Diversity Career Stories Engineering

Petro physical engineer succeeds with broad educational background and military experience

In this career interview with a petro physical engineer, he shares his quest for finding his calling, despite the misguided advice from high school career tests. His determination to not be pigeon-holed into a very specific niche in college served him well, and opened up career opportunities to a field he truly loves.

In high school there was a system to target students, based on standardized testing, for careers that would best suit them. The tests indicated a career as an accountant was a good fit for me. I wondered if they mixed my test scores with someone else. There was nothing I could imagine more boring than being stuck inside all day.

It was clear to me that my college education needed to prepare me to work with people, not numbers. I wanted a career that would allow me to use my education, travel and be outside. Fortunately, the first year of college requires a broad base of required courses. This allowed me time to decide which direction to take my education. I was not required to designate a major until the start of my 2nd year of college.

I had a strong interest in information technology. I was still uncertain what I wanted my career to be, so getting too specific with my major was a concern. If I chose electrical engineering, would that preclude me from other types of engineering careers? These were the types of questions in my mind. I decided on a double major in math and physics with emphasis in computer science. I was comfortable with the more general nature of that degree. I kept that major until graduation from college. It turned out that it was a smart move for me to pursue a technical degree with a strong general foundation.

College life was great but at first it was a big challenge. There were many temptations. Many of them made concentrating on my studies difficult. As an early riser my day was different from most of the men in my dorm. I found other persons who liked starting their day early and was able to develop a small group of friends. This allowed me to stay focused. My roommate was not in that group but I had a good relationship with him. It was good to have a group of friends that were not the same people living in my immediate dorm living area. Most of my study time was done in class or school facilities, libraries and labs.

I did not look for a specific job while I was in college for one reason; I already had a job. My college was paid for by the ROTC program. This meant I was to be commissioned in the military for my first job after college. I had to repay the government with 2 years of active duty service before I could start out on a civilian career. I thought this was a great plan. It gave me more time to develop a good foundation for whatever I would end up doing as a career.

I looked at my time in the military as a continuance of my college education. I chose a branch of the military that would allow me to get training in data processing, information technology and systems analysis. Effectively I looked at this time and training as excellent post undergraduate study time. Because of this attitude I had no problems in transition from college to the military. I was now a graduate student in the field of life and experience. My transition to a career would come after my military activity duty time.

After “graduating” from my post graduate studies I took a few months to get away. During this period I looked for a job that could lead to a career my education and experience would support. Sooner than I expected I found a job that must have been made for me. The education I had crafted for myself turned out to be perfect. I took a job as a field engineer in the oil service industry. This job required skills in math and physics. I admit the main attraction was that all of the work was, literally, done outdoors. It seemed like such a natural fit I was stunned. The recruiter said it was rare to find an applicant with such a wide range of educational experience. He also looked on my military time and training as a big plus.

I stayed in that career field, formally called petro physical engineering for many years. The broad base of my college education, and the fact that it was not specific to one engineering field, served me well. My transition from “graduate school” time in the military to my engineering career was not difficult for several reasons.

The military prepared me for focusing on getting a job done. Any traces of a green college student were faded into my personality. Knowing I had spent time in the military helped me to fit right in to my new career in civilian life. In my case there is nothing that I would change. Looking back it does seem amazing that all my non specific gathering of knowledge built upon itself. It seems the path I chose allowed me to gain training and experience that all led me towards success in the career I have had.

At the time I was in college there were no petro physical engineering degrees. Using my college and military time to build a broad, but technical, foundation was an excellent choice. I had set a course for being outside working with people to get a job done. Following my passion has served me well and been an excellent decision.

Diversity Career Stories Engineering

Software engineer shares thrills and spills of the computer science industry

This software engineer made her mark working on major projects for a world-renowned amusement park while overcoming discrimination and sexual harassment. 30 years after beginning her career in computer science, she finds her job worthwhile, but finds personal fulfillment and reward through writing and sharing her story.

What is your job title? How many years of experience do you have in that field?
My job title is Senior Software Engineer. I have worked as a software engineer for 30 years.

Would you describe what you do on a typical day?
A software engineer’s job involves computer programming, but the job has a wider breadth than just writing computer code. I’m responsible for gathering requirements, designing, implementing and testing software for a product that’s used by major corporations to design mechanical objects including cars, ships, factory equipment and smaller consumer items like cameras, vacuums, mobile phones and other electronic gadgets. The type of programming that I do involves computer science, mathematics and 3D computer graphics.

