Monday, December 30, 2013

Who's The Boss?


When I go to meet a client at the beginning of new projects that I have been assigned to lead,  I often bring along coworkers or subordinates who will also be working on the project. Before the first meeting, my client speaks only with people who are in the equivalent of sales positions, so it is often the first time the client meets any of our engineers. We all are dressed in equivalent business casual wear,  and carry matching folders and pens. I wear my hair in neat, professional styles and wear simple makeup. I give a firm handshake, and look my clients directly in the eyes. I am also always the only woman not only in my team, but in the entire meeting.

Regardless of my efforts to make stellar first impressions,  about 80% of the time clients who don't know me presume my subordinates or coworkers are my boss. This includes times when they are handed a piece of paper that reads "Vanessa - Project Lead" at the beginning of the meeting. It's actually quite fascinating to watch, because you could probably hold a billboard with an arrow pointing to me proclaiming "SHE'S THE BOSS" but the average client would still dismiss it.

Yes, I know she's the same in both halves. But how my behavior doesn't change just because others perceive it differently.
Given, this is straightened out as soon as the project starts and they notice that I am the one who assigns work, answers their questions, etc. But the interim period is filled with some awkward exchanges like:

Client: "Vanessa can you ask Joe if you can work late?"
Me: "I'm more than happy to stay."
Client: "Do you want to clear it with Joe?"
Me: "It's fine,  Joe doesn't determine my work schedule. He's actually working on this project for me."
Client: "Okay... if you are sure."

And when your coworkers see that people already think they are the boss, it gives them an opportunity to easily usurp whatever power you have been given on a project. Sometimes, people in my office who are unrelated to the project start to pose as my boss for no particular reason, adding to the confusion.

Client: "Luke told me that he was going to pull you off site on Tuesday for some paperwork in your home office. Will this have an impact on your deadline?"
Me: "Oh really? I hadn't heard that before."
Client: "Well he said he's pulling you back..."
Me: "I can ask my boss, David. But Luke is a support engineer, so he shouldn't need to me back for anything."
(Note: I was never supposed to leave site, but Luke did apparently that to my client. I'm still unclear as why this happened.)

This may surprise you but my first reaction was not to blame my client's reactions on my gender, but to try and evaluate how I could change these impressions. Was it something about how I act, how I carry myself, how I dress or how I speak?


But when clients who knew me continuously complimented my professionalism and called me directly with future projects, I realized that upon first impression the main thing that makes me appear to be anything less than my teammates is actually my gender. There are so few women in my industry in general, that people don't usually assume a woman is an engineer- let alone a technical lead.

But so what? As long as my clients are happy, my bosses don't really care who leads a project. If I start as project lead and other people take over the project, then it will seem like I am incompetent. Appearing incompetent will actually make me less likely to get raises, get promotions, and be designated as the project lead in the future. The problem with the initial "who's the boss" mix up is every time I have a new client I fight an uphill battle to prove the competency I've proven to my bosses and coworkers over the years as quickly as possible.

I know the initial assumption that a woman isn't the boss doesn't have the same impact at every engineering organization, and in some more female dominated fields it probably isn't even an issue anymore. But for positions like mine the slight undertone of sexism makes it just a little harder to earn respect for the work I do. It's not that I think that the people who make these assumptions intend to be vicious, or make my life harder. I barely know them at the time, so I doubt that they have some evil plan for my professional demise. Perhaps the worst part is that I can't say that I would make any different assumption if the tables were flipped, because honestly a woman in a leadership position in my industry is extremely unusual.

It's because of this that organizations that promote female engineers are so important. Because, in the "real world" there are still undertones of sexism that will only be solved by a ton of amazing female engineers dealing with uncomfortable situations, and proving that gender is irrelevant measure of engineering prowess one client at a time.

Love,

Vanessa

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Happy Holidays!


Enjoy your days off work and school, and have a happy holidays!

Love,

Vanessa and Ruby

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How to Handle a Performance Review

I don't know if my situation is like your situation, but let me tell you, I am always terrified for my performance reviews. It's not that I do a bad job. In fact, I know I do a fantastic job because:
  • I put in insane overtime
  • I am almost anal/ocd about only turning in excellent work
  • I'm actually also completing the backlog of work that was left by my predecessors
  • My coworkers are constantly telling me how impressed with my work they are
  • My boss, my boss' boss, and my boss' boss' boss is constantly telling me how well I'm doing
  • I'm constantly being appointed to big projects or company-wide task forces
Despite all that, performance reviews make me trepedatious. I'm worried that I've accidentally said something wrong on one of my bad days, that I'm not performing well enough, or that I'm not smart enough. Basically, I feel a bit like an imposter, and I feel like I'll finally be told the truth as a surprise reveal at my performance review.

As it turns out, my worries were unfounded, as should have been obvious to me by the evidence I listed above. Despite that, my performance review was still unsettling. It basically turned out to be a weird combination of a game show and interview.

My performance review this year [2013]

Boss: Okay, are you ready for your performance review?
My mind: Of course I'm ready. This is what I've been mentally conditioning myself for over the past two weeks. Give me your worst. I can take it. I'm a warrior with a tenacious and confident intellect. But actually, please be nice.
Me: Yes.

Boss: Great. What is your proudest moment of the year?
My mind: What is this, an interview? My proudest moment was being the glue who kept this department from falling apart. But I can't tell you that because that's your job.
Me: I'm really proud of XYZ project and how much I've learned this year.

Boss: What do you think could be improved upon?
My mind: Seriously? This is the vaguest question ever. This could refer to my company as a whole, my department in general, my experiences with you, or myself. What do you mean? Also, I have to point out that this is yet another interview question.
Me: Well, I think that managing the abundance of projects we have is always a difficult task because resource prioritization.

Boss: How well do you think you did?
My mind: And now I'm on a game show. Guess your score on a scale from one to five. If you guess too high, we judge you. If you guess too low, we pity you. Guess right and you get absolutely nothing. This is a lose, lose, lose situation. Try not to lose!
Me: I think I performed well.

Boss: No really, how well do you think you did?
My mind: Is this a trick question? You just asked me this. Okay, here goes...
Me: I think I performed very well.

Boss: Okay, let me be bad cop now.
My mind: Uh oh. Here it comes.
Me: Okay.

Boss: Just kidding. You have nothing to improve upon.
My mind: Seriously, nothing at all? You can't give me any constructive criticism? Improve timing? Improve leadership? Stop being such a leader? Stop socializing so much? Socialize more? Are you really telling me I'm absolutely perfect?
Me: Well, that's good.

Boss: Also, here's a surprise promotion.
Kaboom. My mind has been blown.
Me: That's great! Thank you so much!
As you can see, the year-end review I had was a bit of a roller coaster ride that ended on a confusing, yet high note. But just to show you that I'm not the only one who is left unsettled and confused, I have a few more year-end review anecdotes for you. Obviously because these are being retold, I can't include the behind-the-scenes thoughts(for the most part, except when they've given me their commentary). However, I'm sure you can fill in the blanks with your imagination.

