Me: To start off, what is your major and what is it that you do?
Susan: I have my degree in software engineering and I’m an is an engineering department manager at General Dynamics [an aerospace and defense company].
Me: Did you know you wanted to go into software engineering when you entered college?
Susan: Yes, I always knew.
Me: What was it that made you want to go into that field?
Susan: I’d always enjoyed math and science. And in my senior year of high school, I took my first programming class and really liked it.
Me: What was something that you had to overcome in college?
Susan: I would say that for me it was that in engineering you’re in classes are are almost all male. When I was going to school, there were times where I was the only girl in the class. It was a lot different from my dorm situation, where, of course, there were girls. I didn’t really have any female friends who were in engineering alongside me because there were so few of us.
Me: With all your classes, how did you keep sane?
Susan: There were times when I wanted to stop engineering. The curriculum is really difficult. My roommate was in elementary education and I would see her have so much more free time. She would be able to read leisure books and I would be like “oh my gosh I have all these classes Monday through Friday.” There were times where I wanted to go into something easier. I even thought of switching to accounting. My advisor really encouraged me to stick it out and that’s what I did. It was hard, but now I love what I’m doing. And even though I’m working on a program late into the night, it’s something I really enjoy doing. You just have to say “yes it is hard right now but I can get through it.” You have to have that sticktoitness.
Me: What was it like for you going from college into the field?
Susan: Like I said, you don’t learn how to be a software engineering. I mean, there’s programming and all. But I deal with the military world. Everything is defense contracts and there’s a whole lot more rigidity and documentation then you would ever think.
Also, you can work on programs for years and years, and they won’t ever make it to the field, which is a lot different than school. In school, you get a program done and you’re done. It’s learning that you can be in a phase of a program for months and months.
One of the cool things about when I graduated was that I had a skills with the Ada program, which is now obsolete. But at that time, it was cutting edge, and not a lot of folks knew the language. It was pretty cool for me as a new engineer.
Me: What’s something that you really just love about your job?
Susan: What I love most about what I’m doing is that I do a lot with recruiting with younger people. I work with getting kids interested in STEM. I start back with elementary schools through boys and girls clubs. We [General Dynamics] have a program where we bring them in and teach them what engineering is and what they need to do to go into engineering and get into college. We do workshops with them and take them on tours of ASU and try to get them excited about going to college. With the younger engineers, I just really enjoy finding mentors for them. When you’re in school, it teaches you how to solve problems in your field. Technology changes quickly, so college teaches you how to problem solve. But that doesn’t necessarily teach you how to be an engineer, and so there’s a big transition from college to the field and working on projects, which is why we have mentors.
Me: Was there anything you didn’t expect about the field you’re in?
Susan: For me, it was how fast technology changes. When you’re in college, you think what you’re working on is the cutting edge, which it is, at the time you’re taking it. You just don’t see how quickly things change and how easily it is to become obsolete in STEM. You have to keep up with everything. It’s not “okay I’ve learned what I need to” you have to keep working on your skills and stay up to date.
Me: Is that challenge something you enjoy?
Susan: Oh definitely I love it.
Me: What are skills you learned that weren’t taught in a school?
Susan: In engineering or any STEM field, you have to be very methodical. I don’t think they teach you exactly to be an engineer. I’m very organized and excel in management skills, which they don’t teach, but you learn. I worked for a long time, but when I had my two boys, I was a stay at home mom for years. I used those skills that I got from engineering and job, and applied them every day life.
Me: Something that I’ve wondered about is having kids while being in STEM, because the jobs are demanding. How did you go about that?
Susan: I was really lucky because I was out for 11 years when I went back. I had to work hard to maintain my skills. I did some consulting work here and there. But, it was amazing how quickly I fell back into it. I had work to emphasize my strong points and did whatever work I needed to do to refresh my technical skills. It’s definitely difficult being a female in engineering…. There’s a bias towards women towards women when they have kids. Like when a guy who stays home because their kid is sick it’s like “oh isn’t that great he’s helping out” vs when a woman stays home it’s like “she’s always having to do that.” With guys it’s viewed as a positive, whereas with women it’s an annoyance.
Me: Still, if you could go back and see yourself right when you were starting to form an interest in software, what would you say to yourself?
Susan: I think I would say you can do this, it’s going to be hard, but enjoy all of it. Even the times when you want to give up, embrace that what you’re doing is exciting and challenging. Preserve through it.
Me: And what would you say to a girl who wants to go into STEM, but is hesitant?
Susan: I’d tell her to do it. Find something you’re passionate about, and that’ll help you through the difficult times. Also, to find other women who are in STEM. Use that to commiserate together to realize that you’re in similar situations.