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, than 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).



Monday, November 17, 2014

How To Curb Your Spending

It's November, which means it's getting close to the holiday season (Thanksgiving included, of course)! It also means that in the next couple of months that you may see your bank account quickly dwindling from overpriced plane/bus/train tickets home, gifts for friends and family, decorations, a new outfit for your company Christmas party, and having to cook something fancier than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a house full of people. As a young working professional, this may be the first time you've actually had to chip in and pay your way through the holidays (instead of bumming off of your parents). So here are some tips from Ruby, Vanessa, and our friend Taylor on how we try to curb our spending so we can save up for something important, or just make it through January 1 without zeroing out our bank accounts.

#1 Taylor's trick:
Curb your spending by drafting a budget and sticking to it!

Always make sure you have a zero sum budget going, i.e. your expenses + savings = income. A budget helps you prioritize what you need versus what you want and keep to reasonable limits on a per-month basis. This goes for holiday gift shopping too! Instead of busting out my credit card, haphazardly spending come Black Friday, I plan early how much I want to spend for gifts and figure that into my budget. If that means I have to cut a few corners in December on other expenses like eating out or save up some extra money by working overtime or hustling at a side gig, that's fine. The worst thing for your wallet (and your sanity) is to not have a plan and, come January 1st, suffer from post-holiday debt. Womp womp.

#2 Vanessa's trick:
How many hours would I have to work to pay for this? 

When I'm deciding whether or not I am going to purchase something I don't absolutely need I try to think about whether I would be willing to barter for the object. If time is money, then it follows that money is time. I've already calculated my hourly wage (minus taxes), and I do a quick calculation to see how much time I'd have to work in order to pay for the object. Would I be willing to work two full hours if my boss handed me this pair of shoes instead of a check? Five hours for a dress I might wear once?

If I wouldn't be willing to work for it, I won't buy it.  Because regardless of if I have saved enough to afford a splurge buy, I did have to work a certain number of hours in order to make the money so I would still be essentially spending my time. I still buy things I don't need from time (new pots or pans, impractical shoes, artwork), but it's always something I feel like is worth my time.

#3 Ruby's trick:
Would I rather have this cute sweater or would I rather have an awesome house?

I am a bit of a homebody, so I know that one of the things that will help me to feel comfortable in life is having a place to carve out as my own. An apartment lifestyle doesn't cut it for me because I can't customize in the way that I want to. So as soon as I got a job, I planned my budget (see #3) to include my goal of saving up for a down payment on my own home. However, it can be hard to keep to that budget when you're faced to the day-to-day whims of wanting that fabulous and cheap new sweater at Target. I find it easiest to curb my impulse buys by simply asking myself: do I really want this sweater more than I want my house? The answer is usually no because your big savings goals are by nature a bigger deal that your smaller spending goals.

You can do this with any big financial goal, too. For example:
  • If your big goal is to get a flat screen TV, then you might ask: Would I rather get this DVD right now or would I rather save up for a nice, wall-mounted flat screen to watch it on? 
  • If your passion is combating world hunger: Would I rather get this cup of Starbucks or would I rather pursue one of my passions by donating $1000 to X charity this year? 
  • For those with college loans: Would I rather have this fancy crab dinner or would I rather be debt-free?
When I compare my short-term impulses to my long-term goals, it helps me to put my purchasing habits into perspective. I'm happy to go without the cute sweater because it means I will be happier in the long run when I get my safe, comfortable, awesome home.

With these tools in your arsenal, you should be able to make it to 2015 without breaking the bank. Do you use any other trick to try to keep yourself financially in line?


Vanessa and Ruby

PS. Like what we write? Share this post, comment, and subscribe using those handy widgets below! 
PPS. Don't forget to check out Taylor's blog for more tips on personal finance, social commentary, and so much more!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cleaning... Engineered.

This post doesn't have so much to do with being a female engineer, but more to do with being a female who wants to lead a clean, tidy, professional life.

We've already talked about hairstyle in the workplace. But we haven't talked about the bane of our existence: how to handle all of your shedding. If you're like me, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. You lived in a tiny, one-bedroom dorm with three other girls. Your bathroom was exactly 10 square feet. You all shed like nobody's business. And no one wanted to be the one to struggle with cleaning up the carpet of hair that fell out of your heads on a daily basis.

Accurate depiction of my college years by Vanessa
Now that you're living on your own, you still shed. Thankfully, there's not as much hair to carpet the floor as when you had three roommates. Also, you're living in a larger space than that hole-in-the-wall that you used to call your dorm, so your shedding is spread across a larger area (and therefore looks less severe). But you still do shed, and there is still hair all over your floor. So how do you clean this up on a regular basis without wasting too much of your life?

It's a pretty simple answer: you take a hair dryer, use it on your bathroom floor like a leaf blower, and blow all the hair into a corner. Then, you grab a wet paper towel, pick up all the hair in one fell swoop, and shove it into the trash can where it belongs.

Voila! Now you, too, can have a non-carpeted bathroom in less than 2 minutes.

Monday, November 3, 2014

How To Survive Making a Mistake

On this blog we've mentioned awesome performance reviews, bosses complimenting your hard work, and management admitting how much of an asset you are. And yes, we've gotten a lot of positive feedback on our work over the years. But, everyone makes mistakes and I am no exception.

The truth is that making a mistake in the engineering world can be extremely terrifying. In many engineering positions, you are directly responsible for the safety of people. Think airplanes, cars, boats, water filtration plants, and so many other systems. An engineering error in these systems could prove fatal. Even when you aren't responsible for life safety, a mistake could cause millions of dollars of damage to the company. And while engineering organizations have many safeguards in place to make sure their systems are safe, engineers themselves are still human and can make errors. 