A friend's performance review

Boss: You screwed up here.
My friend: Yes, I know.

Boss: You also screwed up here.
My friend: Yes, I know.

Boss: Oh, and you screwed up here, too.
My friend: Yes, I know. Do you want me to explain why I missed deadline? I have a very good reason and you backed me up at the time. Oh, you don't? Okay, I'll be quiet.

Boss: You also did a few things pretty okay.
My friend: Well, that's good, I guess.

Boss: Congratulations, we love you, keep doing what you're doing.
My friend: Cool?

Another friend's performance review

Boss: Your work is fabulous.
My friend: Great, it's good to know my effort is appreciated.

Boss: But you have a few things that you should improve on.
My friend: Oh, really?
My friend's mind: Which of the many areas do you want me to improve on? I could know more about statistics. I could know more about biology. I could know more about chemistry. I could know more about nuclear physics. I could know more about astronomy. I could know more about nerf guns.

Boss: We want you to be more professional?
My friend: Okay...

Boss: Basically, we want you to change you to change your vocabulary slightly. Oh, and have better posture.
My friend's mind: That's all? Seriously, that's what you want me to improve on? I'm a scientist and you don't want me to improve my science?

Boss: Oh, and we think we're going to promote you next year.
My friend's mind: Great. Are you going to tell me how to make that happen? No, okay, I'll just smile gratefully.

From all the stories I've heard of year-end reviews, everyone is always left somewhat dazed and confused, regardless of how well it went.

Honestly, I don't really have much advice to give. From what I can tell, a performance review is always going to be a roller coaster of terror and confusion. But if you do your job well, it will usually end in a pat on the back and appreciation because there is still a scarcity of quality engineers out there (if you don't believe me, look at some of the stories Vanessa and I have written about our coworkers...). And since you are surely doing quality work, your company will try to openly appreciate and appease you in order to keep you around. And if they don't, then it's time to start looking for a new job anyways.

Also, I'd love to hear your performance review stories. Are they as confusing and crazy as these? Have you had a different experience than me and my friends?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Extended Business Trip Essentials

If you've ever been on an extended business trip, you know that it's not quite as glamorous as being whisked off to Paris to meet top designers from around the world in a career-making opportunity of a lifetime. And yes, I was referencing the much sought after business trip in The Devil Wears Prada. In the real world, many engineering consultants take awkwardly long business trips lasting between one and six months in the middle of nowhere. The worst is when you travel back on weekends, because you never actually get to meet settle into your new environment, and so you just spend months in limbo.

When I'm at my home office, I have events scheduled quite literally every night.  Sometimes, I'll even have three separate events in one day. So when I'm relocated to the middle of nowhere Kansas where I don't know a single other person, I kind of get a little stir crazy.

I've recently devised a plan for actually enjoying this alone time, and maybe it will help you too. The idea is to treat the time when you get "home" as a relaxing spa vacation. Go to the gym. Eat out. And, pack a "spa" bag.



I know, it sounds ridiculous and feeds into the stereotypes for women in so many ways. But, it's important for me to not spend so much time fighting stereotypes that I end up altering myself to be the some foreign entity. Especially on my own time. And, for people like me it is easy to get so caught up in causes, events, classes, chores, and friends that I forget to take some time for myself to just relax. So, I've taken to packing a spa bag for my days of "forced relaxation".

Your bag can be different, and obviously this is made for trips where you are driving or checking a bag (way too much liquid and gel for a day trip), but here is what is in mine:
  • Pore strips (don't use these every night, nobody has enough blackheads for that.)
  • Clay face mask (don't use this every night, your skin will dry out.)
  • Salt or sugar scrub
  • Really nice moisturizer
  • Really nice shampoo and conditioner
  • Professional looking nailpolish (I would recommend you try to go towards nuetral tones and dark colors, or rock out a french manicure)
  • Calming bath salts (I'm a fan of lavender)
  • A book that has nothing to do with work (sci-fi, chick lit, historical fiction, textbook for a new language, it doesn't matter so long at is completely unrelated to any real responsibility)
At the end of the day settle in with a glass of wine, tea, or hot chocolate (whatever gets you relaxed), and just relax. I know, it's totally unproductive and you probably can't do it every night. But just take some time to take care of yourself. Business travel can be physically, emotionally, and mentally draining- so it's even more important than normal to take some time to rejuvenate yourself for owning the next day.

Love,

Vanessa

PS. Got any tips for business travelers? Comment below!

Monday, November 25, 2013

How to Not Catch I-Don't-Give-A-Fuck-Itus

Some companies are inspirational playgrounds filled with motivated people pursuing projects about which they are passionate. Some companies are dreary, and filled with people who are looking for ways out of work so that they can sit at stare blankly at their computer screen. If you are in the latter company, it is easy to have your spunk sucked out by the still silence of unproductivity. It breeds I-don't-give-a-fuck-itus and will turn you into a work zombie who only lives outside of the office.

Being a work zombie sucks. It's depressing because you are wasting time, and because you never really accomplish anything worthwhile. And if you have an engineering or science degree, you have a set of skills that you can actually apply to make something better!

So here are my suggestions for how to keep yourself alive in an undead work environment :

1)  Remind yourself of your passions. If you go in caring about the work you do,  don't let other people's negative attitudes change that. If you don't like the work you do,  look for ways to use this job to do what you want.

2) Say at least one nice thing to somebody you work with every day. By making the effort to make other people's days a little bit better, you'll help chip away at the dreary environment. Being proactive about changing your environment also helps make you feel like you are doing your best, and will help you maintain your own positivity.



3) Try to work closely with your client, vendors, or whoever else you encounter on a daily basis. Sometimes, these groups have a better work philosophy, and it can be a breath of fresh air from the daily grind. Plus, it opens up possible opportunities with other organizations!

4) Join a positive organization outside of work. I typically like to do volunteer work, but you can try hackers organizations, book clubs, geocaching, and any type of well organized activity where you interact with inspired and happy people. It helps you maintain good work habits by reinforcing them outside of work, and gives you a solid example of what is important in your work environment. I take a lot of the positive management tricks I see from outside of work, and apply them in my office.

5) Remember that your coworkers and your work environment do not define you. This seems obvious, but it can be the hardest to put into practice. Even in a large corporation, as an engineer you are your own brand, and you will build a reputation for your own skills and work ethic. And if you continue to do amazing work, it will not go unnoticed forever.

With these tips, and a determination to make your office a little less apocalyptic, I hope you'll fend off I-Don't-Give-A-Fuck-Itus at least long enough to get yourself into a better position. Good luck!

Love,

Vanessa

P.S. Don't forget to subscribe if you like what we write!

Monday, November 18, 2013

How to Respond to Emails

Today, I became everything I hate in an e-mail response.

I was typing a clarification email to a client (sent out to four people with me BCCed), and one of my interns stopped over at my cube to ask a question. Since he was patiently waiting, I quickly signed my name and hit send as I spun my chair around to give him my full attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my computer pronounce "Sending to... The guy who you intended and EVERYONE ELSE".