On a typical day, I am either designing and writing new software or fixing problems (or “bugs”) in software used by customers. I am a member of a team that’s located elsewhere in the U.S., so I may be talking to one of my teammates by phone or attending a meeting that takes place via conference call. My company is multinational and I work with employees and customers all over the world. I receive 50-100 email messages a day so I spend part of my day responding to email requests and questions.

What is your ethnicity? What kinds of discrimination have you experienced?
As a Caucasian female, I am a member of a minority in my field. In addition to Caucasian males, my industry is dominated by men from China and India. In my current company I don’t experience any overt discrimination, but women are mostly left out of the casual socializing that many of the men engage in. Groups of men network by going out to lunch together, but because of cultural customs they do not include women. The women who are engineers (as opposed to clerical workers) do not typically network in the same way. This situation makes it harder to get noticed as a woman.

My first programming job was with a major entertainment company that runs a movie studio and several world-famous theme parks. I experienced a great deal of discrimination and harassment at that company, despite the fact that I was successfully completing major projects. I left that company due to the discrimination I was experiencing.

If you’ve experienced discrimination, in what ways have you responded and what response worked best?
At my first software engineering job, I was naïve about the interest that my male co-workers showed in me. What I believed was professional mentoring turned out to be an interest on their part in dating me or having an affair. Some of these men later took credit for my work or ideas or made untrue claims about the quality of my work. I talked to my manager and to his boss about the problem but felt that I was going against a “good old boy” club. I then spoke to the company’s Human Resources department, not realizing that the company’s goal was to discredit any possible claims of sexual harassment.

The response that worked best for me in this case was leaving the company. Since I had just completed my Computer Science degree and had a few years of valuable work experience, I was able to quickly find another job that almost doubled my salary. After I few months in my new position, I realized how unprofessional and discriminatory my previous co-workers and managers had been.

Where you work, how well does your company do ‘equal opportunity’? Is management white and male? How are minorities perceived and treated?
I am lucky to work for a multi-national corporation that is very conscientious about equal opportunity. Management is not exclusively white and male. People of other ethnicities are well represented and are treated equally and with respect. I think that women must work harder to get ahead, but many women do and have advanced to senior technical and management positions.

What don’t they teach in school that would’ve been helpful to you?
My university degree prepared me for the technical aspects of my job but did not provide enough training in making presentations. I overcame a fear of public speaking and learned on the job how to present my ideas to my manager, teammates and larger groups of people. I also had to learn (often the hard way) how to network and protect my professional reputation.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
As a senior in high school, I was interested in both Math and English and had high SAT scores in both areas. As a freshman in college, I took an elementary Computer Science class. I enjoyed the subject matter but was intimidated by the fact that I was the only woman in a class of 50 students. Also, those were the days of mainframe computers and punched cards, so programming was frustratingly time consuming. At the end of my freshman year I decided to major in English with a minor in Dramatic Art. I was interested in costume design and went on to design costumes for several university productions.

After completing my English degree, I worked for a few years making costumes for movies and plays. The job involved long hours and very little pay and I didn’t seem to be getting closer to my goal of becoming a costume designer (as opposed to the person who just sewed the costumes). I decided I wanted a career that was more stable and paid more money. By this time computers had advanced and the first personal computers were being introduced, so I made a career in computers my goal.

I went back to school and earned a BS in Computer Science. While working on my degree, I participated in the co-op program which involved working full-time as a software engineer in place of taking classes. After my co-op assignment was completed, I was hired as a part-time software engineer with the same company. Because I had gained experience with personal computers (called micro computers in those days), I was assigned to some major projects that were part of a new theme park. It was a very exciting experience.

I don’t regret anything about the way I got started as a software engineer. My degree in English enriched my life and helped me develop my writing skills. Most software engineers are not good at writing, so this has given me an edge.

On a good day, when things are going well, can you give an example of something that really makes you feel good?
Even though I’ve been programming for 30 years, I am still passionate about fixing a bug or implementing some complex functionality. Working through a problem, using the knowledge I’ve gained with years of programming experience and then seeing the results of my work on the computer screen really makes me feel good. Luckily, I’m able to experience this feeling almost every day.

