can be easy ready built communities.

Take a Class

Make new friends while you broaden your horizons and learn a new skill. I'm partial to taking art, exercise or language classes since they are so different from my profession. These are offered at colleges, community centers, gyms, art galleries, etc. Poke around and see what fits you best!

Join a Professional Organization

Build a strong network and meet new people in your area be joining and becoming involved with a professional organization. If you somehow made it through college without being inducted into any professional societies, SWE, ASME, IEEE, ASCE, AIChE, MRS, or whatever other organization that is related to your field are all great options.

However you decide to meet people, make sure to take the initiative to invite your new friends to hang out. Don't forget, making new friends is a process. Keep trying new things and you'll find yourself feeling at home in no time.



PS. What other suggestions do you have for how adults can make new friends after a big move?

Monday, September 8, 2014

The "G-Word"

As I was in the middle of checking a calculation at work today, my phone rang and when I picked it up a woman on the other end said, "Hey girl!"

Did she really just say "hey girl"? I paused, at a complete loss for how to respond. Thankfully, she quickly filled the silence with technical questions and it was back to normal work. But my momentary discomfort reminded me of an incident that had happened years earlier.

In college I was on the executive board of an organization for women in technology that provided a professional and personal support network. I loved the organization, and always looked forward to crafting funny and welcoming emails to go out to our members about the upcoming events we had planned.

One day, my adviser emailed me asking that I come to her office- and the tone sounded more serious than normal. I sat down tentatively, and she took in a deep breath.

"Vanessa, we need to talk about your use of the 'g-word'," she said very carefully.

"Excuse me?" I asked, completely confused.

"The 'g-word'. You've been using the word 'girl' a lot in your emails and I've been getting complaints from some of the members that it's offensive and demeaning. I know you wouldn't intend to offend anyone, but you should probably choose another word."

I was honestly pretty shocked; I hadn't intended to offend anyone. I just wanted to make it sound welcoming and fun.While 'girl' can refer to a child, it can also just refer to a young woman, or a woman of any age. When starting an email, "Hey women!" sounded too formal and awkward, "Hey ladies!" sounded too sassy, and "Hey gals!" sounded like we are from the 1950's. I mean, 'girls night out' isn't demeaning, it just sounds like fun. How else was I supposed to address a group of women? How could a word that I always associated with fun be offending people?

What place would ever advertise a "women's night out"? It just sounds wrong.
I followed my adviser's advice (because she seemed to always be right about these things, even if I couldn't explain it), but it wasn't until I graduated that I began to truly understand why anyone would find this word off putting.

The only time I heard the word 'girl' at work in the first couple of years was dripping in venom. Men who were annoyed with me (or the rare other woman) would say things like, "Tell that girl that I don't think I should have to do that" or "That girl is being unreasonable". The passive aggressive vendor I mentioned in the email blog post is the perfect example of the type of person who enjoyed using the g-word. It was almost like they had done a one for one word replacement with 'bitch', and thought they'd get away with it since 'girl' wasn't technically a bad word.

I suppose they could have used 'woman', 'lady', 'person', 'human', 'engineer', 'genius', or really any word, and you would have been able to hear the same poison and disgust in their tone. But the perpetrators always chose seemed to choose 'girl', perhaps because it had the bonus implication of being young, inexperienced, and immature. As a side note, I always found that ironic because I think that debasing yourself by insulting people at work is rather childish.

That's how I ended up today, answering a phone and feeling momentarily shocked and defensive at a word I used to associate with fun social events. For the first time I can remember in my professional career it was meant in a nice way, so my defensiveness was unnecessary. But I couldn't help but wonder how a seemingly benign word had become such a weapon in the workplace.

I know that there is a pretty awesome, similarly themed P&G commercial about reclaiming the phrase "like a girl", although it mostly has to do with performing physical activities "like a girl". I think it's important to take that one step further; being young woman has nothing to do with competence physically or intellectually. In the workplace, I have been told that the word 'girl' is never appropriate. Admittedly, when it is used by the older generations, it almost always seems to be used in the form of an insult. But perhaps by banning the word we are unintentionally admitting that being a young female is somehow a bad thing.

I am a girl, even though I am not a child. My gender and my age have nothing to do with the quality of my work. Maybe the solution isn't discouraging people from using the word "girl" altogether (and therefore giving it even more power when used negatively), but using it more often in a positive context reclaiming the word and removing the negative stereotypes. What do you think?