All hope was lost.
I frantically tried to cancel the email, but my reflexes were simply not fast enough. The deed was done. My intern continued to explain the details of his question, but my mind was completely consumed with the fact that I'd just committed a HUGE faux paus.

But why is this so bad? It was just a clarification email, after all.

I don't pretend to know all of the politics that go on with my client, but BCC-ing somebody is not an unintentional step. There are at least five clicks involved in doing this on my email client. And BCC-ing is typically done as a favor to keep somebody in the loop when they shouldn't be. So all I know, is that I was being told this as a secret favor,  and then I fucked it up by hitting the wrong button. Honestly, I have no idea why a BCC-ed person can reply all to people who didn't couldn't see they were copied,  let alone in 4 less clicks than it took to BCC them in the first place.

While I'm on the topic,  there are a couple other moments where emails have confounded me. For example, sometimes my boss will call me into his office to tell me that I am going to be spending the rest of the day at a client site to support emergent issues. As I get back to my desk and start to pack up the things I expect to need, my computer pings and I've gotten calendar items from the same boss with subject lines reading "Team meeting at 2 pm in fourth floor conference room ATTENDANCE MANDATORY". Now, I realize that these go out to the entire team, but I usually go back to his office just to clarify that the all caps warning was not intended for me.


The next type of email I don't get are non sequitur follow up emails. For example,  if I talked with someone ad nauseum about what Linux system we are going to use,  agree upon a solution,  and then I sit down at my desk just in time to receive an email stating,  "Per our conversation,  I am purchasing a Windows 8 tablet." This typically leaves me completely confused,  trying to figure out if they are being passive aggressive, if they simply can't type,  or if they are smoking a very potent hallucinogen and actually think that was close to being relevant.

The third type of email that I don't understand is passive aggressively CC-ing people. I typically try to email directly with somebody about issues I have found with their work, because I think that pointing out mistakes and copying people's bosses and important clients only makes them more defensive. And I think it's just generally douchey to make a spectacle of someone's mistakes before they have the opportunity to correct them. In response I have occasionally gotten vendors that will be frustrated with the fact that I have corrected them, and will send an email to me, my boss, our client, our client's boss, the vendor's boss, the water delivery man, the mailman, all the secretaries, and the President of the United States saying something along the lines of: "What exactly is it you want from me this time?"

I guess the vendor thought he was putting me on the spot here, by making it seem as if I have had completely unreasonable requests. Apparently, he had been complaining that he should be paid more to fix all of my unreasonable requests. What I don't think he entirely think through is the fact that I could, and would, reply all with a list of the bullshit problems they have had and continue to have.

After having that list received by the rest of the involved parties, you  can bet that I got a corrected document back very quickly. He also received no additional pay. So please, don't carbon copy people on an email chain if you haven't fully considered the consequences of having an open dialogue. Or do, because it is incredibly satisfying getting to destroy irresponsible people in reply all.

Love,

Vanessa

PS. What is the most embarrassing interaction you've had over work email?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Why Most Engineers Don't Have Blogs

Because when push comes to shove 40 hour weeks can only account for the time I spent at work Monday to Wednesday,  weekends are but mere suggestions,  and I occasionally spend 12 hour days just arguing with people twice my age to ensure that my system works properly. Since I am passionate about my work and have what I believe to be a strong moral compass,  being confronted with individuals who are blowing smoke up my ass day in and day out so they can make a quick buck is extremely disenchanting. I think perhaps it is right of passage to adulthood to have the pleasure of a grown man looking you in the eye and lying about something that matters. And I think it is a right of passage to becoming a responsible adult to learn when and how to tell people you fucked up.

As much as I have ideas brewing,  and opinions I want to share,  I have to admit that in weeks like these I just come home and collapse in my bed,  and only get up in time to go to work again (in less than 7 hours).

At the same time,  I hate and love every moment. Every time I find out somebody has screwed me over,  I also know that I've caught a mistake before it causes damage. And I know every moment that I need to stay up,  every person I need to yell at,  every person I have to take yelling at me,  I know it's all worth it. And I don't want to risk loosing the ability to catch those errors.

And that is why I think most other serious engineers tend to stay away from blogging. Not because we can't write,  nor because we don't have opinions. Writing in a public forum is a risk,  and one with outcomes that cannot be accurately calculated. It's exactly what we are trained to avoid. And the risk of getting caught couldn't be higher; our dream of being able to continue to create is at stake.

Yet I still am writing. Maybe because I'm crazy,  maybe because I think it's important that people know that engineering is more than sitting on your butt and collecting a big pay check,  and maybe it is because I believe that discussing issues that plague our industry is the only way to fix it. But either way,  I'm going to keep on blogging and making crappy stick figures (at least for the near future).

Love,

Vanessa

PS Why do you think we don't have more active engineering blogging community?

Monday, October 21, 2013

How to Pick A Cute Work Hairstyle

I apologize that I missed last Monday's post. I'm going to try post two times this week to make up for it (insert gasps and cheers from all 20 people that read this blog regularly and never comment). This week I decided to go with a less substantial topic that still impacts engineers: hairstyles.

In an all male environment, it's hard to find inspiration for ways to spice up boring hair days. Something about wearing your hair completely down and having it look nice by the end of the day is a concept that completely evades me. Perhaps it is because of the hardhat I have to occasionally don, perhaps it is my hair's natural proclivity for knots,  or perhaps I just fidget too much. Any way you slice it,  I need a hairstyle that is cute while still being durable enough to deal with a full day of work.

Everyone has a day like this sometimes...

While I considered posting pictures and instructions for the different styles I like, I realized this is a solved problem and that there are in fact dozens (if not hundreds) of videos that show how to make every hairstyle I feel like I've invented. To that end, I scoured YouTube for engineer-proof hair tutorials, and have come up with the following:

Hair Tied Ponytail 

The simplest of these hairstyles is a sleek way to spice up the average ponytail. Hair wrapped ponytails hide your neon hair elastics, and make the hairstyle look office appropriate.





Rave reviews from one coworker say, "But...  Where does your hair end? "

French Braid Side Ponytail

This is a slightly more complex variation on the side ponytail. It only takes 10 minutes or less to do in the morning, so it won't cut back on your much needed sleep.




What my coworkers have to say about it: "Vanessa,  your hair confuses me."
"You must have magic to make hair do that."

Braided Bun

The braided bun is a great way to get a sleek look quick, when your hair is not cooperating. Cons are it isn't necessarily good for a hard hat, and it uses an ass-ton of bobby pins (which is relevant for workplaces which regulate the amount of metal you have). 



One day,  when I was wearing my hair in a Braided bun,  my coworker found a bobby pin on the ground. While I was minding my own business typing an email,  he slipped it into my hair and said, " I believe this belongs to you." Truth is, he was probably right because I was the only one wearing my hair up, but it was VERY uncomfortable anyways.

