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.


" 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.



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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:

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.



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,

Monday, July 8, 2013

How to Avoid Dating Your Client's Children

Pretty much every woman in engineering has dealt with being courted by a co-worker, boss, client, etc. While I'm sure some fairy-tale romances have blossomed from the office, most of the time office courtships are weird and inappropriate. But eventually,  you accept it and learn how to fend off future advances.

I figured I'd escape the burden of trying to appear un-dateable with some of my coworkers and clients who are literally old enough to be my parents. Fortunately they tend to not be "manthers" (men who go after women half their age) and I make an effort to not dress like a flasher, so I thought I was in the clear. But what I'd never counted on was that they have sons who are just about my age. In the past year alone, I've had THREE clients/coworkers try to set me up with their children.

Each time is oddly similar. It's almost like people who are trying to set their children up with people at work have a well established method of how to bring up the idea of dating their very single child who may or may not even live in the same state as you.

So, I'm going to share the script of how co-workers try to bring up the idea of dating their children to help you prepare for a similar event. Or if you have a twenty or thirty something year old child who you've always wanted to set up a coworker, but just didn't know how to go about it,  this script is the perfect way to make your coworker extremely uncomfortable.  


The awkward courting ritual always begins with a complestion (a compliment whose main purpose is to ask you an otherwise inappropriate question). They are usually focused around determining your age and/or if you are single. Take the following example:

Them: "You seem so young to be so knowledgeable about <subject matter>. How old are you anyhow?"

My guess is that the questioner expects that the target [in this case me] will be so overwhelmed by the compliment that they will unquestioningly share personal information,  which will determine if they are dateable.


The true meaning of the complestion becomes revealed when they just happen to remember their own child's age:

Them: "You know what, I just remembered my son's just about the same age."

Typical reactions from the target include some confusion about how one forgets the age of his or her own child, and increased wariness of the nature of the conversation. 


Next comes the "homage" where I have the pleasure of receiving a sermon worshiping the perfection that is my client or coworkers son. He may not be a god, but he is damn close:

Them: "He was on the honor roll all through college, and then he joined the military saves a town of women and children and now he's got a great job. He's already been promoted twice because he's so smart, reliable, and he's just got a great personality. You know, everyone used to come up to me at little league games and tell me what great sportsmanship he has.  AND he's single right now,  but who wouldn't want to date a guy like that?"

Me (in my head): You know he does sound perfect for me, especially those part that you omitted about the smoking, anger management problems, and his clingy dependence on his parents.

Me (spoken aloud): "Sounds like your son is a great guy." (Spoken in the least encouraging tone possible without coming off as sarcastic, to try and discourage the continuation of the conversation).


I never claimed to be an artist... 
The final phase of the wildly inappropriate attempted setup is the suggested meeting where the client/coworker comes up with some ridiculous way in which you can meet his or her son:

Them: "I think you'd really like him, maybe I'll get him to come in the next time we have a meeting and you two can chat afterwards."

Me: "..."

Honestly, I still haven't figured out how to respond to that one. Meeting a guy who is not affiliated with your company or your client during working hours seems all sorts of unethical. I am also skeptical of anyone who can manage to take off of work to meet me at 2 pm on a weekday. One of  my coworkers actually flew in their 28 year old son to for "bring your child to work day" and introduced him to me amidst a hoard of under-supervised screaming pre-teens. It was really romantic. Surprisingly,  we are not dating.

If you happen to experience all four phases of this set-up without having been able to stop it one way than you have officially entered the world of super awkward setups. Once you reach the final stage, beware: there is a strong implication that you should make something happen. My solution for this is simply to out-awkward  everyone else by acting as if I am completely unaware of their intentions. I've found that people feel exceedingly uncomfortable if they have to spell out the fact that they want you to date their child- which means that if you hold out in complete naivete long enough they give up and you can avoid the problem effectively all together.

Good luck,


Monday, July 1, 2013

How To Not Become A Flasher

There are some days when you leave your home thinking you’re going to have a normal day of meetings and sitting in your office, working at your computer. On those days, you might think it a good idea to deviate from your usual fashion of practical business casual wear. On those days, you might think it a good idea to finally wear that flowy skirt or new dress. After all, even though you work as an engineer and frequently disregard your girlish impulses in order to fit in, you are a girl and it is socially acceptable to wear skirts and dresses once in a while. If you are like me, you will be thinking, ‘What could it hurt to wear a dress on such a drab work day?’ 

Let this be a warning from personal experience: Disregarding your better (more practical) judgment to satisfy your girlish needs is not a good idea. Inevitably, the day you choose to wear a dress is the day you will be faced with some emergency which requires you to take apart and reassemble a malfunctioning piece of equipment, visit a client site which requires that you wear a pair of gross/moldy coveralls over your clothes, or even climb through air conditioning ducts superspy-style to end a dangerous hostage situation. 

In all of these cases, your girlish impulse to wear a dress is a hindrance. If your job is anything like mine, you have a 100% chance of flashing your coworkers while reassembling that mischievously malfunctioning piece of equipment. And if you attempt to do your job while consciously trying to avoid flashing your coworkers, you’re going to do it awkwardly and inefficiently. This is one of my greatest examples of a lose-lose situation. Either you are subject to embarrassment in front of your coworkers or your reputation takes a blow because of your inefficiency, all because you decided to wear a dress. 

After having experienced this first-hand, I have defined a new rule for choosing my work attire: Do not wear dresses. Do not try to try to make a fashion statement. Do not try to overthrow the suppression that your workplace practicality has imposed. This is one of those moments where it is a good idea to suck it up and bear it. 

I now intend to put a sign on my closet which reads something like this:

"Oh you want to wear a dress? No you don't. Put it back and grab those pants. Flashing is reserved for sex offenders and camera bulbs.

And if you’re having a hard time choosing what to wear, my friend Vanessa has kindly already provided some advice on what footwear is appropriate in the workplace. 

Now, avoiding wearing girly clothing just because of some hypothetical, superlative situations may sound suppressive or even discriminatory against women. I, however, don’t consider my advice anti-women or anti-feminism. In fact, I consider this choice in attire to be helpful to gaining women respect and rights. 

The reality is that I’m an engineer AND a feminist, which means I tend to go about obtaining respect for women in a practical manner. In my mind, women shouldn’t demand respect just because they are women. They need to earn respect by doing respectable things. Flashing my coworkers in a 100% avoidable situation doesn’t gain me respect; it actually discredits me. My coworkers will think of me as that girl that tries to do a man’s job instead of as just a coworker doing an engineer’s job.

Alternatively, if I dress appropriately for the job, as a typical engineer would (in practical, reasonable attire because we engineers are practical people), then I will hopefully be thought of as an engineer first. My reputation won’t be degraded, I won’t be embarrassed, and I’ll still be on par with all my other coworkers. Being thought of as an engineer who happens to also be a woman shifts the paradigm toward people understanding that everyone is capable of being an engineer regardless of gender. 

After all, women deserve respect in the workplace, and I simply can’t get that if I’m flashing everyone. Plus, by going about this reasonably, I’m able to combat the notion that women are unfathomable, illogical, and flighty creatures.

I, at least, will be removing skirts and dresses from my work attire from now on.