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.



Monday, September 23, 2013


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!


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!


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!


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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?


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.



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