Side Bun

I'd love to say that I wear side buns instead of regular buns because they are more fashionable. But the truth is, my preference for side buns over regular buns is a result of the fact that regular buns make driving in a car quite literally a pain in the neck. There is nowhere to put your head that isn't super uncomfortable. I would venture to guess that the longer a commute a woman has, the less likely she is to wear a huge bun protruding from the back of her head.

So if you love buns, and hate neck-aches, here is a tutorial for how to make a quick side bun:




Standard fair. Poorly done you look like an angry librarian. Well done,  you look like you mean business.

Hairband:


Especially if you have shorter hair,  this is the easiest way to look like you tried with minimal effort. I recommend doing a side part,  or letting your bangs fall normally (if you have them)  so your bangs don't look like somebody out of an 80s work out video.

If you don't know how to use a hairband yet... than here is 5 ways to do so:



I go through prolonged hairband phases, and they usually involve solid colored hairbands. Although, I will admit that I was involved in the blinged out butterfly and flower hairband phase and am not entirely over it even though I am aware it is socially unacceptable.

That's all for now. Variety is the spice of life, so try a new hairstyle tomorrow!

Love,

Vanessa


Monday, October 7, 2013

First Impressions of New Hires

Disclaimer: This is not meant to scare you, just to share what happens in my non-conventional work environment. It is meant to inform you, but not to make you paranoid of every nice gesture on your first day.

So here is the honest truth about what happens when a new girl  has joined one of my companies where there are over 80% men. The biggest thing to understand is that men and women in this environment have adjusted to the fact that female engineers are as rare as a rainbow unicorn. So when a new woman starts and people don't know who she is, chances are people will bet that she is a secretary, marketer, salesperson, or any other non-engineering job their company has. This has something to do with the fact that women tend to dress up for their first day in a stereotypically "non-engineering" or feminine way (I spent over an hour getting ready before my first day of work), and something to do with the fact that statistically the new girl is almost never an engineer.

Wouldn't you be surprised if you worked with a unicorn? 
Once everyone meets her, people tend to place the same sort of bets on who will be the first one to ask her out, date her, fuck her, etc. It's wildly inappropriate, but it happens consistently in my workplaces and can range from more innocent comments to very explicit statements. For the new girl, the awkward onslaught of people hitting on you can be very uncomfortable when you are just trying to figure out how to charge the time you work and where the bathroom is. 

The majority of guys involved try the awkward engineer approach, like the one who told a new female engineer on her first day: "I really love the way you wear... colors. You really pull it off." Others will drop more standard pickup lines into work conversations, or invite the girl to spend a weekend with him at his lake house. It all sounds innocent enough, but everyone else can hear these conversations from their cubes. In my opinion, a lot of it is done for show and the woman is often established as the "new woman" and not as the "new engineer". While I don't believe the men intend to be vicious, I do think that it creates an environment where women are initially not taken as seriously as their male counterparts.

I'd like to point out that none of the female engineers I've worked with have actually dated or slept with one of the men involved in these bets. Usually it just means that all of the guys are overly nice to the new girl, and that there are a few awkward conversations. 

It's not just men who can make the transition awkward for new female hires. Note I said earlier "people tend to place bets" and not "men tend to place bets"- some women make similar bets on who will be the first to hit on a girl. This is interestingly usually done in a way offensive to the man, as if he is so desperate he'll hit on any new person he meets. 

In addition, the female engineers will have one of three reactions to new female hires in this environment. The first group will not care at all, and will react the same for male and female employees. The second will have a strong negative reaction to a new woman because they will have less attention and some even feel like their job is less secure. For example, if there are only two women at the company, it is hard to fire one without seeming sexist. But if there are four women, firing one of them seems less sexist and more that the woman was under-performing. The last group will be super excited to have new women in the office, as it may help change the testosterone filled environment. I am somewhere between the first and third group, since I'm pretty excited for new hires in general but I enjoy having a coworker that is guaranteed to not try and talk about his dick.

Is there room for more than one unicorn in an office?
The women end up usually coming around within the month when they feel more comfortable that their position is safe, and usually the original "challenge" phase is over for the men when they realize they can't win you like a prize at a carnival.

If you find yourself with some overly "nice" brand new coworkers, try not to worry about their possible bets and bullshit. Your new coworkers don't expect you to know about any of this, so you can't exactly address it head on. Take help that is offered to you while maintaining professional behavior, and use their eagerness as an opportunity to get yourself up to speed as quickly as possible. You'll soon find your niche at work, and prove to everyone that you are competent and they are lucky to have you on their team for your skills (not your gender). 

The easiest way to change this environment is by proving it wrong one awesome scientist and engineer at a time. So go ahead, take that hour to get ready for your first day at work if you want to, and bust some stereotypes. 

Love, 

Vanessa

Monday, September 30, 2013

How to Turn off Your Inner Engineer

Believe it or not, but when I leave my job, I have a completely separate life. I have friends with different interests, I have creative hobbies, and I am actively involved with a variety of charities. Yet, as much as I try, it's hard (read: impossible) to turn off the engineer in me when I leave work.

In some ways, my "off the clock" engineer ends up being the handy-woman getting calls from single girlfriends to fix everything from broken doors, to flickering lights, loose tiles, virus-ridden computers, and broken pipes. If you know anything about engineering, you know that there is no way I am officially qualified to do all of these things. In fact,  have no clue what I'm doing for about 75% of the problems friends ask me to fix. And yet, my curiosity means that I will ALWAYS try to do it anyways. People know I've fixed and created a lot of systems, so that they will assume I know how to fix just about anything while I assume they know I have no fucking clue.

If you really want to freak someone out, casually mention that you have never tried to fix a phone right after you completely disassemble her Android and have all the parts strewn across their kitchen table. So far my handy-woman work has always worked out fine, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was some minor disaster in the near future.


In volunteer positions, I always end up unintentionally engineering systems when I was just supposed to slap a layer of icing onto some cookies. At one of the events I attended recently, I was tasked with creating a centerpiece for a table related to a nursery rhyme. Everyone else showed up with carefully arranged bouquets and stuffed animals reenacting Humpty Dumpty, or Little Bo-Peep- and I showed up with a star that twinkled with LEDs all programmed with "twinkle twinkle little star" as the initiating frequency. Let's just say my table didn't exactly fit in. In all of my excitement about making a star that would twinkle, and experimenting with different materials to diffract harsh LEDs into the perfect ethereal glow, I had totally lost sight of the fact that this was a centerpiece for a luncheon for old women and not a science fair.
Yes, I made a gif. UPPING THE ANTE!
Even when I'm out at bars, I find myself in an unacceptably high number of technical conversations with complete strangers. I'm never quite sure how it happens. But part of the way through, I usually recognize that I've started to go on some sort of technical rant by the way my friends' eyes glaze over. I totally go out with the intention of having simple, fun, and superficial conversations,  but as soon as I mention my job, I end up in discussions about the Alpher-Betha-Gamow paper and its impact on scientific thinking in the generations that followed.

Any way you cut it, you can take me out of work but you can't take the work out of me. Like most other passionate engineers I know, I'm always looking to learn about and improve a system.