As a new engineer, sometimes it's you that causes the error. Usually because no matter how smart you are, you may not know enough about the nitty-gritty details of your new profession to know that you are making a mistake. That's exactly what happened to me once at my last job. 

It was a typical day at work, and my phone rang. 

"This is Vanessa," I said, as I continued typing. 

"Vanessa, this is bad," said a man on the other end, a client from a project that was being installed. 

I stopped typing, and paused for a moment. "What?"

"Did you tell somebody to install this [very standard part you've used in every other design with no problems]?" 

"Yes... Why?" my heart started to beat quickly. 

"Why the fuck did you do that! It's completely wrong. You better pray it works and start polishing up your resume, because if it doesn't work both of us will be out of a job.You know if you screw this up you'll have costed us [unimaginable amounts of money]. Really Vanessa, what were you thinking? I've got to try to clean up this mess." 

He slammed the phone. Stunned, I slowly lowered the phone down into it's cradle. I silently stood up, walked to the bathroom, and immediately vomited. It wasn't intentional, I just was honestly so stunned and terrified, I literally got sick. And then I sat on the bathroom floor (gross, I know) my mind was abuzz. I normally take feedback very well, but thinking that I was the root of a problem this big was causing me to completely unravel. 

How could I have known? College didn't teach me the mundane details about industrial equipment, and nobody had ever suggested that there was a problem. It was such a standard and seemingly insignificant part of the system, I never doubted it would work.  How was I so stupid? If this isn't right, what else is wrong? If I didn't know this basic fact, how many other mistakes did I make in the design? Should I even be an engineer? Maybe I should just give up and do something else. I can write. I should be a writer, then I won't cost companies millions of dollars and ruin peoples careers.  

I wanted to hide, to disappear. I started wondering if I could just leave work, and never come back without having to confront the problem. I was ashamed and incredibly scared of what might happen. 

There, sitting on the office bathroom floor like a complete nut job, I texted a good friend (who isn't an engineer) and told her I was freaking out. She managed to talk me out of my downward spiral, and helped me realize that hiding in the bathroom wouldn't insulate me from my mistake. 

So I sucked it up, went back to my cubicle, and began to research the problem. Within 24 hours, I'd found a way to use the same part in a different way in order to solve the problem. Yes, I may have made a mistake, thrown up at work, tried to hide in the office bathroom, and cried myself to sleep. But in the end, I solved the problem and learned something to help me in the future. Long term, the the part I was most ashamed of was my reaction to the mistake and not the mistake itself. 

I realized from this experience (and others that followed) that some of my clients had a little bit of a flare for the dramatic.Who can blame them? They are all under an immense amount of pressure. and until we had a solution everyone was in the same mistake purgatory. But I've realized that spending time fretting about an error doesn't get me any closer to the solution (even if everyone else is freaking out). So instead, I've changed and adopted a much more level headed approach to dealing with mistakes.

Treat every mistake the same way. Understand the consequences, but treat it like a problem in school. This allows you to gain emotional distance and approach the situation with a clear head.

Assigning blame is a waste of time.  Whether it was the fault of someone you hardly know, your arch nemesis, or even your own fault, assigning blame just makes people nervous and makes it less likely that you'll get relevant information about the problem at hand. That said, do not accept blame for something you did not do. A lot of people react poorly in the wake of an error, and you should not volunteer yourself to be a scapegoat. 

Use your engineering training. I started typing steps for how to identify and solve problems, but as an engineer you already know this.

Ask for help, and fail loudly. If you don't have the tools to succeed, ask for help. Nobody can do everything, and it's better to let management have the chance to step in and help (especially if it is an issue related to safety) than to hide the problem until it's too late to fix.

Hopefully, these tips will help you find your way to the light at the end of the tunnel after a mistake.



Monday, October 27, 2014

How to Accomplish Your Own Priorities at Work

I don't set New Years Resolutions so much as goals/targets for the year. This year, one of my goals was to write a paper for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. I consider it important for my personal growth. Additionally, it is important in helping the company gain transparency with its consumers as a true research organization. I used both of these points to sell this goal to my boss and get her to allow me to put it as one of my official work goals.

My other projects are currently taking all my work time, and this has been the case for the last 6 months, so I have been unable to work on any of the publications I've wanted to. So I made a decision today to work on my paper during my lunch break and after work hours. And then I actually followed through.

While I was working on my paper during lunch, my boss walked by.

Boss: "Oh, Ruby. I know you really want to do this, but I don't think we have the time to focus on this."

Ruby: "But wait, it's my lunch break; I thought I could do what I wanted on my lunch break."

Boss: "Oh, you're right. Go ahead."

I'm grateful that my boss at least admits when she is wrong. And I'm pretty sure I was in the right for speaking up when she tried to micromanage me during my lunch break. At least that's what my friends and coworkers say.

This exchange really irritated me because it should really be my boss' job to realistically prioritize projects such that I have the time to get work done on all of my work goals. I shouldn't have to spend time during lunch to accomplish one of my official work goals.

However, I learned that you shouldn't let anyone, not even your managers who dictate your performance review, walk over you. Especially don't let them take away your freedoms without your say-so. It is better for your own sanity and may even gain you respect for not being the person who lets people walk all over her.

I know this post is titled "How to accomplish your own priorities at work," so I'd better give you some advice on how to do that...

If you truly value something, you had better be willing to sacrifice to get it done. Sometimes it will be as simple as giving up your lunch breaks, but sometimes it will be worse.But if you really want something, don't let anything get in the way of you achieving it.

- Ruby

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.