Kelly D. - Engineer
Tenure at SBD: 5 years
Please comment on your experiences as a female working and finding success in your industry/function?
As a female engineer, there is a delicate balance often being the first or only female in my department. I could watch my male colleagues and classmates struggling to figure out how to behave around me. During a full day interview event for my first job, alongside 40 seniors from colleges around the Mid-Atlantic region, one of the other applicants raised his hand and asked the HR representative how many engineers they were looking to hire. He asked because there were 3 women in the mix and if the company was looking to increase diversity, he didn’t want to waste his time sticking around since his diversity as a Caucasian-male would limit him at the door. His question implied that as if for some reason, the 3 women qualified to be in that room by any other account. All three female applicants were indeed hired. As was the gentleman who asked that question.
I mostly kept my head down and worked hard, so I could point to my work to prove that I wasn’t just a diversity hire. I had an excellent mentor who reassured me on day one that I knew more than I thought. I would bring drawings that I thought were complete to him to review and I would come back to my desk with the drawing covered in red ink. He taught me to be open about my work, to be pro-active so that by the time things needed to be approved, everyone on the approval list was comfortable giving the ok.
By the time I got to Stanley Black and Decker, I was pretty accustomed to being the only woman in the room and I was much more confident that I was making sound design decisions. I am always prepared to back up my assumptions, as of course any engineer should be, but especially as a female engineer is often called upon to do. I learned that I needed to be louder than most of the others at the table, otherwise I would never be heard (but not too loud). That I needed to take every opportunity that was offered to me so that I could be at the table to make my voice heard.
If you could go back and give yourself advice as a college student knowing what you know now, what would it be?
You know more than you think and at the same time everyone else doesn’t know as much as they appear to. There’s a fallacy, especially among women, that you can’t do something unless you’re 100% sure of exactly how it will go. Take a risk and jump in feet first and figure it out as you go. If you wait until you feel like you have an understanding, the boat is long gone. You can’t know if you don’t ask - the sooner you are willing to admit you don’t know something, the faster you will be able to learn the answer.
What is one interesting fact about SBD that people might not know?
Black and Decker was tasked with creating a drill that could be used on the moon. There is a particular set of challenges when working in zero gravity, specifically the reactionary force of the torque of the drill. In zero gravity, if the drill needs to spin clockwise, there’s nothing to stop the astronaut from spinning counterclockwise. Black and Decker invented the impact mechanism which uses a spring to store energy and then drives a bolt through a series of impacts of an anvil. An interesting engineering fact that does not have to do with Stanley Black and Decker – a woman, Tabitha Babbitt, invented the circular saw. She observed that a linear sawing motion was half wasted energy returning the saw to the ‘start’ position. A rotating circular blade could continue to rotate in one direction, cutting constantly.
If you hadn't gone into your specific function, what other career path would you have taken?
I honestly don’t know what I would have done other than engineering. I have always loved figuring out the way things work and why things are made the way they are. Perhaps I would go into economics. The interaction between the hard science of numbers and the soft science that is human behavior is fascinating to me. Yes, if supply goes down demand goes up, but sometimes people just feel that they can trust something (or not trust something) meanwhile the scales are completely tipped.
What has been your biggest career risk?
About a year and a half ago I was presented with an opportunity to leave Stanley Black and Decker and develop an engineering team at a startup company making robots. This sounded like the millennial dream, I could do this for a year or two before the company would be acquired, and I could go back to my regularly scheduled life with a full retirement fund. So I put in my notice and left in pursuit of my engineering dreams. Before I left, one of my mentors made me promise him “I’m your first call”. It turns out that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The company was not prepared to take the time to properly develop their product to meet a specific user’s needs. They were spread too thin and looking to tackle every marketplace to build brand recognition. It became a cycle of frustration when we were constantly chasing issues and couldn’t satisfy any one particular customer. That lasted three months. Ultimately, the founder and I just couldn’t get on the same page, we were bleeding money and not getting anywhere. I am the luckiest person on earth, because I called my mentor (before I even called my wife) and one of his direct reports had just put in notice to transfer departments earlier that week, so he had a spot open and it was mine if I wanted it. I took a huge risk, and it failed miserably, but I gained a ton of perspective. I’m now back where I started, but I appreciate every minute of that learning opportunity.
How do you juggle personal and professional life without sacrificing one for the other?
This is probably the million dollar question, and of course there is no one answer. I try to approach it from the long view – when I’m retired, what will I look back and remember. Completing a powerpoint deck early or spontaneously going to an Aimee Mann and Ted Leo concert in Woodstock, NY on 1 days’ notice? We all want to be incredibly successful, of course. I think the key is transparency and communication, both at work and at home. My wife and I tend to trade off periods of time where we’re busy at work. When she is in crunch time, I’ll make sure to get home and start meal prep, etc. When I need to work late for a few days (weeks?) she’ll step up and take on a few extra tasks. At the same time, if something is going on in my personal life, I’ll sit down with my manager and explain that I’m going to focus on being extra efficient during my 8 hours in the office, but will need to turn my ringer off after 5. You’ll be surprised at how accommodating everyone can be, you just can’t expect the world to read your mind.
What is your advice for an aspiring engineer?
Confidence is key. Ask as many questions as you can so that you have the information you need to run with whatever the task at hand is. Try, and then check in, and then tweak. Don’t be afraid of feedback, your first idea is never the best – it’s not personal. And for Pete’s sake, math isn’t hard! You absolutely can be an engineer as long as you keep an open mind to it. I hate hearing women tell me that they could never do what I do because they just never “got math”. No one told me when I was growing up that I wasn’t supposed to be good at math – we need to squash this idea that girls are somehow wizards if they turn out to be good at it.
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