Love,

Vanessa

Monday, September 23, 2013

FIRST ANNUAL RESUME EXTRAVAGANZA

It's that time of year... Job fairs are starting up again and everyone is starting to update their resumes.

So - we at Pocket Protector and Heels are going to help you get your dream job!  If you are applying for a job as an engineer or scientist,  send us your resume and we'll provide you some feedback!  It's always good to have a second pair of eyes,  and we'll provide some honest comments. Read: honest feedback. We aren't known for sugar coating comments, but we will give you advice that we feel will make you a more competitive applicant.


We cannot guarantee that this will get you into your dream job,  but every little bit helps!

RULES:

Resumes must be one page,  in English, and intended for engineering or science related jobs. If you have a specific job in mind, you can include the job description in the email body so we can help you tailor your resume appropriately. Please send the resumes in PDF format to our email address!

By submitting a resume, you agree to not sue us for any advice we give, because we're just trying to be nice and that would ruin it for everyone else. In exchange for us reviewing your resume, please follow our RSS feed!

Submissions must be in by September 29th, 2013 at 11:59 pm. We know this is early in the job application season, so hopefully this gives you a little inspiration to get started!

Regards,

Vanessa & Ruby

Monday, September 16, 2013

How to Own at Engineering Career Fairs

It is that time of year again! The sweet smell of panicking students wafts through the air as they nervously mumble their elevator speeches to themselves on their way to class. Maybe it feels like you just did this last month, maybe this is your first time. Regardless, let me welcome you into the world of career fairs.

Engineering career fairs in their purest form are a very different beast from any other type of event. Eager students will wait in lines for over two hours for a chance to talk to a recruiter for two minutes. There isn't any pushing or cutting the line (which I hear happens at business fairs) because engineering jobs all comes down to your skills, not your aggressiveness.

The range of what companies expect and look for in a prospective intern/employee is fairly extreme. Some companies won't take you seriously if you don't make the effort to wear a suit,  and others will pursue you harder if you come in an old set of sweat pants and a tie-dye t-shirt. The latter company tends to believe if you show up in your pajamas, you are probably smart enough to not need to compensate with style. Other companies will see this as unprofessional and lazy, and will immediately disregard you as a potential employee.

So how do you know how to prepare yourself? Get in touch with your inner nerd and research the companies before you go! When I attended fairs I made a spreadsheet with the company name, field of work, open positions, and ranked each one in terms of my interest. With a little additional research on my top ten picks, I would go into the career fair prepared to make everyone feel I'd come specifically to see their booth.

I realize that  this might sound over-the top to you, but even if you aren't feeling particularly inspired you should at least do the following:
  • Print plenty of copies of your resume.
  • Leave your cellphone behind. You don't need any extra distractions and the risk of your alarm going off is not worth it.
  • Prepare an elevator speech which highlights your qualifications.
  • Wear a conservative outfit, with shoes you can actually walk in.
  • Get somebody else to approve your makeup and hair before you go inside. Don't wear clown and/or street walker levels of eye shadow and lipstick.
  • Bring a professional looking bag to carry all of the "swag" (aka crap) that the recruiters hand out.
In "normal" career fairs this is the end of required preparation. But in engineering career fairs, it is not uncommon for employers to require on-the-spot verbal or written exams to prove basic technical competencies. If you really have your heart set on a position with a specific company, research this beforehand, too. Study any of the languages, computer programs, or skills your dream company has listed as preferred because these quizzes can really cover anything.

For example, when I was a freshman in college, a recruiter handed me a paper after five minutes of talking about my resume: "If you don't mind, I'd like to ask you to take this quiz so we can determine your level of programming skill and where you would best fit in our organization."

Me: "Sure,  no problem."

I sat down at their quizzing desk and read the first question. It wanted me to write a short programming script to solve a problem in a language I not only didn't know, but had never even heard of. I didn't know the syntax, I didn't even know if it was object oriented or not. All I could think of was how awkward it would be for me to just cut my losses, slink away from the desk, and just pretend it never happened.


I glanced up, the recruiter was standing with her arms folded, watching me. Fuck. This was going to be really awkward. So I just wrote the answer in a different programming language, and on the last page I scribbled the word "Sorry."

I stood up, smiled, handed it the damning exam to the recruiter after having come up with no inconspicuous ways to accidentally drop it in coffee or otherwise destroy it, exchanged a few pleasantries, and then booked it away from their booth as fast as possible. Needless to say, I didn't send a follow up email.

Everyone has an awkward experience sometimes. But just go ahead, collect yourself, and move on to the next booth. The very next group I talked to that day had an exam on systems that I excelled at and I walked away with an interview for the following day.



So my advice is: do your homework, and then go in confident of your skills, look those recruiters in the eye and convince them of the truth: they would be lucky to have you on their team.

Break a leg!

Vanessa

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Monday, September 9, 2013

How to Spot a Good Manager

Vanessa tells me that while I talk a lot about what it's like to be a new engineer in the field, I don't talk frequently about what it's like to be a female engineer. I don't talk a lot about gender roles in engineering because I don't feel I have as much to contribute on the topic as most other women in engineering. This is because I work at an engineering company which has close to 50% women, which is is kind of like stumbling into cave full of already-mined, already-cut 30 carat diamonds after stumbling through a cave of already-mined gold. I know that you're thinking, "liar, liar, pants on fire! No engineering company has that many women!" But it's true.

This is how I imagine we would interact if/when I mentioned the gender distribution at my firm in a face-to-face conversation.

And there is more. Not only do I work with a decent number of female coworkers, but there are also a fair number of women who are managers at the company. Yes, my boss is a woman. To top that, my boss' boss is a woman and my boss' boss' boss is a woman.

So, you see, I'm not the most informed source when it comes to engineer workplace gender inequalities. I do, however, have a bit more insight into women in management. I compiled a list of the women in management, categorized them into good managers and poor managers, and compiled a list of common traits for each category. This list is solely based on female managers, but looking back at it, it's clear that it's applicable to both genders. Anyways, onto the list.

In my opinion, there are a few things that good managers will do:

Maintain realistic expectations
For me, what truly makes a manager stand out is that they are realistic and that they maintain focus. They know that ideals are great, and can be pursued to a certain extent, but you must keep your eye on the prize at all times. These managers accomplish a great balance between encouraging scientific inquiry and requiring deliverables which will meet business needs. They allow time for your pet projects (e.g. investigating a really weird observation, which could result in a new discovery and published paper), but also keep the main focus on the business needs (e.g. that equipment redesign plan that's necessary to for the next phase of the project).

Give praise when praise is due
Another common theme with some of my awesome female managers is that they know when and where to give praise. An ideal manager will give praise regularly for big-ticket projects and occasionally for doing a good job in general. Praise should be given regularly, but not too frequently.

Poor managers have a hard time balancing the correct amount of praise. Some will praise you too frequently, which doesn't seem like such a horror until you realize that they're praising you for things that don't merit praise (e.g. taking meeting minutes). Then, when they do praise you for big-ticket projects, it no longer feels like an accomplishment because your epic three-week intense project got the same response as taking meeting minutes.