When nothing seems to go right, what kind of snafus do you handle and what do you dislike the most?
One of the most frustrating aspects of my job is realizing that some code I wrote has a bug in it that has been found by a customer. In this case, I have to quickly find a better solution. Another frustration is encountering a problem that I can’t solve. In this case, I have to ask a teammate for assistance. Most software engineers like to find their own solutions and don’t like having to ask for help.

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance?
Most people would view my job as stressful because there is little room for error, but I’ve been doing it a long time and have learned to deal with the stress. The field of software engineering is demanding and many people put in long hours, but after a few years I learned to limit the number of overtime hours per week that I work. This has helped me avoid total burnout and work-related problems in my personal life. I have become more efficient at my job (“working smarter”), so I don’t need to put in as many hours as I once did.

On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What would it take to increase that rating?
I would rate my job satisfaction as 8. A more exciting work environment and more opportunities to travel would increase my rating. On the other hand, I am paid well and have flexible hours, so those are big pluses.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough considering your responsibilities?
The salary range for a software engineer doing the type of work I do ranges from $75,000 to more than $150,000 per year. Engineers with more experience and more years at a single company can expect a higher salary. I believe this salary range is very fair considering the responsibilities.

What’s the most rewarding moment you’ve experienced in this position? Of all the things you’ve done at work, what are you most proud of?
My most rewarding moment in my current position was playing a major role in reinventing our product for the Microsoft Windows platform, which opened the door to more sales.
I am most proud of work I did for my first job, where I completed several large projects for a new theme park. The night before the theme park opened, I stayed up all night installing a series of video games that I designed and implemented. When I went back to my hotel to change clothes for the park’s opening, I turned on the TV and saw that Today and Good Morning America were featuring the park’s opening.

I recommend that software engineers volunteer for high profile assignments. This type of assignment carries a lot of risk in terms of failure, but is also the most rewarding and is the quickest way to get promoted.

What’s the most challenging moment you’ve experienced? What would you prefer to forget?
I was most challenged when I became a manager shortly after giving birth to my second child. I had a great deal of stress in my personal life, which included my father being ill with terminal cancer, and I was put in charge of a team that was somewhat lacking in talent. I had a very difficult time letting my team members fail since I felt it would reflect poorly on me as a manager, and so I completed work that they should have been doing. Since then I have left management and become a senior member of technical staff, where I am much happier.

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
At least a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science or a related field such as Mathematics or Electrical Engineering is required for a position as a Software Engineer in a major corporation. Many of my co-workers have master’s or doctorate degrees. Graduating from a prestigious university is definitely a plus, as is work experience gained through a paid internship or co-op position.

The skills that help a person succeed in this field include a love of solving puzzles, an ability to think logically, intense concentration and focus and an attention to detail. A software engineer often works on a program with tens of thousands of lines of code and needs to retain a mental image of how the code is laid out and interconnected, so an ability to think in abstract terms and an exceptional memory are also important. People who don’t enjoy math “word problems” or who aren’t good at solving them would probably not succeed in this field.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
I constantly recommend my line of work to bright young people. It is a stable industry that will continue to grow in the coming years. The work remains interesting over the long term and pays well.

If I had a friend that was considering my line of work, I would assess their education and skills and try to honestly let them know if I thought they would be a good fit for the job.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
Because I have been with my current company for more than 20 years, I receive 5 weeks of paid time off. I find that this is enough. Because of the pressure of my work schedule, I rarely take more than a week of vacation at a time. This is also true for many of my coworkers.

Are there any common myths you want to correct about what you do?
The biggest myth about Software Engineers is that they are “geeks.” While it’s true that some of them fit the stereotype of a guy with poor social skills who’s good with computers and loves science fiction, there are a wide variety of other types of people who are employed as Software Engineers and are good at their jobs.

Does this job move your heart? If not, what does?
My job provides satisfaction though I can’t say that it moves my heart as much as it once did. A few years ago I began writing as an outlet on the side, and I would have to say that moves my heart more. I think that anyone who works in the same field for several decades needs to expand their horizons and try something new in order to stay vital and connected.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
I would retire from Software Engineering and work full time as a freelance writer or book author.

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
I think I’ve been able to succeed in a male-dominated field because I have always been academically competitive. Also, I grew up with three brothers and no sisters, so I am used to being outnumbered by men. I came of age in a time when “feminist” was not a bad word, so I wasn’t afraid to stand up for my rights when I felt they were bring denied.

Finally, I never felt that I had to choose between being feminine, having a family and working as a Software Engineer. It’s possible to have all of these things at once.