Other poor managers will praise you too infrequently. In these cases, the managers don't appreciate your work, nor your many unpaid overtime hours, nor having a project be well-received by a client, nor that you saved their files from an untimely coffee spill. All of these acts are worthy of praise, especially that last one, of course. The bosses who cannot see that such acts are worthy of praise can pretty much be described in one word: "grumpy." I've seen first-hand how a lack of such praise makes employees feel defeated and thus think that overachieving will never be worth the effort.

And here are some things that a good manager will not do:

Disrespect the underlings
I had one manager who told me to my face that she knew more about science than I did, even though her degree was in business management. Telling anyone that their knowledge is inadequate when they've worked and studied hard in the area is going to hurt them. Plus the underling will know the manager is full of crap and lose respect for the things they do know about.

Be a slimy politician
Seriously. Reserve politics for the actual politicians, the ones who think they run a country and who like to talk circles around the issue. If your manager thinks she's a smooth talker, then I can almost guarantee that her underlings think she's a lousy scientist and a panderer. That manager tends to make life harder for their underlings. Because let's face it, smooth talkers make impossible promises. And then the underlings either have to bust their butts to meet unreasonable deadlines or deal with falling short when the deadline arrives.

Do not be indecisive and inconsistent
That one's pretty much self explanatory. Good managers aren't wishy-washy. Good managers don't change their minds (unless it's justified by new evidence). And good managers have their thoughts organized enough that they remember what they've previously decided. It's a waste of time to convince someone of something you've already spent an hour convincing them of earlier that week.


If you look at the list, you'll realize that there's no reason the same exact list can't apply to men. I have never seen any particular drawback which is specific to one gender or the other. In my mind, if you're a good manager, then that's the end of it; management skills aren't attributable to gender. The female managers I have dealt with aren't catty, bitchy, or any of the other stereotypes engineers often think define a women in management.

However, I do acknowledge that all of these cases of good and bad managers came from my own experiences with women in management and that my data may have a systemic bias/skew because of the distribution of women/men in my firm. So I'd love to hear from other sources: What is your company's gender distribution like and what are your experiences with women in management?

Best,
Ruby

Monday, September 2, 2013

How to Eat Like a Lady

I'm not the most graceful person, and I never claimed to be. You'd think that in a field filled with men, my less than dainty habits would be accepted at face value. But my occasional "unrefined" behavior seems to always seems to end up attracting more attention than intended- even at the lunch table. Take the following example:

SCENE: It is noon on a Wednesday and the fluorescent lights of the lunchroom are beating down on an odd conglomeration of people- mostly men. They range from youth fresh out of college, to card carrying AARP members. Some wear polo shirts, and others wear ties that slowly strangle them throughout the day. It's lunchtime and in their ravenous fervor, these men have all turned into children- devouring their lunches like Cookie Monster with little bits of sandwich flying like meaty shrapnel. They curse at each other and casually joke with their mouths' stuffed. 

I am silently observing the feasting, as I slowly eat my grapes. It is gross, and fascinating. Then, one fateful grape slipped out of my fingers and swiftly fell down my shirt. Of course I had managed to not only drop food, but drop it down my high cut shirt. The commotion stopped, and everyone became eerily quiet; somehow everyone managed to have seen my mishap. I froze, unable to figure out how to act. Do I retrieve the grape from down my shirt in the middle of a room filled with male coworkers as they watch?

You could feel the tension in the room as I lowered my eyes, reached for another grape in my Ziploc baggie, and continued to eat ignoring the cold grape in my shirt. One by one, people seemed to think they had tricked themselves in what they saw, and they resumed their normal behavior. Meanwhile I silently freaked out about the fact that there was still, in fact, a grape in my shirt.
As you can see, a simple slip up can cause a very awkward situation. So when eating with coworkers you should sit up, chew with your mouth closed, and don't drop things down your shirt. If you can manage that, then you'll make it out just fine.

Love,

Vanessa

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Monday, August 26, 2013

How to Act in a Women's Bathroom

I think we've all hear a bevy of stories about the unspoken rules of men's bathrooms: don't use the urinal next to someone else when there are other options,  look straight ahead,  etc. But what are the rules for public women's restrooms at work?

Honestly,  I had never even considered it until one of my coworkers tried to catch up with me in between her no-nonsense grunts from one of the stalls. Something about your acquaintance updating you on her kids' lives while she is taking a shit is a supremely uncomfortable situation. I kept trying to gracefully excuse myself from the situation,  but she just kept talking.

Since that fateful day, I've compiled a list of dos and don'ts for your average office restroom.



1) Keep your clothes on when not in a stall. I don't know why,  but one individual seems to like to zip and unzip her pants by the sinks instead of in the privacy of a stall. This makes everyone uncomfortable. There is no situation in which you will save time by unzipping your clothes before entering a stall and your office restroom is not a place for exhibitionists.

2) Do not engage in conversations where one or both parties are in a stall. I am aware that most of us do this when we are out at a bar with our bff, but when it's a coworker that you only sort of know,  it's weird.


3) Only use stalls with doors.  This isn't an episode of Orange is the New Black,  and nobody is comfortable enough with each other in an office situation to share that type of intimacy. I once worked in a place where one of the stall doors was stuck completely open,  and yet mysteriously every day the blue cleaner in the toilet would disappear by mid morning. I never caught the person using the toilet,  but I'm pretty sure I would have been scarred for life. Or at least the rest of the day.

4) Wash your hands. It's bad enough if you don't do it on your own time, but you should at least make an effort in front of somebody else.

5) Keep chatting time down to 5 minutes. It's true,  we all run into somebody in the restroom occasionally and catch up on company gossip. But even if you are low on work and wasting away your day,  your coworker may actually have things to do. And even if you are both wasting time, all of the men in the office will probably think you are menstruating if you spend 30 minutes chatting in secret, since that is the only reason they can  think of spending that much time in a bathroom.

Those five rules should help you from committing major a major faux pas. Do you have any other pet peeves for things people do in office bathrooms? Share them in the comments!

Love,

Vanessa

Monday, August 19, 2013

How To Be An Engineer, Not A Secretary

I took minutes for a few meetings this past week and sent them out to everyone in attendance. Each time, my boss hit the reply all button and commented with a simple and quick, "Great minutes, Ruby. Thanks for doing this." I am fully aware that I respond well to praise and validation, so this little comment from my boss is a nice touch. However, the number of thanks I've got for taking meeting minutes is disproportionate to the number of thanks I've gotten for doing other things, such as my daily engineering tasks. This makes me wonder, I am perceived as a better secretary than an engineer?

I know I'm good at secretarial things, like taking epic meeting minutes. As an engineer, I find it easy to accomplish and integrate them into my daily tasks. After all, I'm the technology-savvy one of the group. I can essentially type at the pace that people talk and capture all the important pieces of conversation while simultaneous pulling up schematics and study designs and contributing to the meeting. I can also manage to reorganize my notes so that it's more cohesive and understandable than the actual meetings.

I choose to complete some secretarial tasks to improve my own job performance as an engineer. But just because I'm good at secretarial tasks shouldn't mean that I should be relegated to a secretarial role in my boss' or coworkers' minds.

In fact, I find that more people (and my boss in particular) are aware of and impressed by my secretarial skills than my engineering skills. This is a little surprising. I know that my technical background can be impressive. After all, one of my coworkers told me I'm one of only two young employees he respects technically. I've also been given the nickname of "genius" (which is really awkward when said in hearing range of any of my other coworkers). Given my experience, accomplishments, and expertise in technical work, it's weird to get compliments on non-engineering work rather on work that takes a lot more skill and expertise.

My question here is: Why is it that I'm more recognized for being secretarial than technical?

I can imagine a number of explanations including gender role prejudices, a subconscious drive on my part to be a secretary, it's a knee-jerk reaction/compliment, or just because I'm the newest kid on the block.

Maybe the reason for my receiving praise for secretarial work can be attributed to gender role prejudices. I know there's a study which indicates that generally women in the group are relegated to "female" jobs such as being the secretary.
Women who have internships or jobs, she [Susan Sibley] explains, find they"are too often relegated to 'female' roles of note-taker, organizer or manager." ~Study by Susan Silbey at MIT 
In Susan Sibley's scenario, the female engineer is in the minority and therefore her coworkers will consider her the only option to fill the role of the (female) secretary. My problem is that this scenario isn't really applicable to my own situation. In my workplace and especially in the aforementioned recent meetings, I have been surrounded by what might be considered an abundance of women. Anything ratio of women:men which exceeds 1:1 is unusually high in the engineering industry. And most of the women I work with are intelligent and diligent scientists and engineers. However, I seem to be the only woman amongh this crowd who takes on the role of secretary.

It could be that thanking me for secretarial work is just a knee-jerk reaction on my coworkers' part. It could be that it's a habit to compliment someone for doing something outside of the scope of their everyday job in the same way it is a habit for you to always respond to, "How are you doing?" with a simple "good" or "fine." It's possible that my coworkers would give the same compliment regardless of who did the actual minute-taking. In this scenario, they aren't necessarily pointing out that I was doing secretarial work, but just that they appreciate it was done.

Perhaps, as I mentioned earlier, this whole situation has arisen because I have the unconscious mentality that I should be a secretary. I personally don't think of my note-taking and organizational abilities as my subconscious trying to make me into the obedient little secretary it always wanted me to be. That would be a seriously weird and devious move on my subconscious' part. Rather, I think of my actions as a means to obtaining the best notes possible and not being able to trust someone else to do it as well as I can. Because seriously, no one takes better notes than I do. And if getting the best notes possible is the goal, then taking them myself is the practical solution. (Mindset of a control-freak engineer, right here.)

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's hard not being recognized for your braininess. It's hard to be recognized for your simple, mundane (though necessary work) when what you really want is to be recognized for the big things that I accomplish.

You want to be called first and foremost an engineer because you put in your time at school, you went through the pain of all-nighters, you learned those complex formulas and processes, and you earned your engineering degree. But you're not done yet. You have some more time, pain, and learning to go before you'll be universally recognized as a engineer.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

How To Work Hard Without Seeming To

Today I was trying to figure out when I needed to start my next experiment, and head over to check the group schedule board. A coworker saw me walk in, the following scene transpired: 

[I walk into the room and head over to our group schedule board. A few coworkers idle close by.] 
Coworker: Hey Ruby, you know you’re working too hard.
Me: Um, okay. Thanks?

[I check the board, and walk out.]

And now you know why I’m an engineer and not a screenplay writer.

I’m still not sure how checking a group schedule board merited such an accusation. Maybe I was walking with too much gusto. Or maybe it was because my coworkers had forgotten my usual work methods after a few days of not seeing me. After all, it was a Monday morning, so morose melancholy is the work mode of choice for most people, making anyone who is acting at normal capacity seem to be excessively productive.

If you’re anything like me, you see yourself as having a reasonable level of productivity, yet you are constantly told how unexpectedly fast you work and what a workaholic you are. I love working with people who are quick and passionate about their work. And yet, when a coworker comments on my work ethic, it is with surprise and a little aversion. The accusatory manner in which my work ethic was greeted this morning was typical of how people react.

After some time in the work force, most people will slide into one of two well-worn paths.

In the first, category you become complacent and secure in your job. Some people in this category stop feeling motivated to put more than an average amount of work in unless under a difficult deadline. Other people in this category actively look for ways to get away with doing less work whenever possible. If any of these people do end up putting more work in, they feel cheated or like the company owes them something.

In the second category, you are recognized as a genius/expert in the company and your obsession with working is acceptable because you are so knowledgeable and passionate. The people in this category are who you go to for advice; they are the sage givers of wisdom; they are always willing to help you understand a technique/technology more in-depth; and they are always excited by new, innovative projects.

However, as the new hire/recent college grad, you have not been in industry long enough for the established employees to accept you in either category. I'm assuming here that you're excited about engineering, that you're excited about proving yourself, that you're excited about making a difference, and therefore that you are aiming to fall into the second category of expert/hard worker. Even if you're knowledgable and passionate, you won't be accepted as the genius/expert in the company until you've proven yourself. And let me tell you, the only way to do that is to consistently work hard and excel over a period of time. Yes, folks, my answer to your problem of getting people to accept you as a passionate engineer/scientist is super helpful: all you need is time.

Here is the obstacle that you will likely face: In trying to achieve this goal, you are going to be judged for working too hard. Working hard is a necessary step to being accepted as a hard worker, obviously. But there is a stigma attached to being an extremely hard-working newbie. Workaholism at a young age will be seen as a problem by most of your peers because you are lower on the totem pole, yet you will be making them look bad. It’s a giant flashing sign indicating how green you are and how different from everyone else you are.

So here’s my (sad) advice to you. Your productivity is a dirty secret. Keep it up, but keep it on the down low. When I make lists and flow charts to organize my day, I either do it digitally or hide the lists under a stack of folders. When I am doing background research for a new project, I only share the most insightful articles with the group, while maintaining a more extensive library of relevant articles in a personal folder on my computer.

Best of luck,
Ruby

Monday, July 29, 2013

How to Stay Ethical

Most people I know joined engineering with a passion for making great products. Engineering ethics classes seemed like a joke; who would ever associate his or her name with a product that was less than perfect? But when you enter the real world there are extreme pressures to churn out designs quickly to meet superficial deadlines. And what is worse is that you sometimes have a team of nontechnical salespeople promising clients you can and will make something that may not even be physically possible.

This puts you,  as the engineer,  in a sticky situation. Do you succumb to time and management pressure,  or do you maintain quality even if that means missing deadlines or providing something different than what was originally requested? The answer for an outsider is obvious,  because many of  the products we create as engineers can cause injury and even death if they are not properly designed. That doesn't make standing up to your peers and your boss any easier.

My suggestions when put in an ethically compromising position are as follows:

1) Write your boss and/or the person requesting you make an impossible decision an email.

Heads up: this is exactly what they don't want you to do,  because it puts them in a sticky situation. While it should be a really nice and accommodating email,  it should also detail the problems you have. Once it is in writing,  it becomes "discoverable"  in the case of a lawsuit. Essentially this means you are putting their ass on the line along with yours,  which is why you need to be sure it's done in the nicest,  most innocent way possible. The reason I recommend this is because people suddenly become much more ethical when they are accountable for their decisions.

Example:

" I wanted to update you on the progress of X project.  While I am doing everything I can to complete this project on time,  I  don't believe the existing deadline will allow us enough time to ensure a quality product."

2) Stand up for your point of view.

If something feels wrong, it probably is. Carefully think through what you feel is wrong, do some research, and don't be afraid to disagree with people (even your bosses) over something that is important to you. Keep in mind, you need to pick your battles because ethical problems can range in severity. Not telling Suzie Q. that she is going to be fired in two weeks when she's about to buy a house may not be the best thing, but it also may not be a big enough deal to risk your job.

3) If it is really unethical  and nobody is making an effort to fix it, look for a new job.

If you are in this position, you'll know it. It's terrible and uncomfortable, but it is important to keep your integrity.

With all that said, I hope that you'll never have to use this advice. But keep in mind, these issues do arise more than we'd like to admit.

Love,

Vanessa

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Monday, July 22, 2013

Why Being a Female Engineer is Awesome (Part 1)

Apparently, there are some girls who still grow up thinking that engineering and science isn't meant for women. I could cite one of the plethora of studies which shows that girls tend to lose interest in science by 8th grade, or point out that the percentage of practicing female engineers and scientists is abysmal. But the negative association of women and technology was made perfectly clear when I was doing outreach with a class full of middle school girls targeted as high achieving math and science students, only two of them saw themselves as future engineers or scientists. Granted, I didn't even consider being an engineer until I was fifteen years old, so I'm not one to judge.

I know that high achievement levels in science and mathematics doesn't pigeonhole you into a specific future career; you can be an amazing inventor and scientific thinker like Roald Dahl who is also meant to be an famous writer.  But, it is important to remember women can thrive in the world of engineering (case-in-point: Ruby and I). Considering how much I beat up on the harsh realities of being a woman in the engineering world in this blog, I figured I should also let you know some reasons why I love being an engineer. So here is the first (silly) reason I love being an engineer:

WHY BEING A FEMALE ENGINEER IS AWESOME- PART 1:
It's a great party conversation.

Some young girls believe that science and technology jobs are not "glamorous" career choices,  but I'd argue that in this day and age it is one of the most glamorous jobs you can have. I don't see anything more glamorous than awkwardly low ponytails that can accommodate hardhats, old and stained coveralls, and a pair of lab goggles.

But when I'm socializing outside of work at everything from wine tastings,  to show premiers,  to wild house parties, being a female engineer is always a great conversation starter. As an adult one of the first conversations you have with new people is what you do for a living. Since female engineers are about as common as a polar bear in California (hint, there are some polar bears in zoos), peoples' natural curiosity kicks in and they ask more questions.

Luckily, developing new systems is a universally interesting subject. Tell me you don't want to talk to someone who helps build planes, computers, bridges, or solve some other problem that impacts our day to day lives. Obviously, you don't want to drone on about technical details, but talking about the impact of your work can make you sound like a superhero. A fashionable, social, intellectual superhero.



It's actually kind of uncomfortable sometimes how much people love that I'm an engineer. One woman I met monolouged for a good 10 minutes about how she admired me for breaking down boundaries and making a difference. Given,  she was already four glasses into a wine tasting and was splashing little droplets of red wine everywhere as she emphatically punctuated her sentence with her glass. I assured her that it's a job like any other,  but she kept on telling me that she aspired to be a strong woman like me someday (although she was over twice my age). This was all done while my friends with different jobs waited patiently without any word on the important work that they all do, which is super rude. Just goes to show,  non-engineers can be socially awkward too!

Even less drunk people have the same reaction. I met a well respected author at a swanky awards ceremony once, and when she heard what my job was she said that engineering was "basically magic"  to her. Unfortunately it wasn't J. K. Rowling,  because that quote would have been extra awesome. But as it stands, I'm pretty sure only engineers and magicians can claim that people think they have some super human powers. I mean,  just look at Iron Man.

And that, kids, is how space transporters are made. 
In conclusion, when you venture to parties as a female engineer, prepare to be fawned at, appreciated, and admired for being a woman who works in engineering. If you are going to a nerd party where most of the attendees are engineers, then you'll probably be fawned over just for being a woman. You can't lose.

Love,

Vanessa


Monday, July 15, 2013

How to Handle Your New IT Role As An Engineer


So I got through four years at college, graduated with an impressive engineering degree, and entered the “real world” by getting my first job at an engineering firm. What’s the first thing I noticed? It wasn’t a personalized nameplate in my own, brand new office, that’s for sure.


The first “I’m not in college any more” moment I had was when I walked into work and notice how old the rest of my office mates were.


I don’t care how mature you are or if your only friends were professors and grad students. I, too, have always hung out with people who were about one generation ahead of me, so I can assure you that I am used to some pretty wide age gaps. However, the difference in ages between my peers and me is immense. I lowered the average age of my department by ~5 years just by joining.



When you find yourself in this predicament, prepare yourself for being called the “baby” and for awkward conversations about how your coworkers’ kids (who happen to be your age) are also graduating college. But the biggest obstacle you will be faced with is the responsibility of teaching your coworkers everything about technology. And you will realize how much you take your knowledge of technology for granted when you have to teach someone:
  • How to copy and paste
  • How to crop a photo
  • How to filter junk mail
  • How to do other mundane, simple tasks

Your gut reaction will be to judge these people for their noob-ism because they are definitely judgment worthy. If you are able, you should quietly accept your job as the new IT person in the office. I, for instance, am now the go-to printer fixer in my office. Whenever a printer issue arises, my office mates call their new hire, Ruby, to save the day. And I readily drop my own projects to deal with the issue at hand, because what else can I say when my limited computer experience will gain me fame and glory in the eyes of my peers. However, the time I spend helping my coworkers fix paper jams and changing the toner is time not spent on my real, engineering projects. If you are like me, you may start to resent the naivety of your coworkers when it comes to simple technology issues.

After a period of time, however, you will be able to look past the computer-idiocy of some of your peers. Some of them have real intelligence and practical skills that are applicable and actually quite helpful to the job at hand. Granted, it will take you varied lengths of time to find this knowledge or skills in your peers. Some of them may hide their skills/knowledge for longer than their own lifespan. But with others, you will discover this fascinating, hidden facet of their professional life in just a few weeks.

So the next time you feel like sweeping everything off your desk in a dramatic gesture of exasperation because you were asked how to take a screenshot, just remember that someday your coworkers will impress you.

Best of luck,
Ruby