Martine Stillman
Mechanical Engineering Program Lead

WE Local - San Jose

Have you ever had the sensation where you look around and realize everyone around you is a complete badass? Maybe you’re at a fundraiser with movers and shakers in your community, or in the hallway with a pro sports team. I had that experience recently in an elevator, filled with completely normal-looking people. There were two differentiators: they were all 10+ year veteran engineers and execs from Microsoft, Caterpillar, IBM, and Northrop Grumman, and they were all women. As far as I’m concerned, the Society of Women Engineers regional conference was filled with the best kind of celebrities - next time I’m getting autographs!

The Society of Women Engineers is a non-profit organization that has been helping women succeed in engineering for 60 years. The organization has 35,000 members across the globe. SWE has a huge range of ways it brings value to its members, including collegiate chapters, scholarships, conferences, job fairs, online learning resources, K-12 outreach, and even a comic book popularizing the role of engineer! However, some of the most important ways they provide value is in providing networking opportunities, and excellent programming at their conferences.

SWE conference
Source: SWE

The SWE annual conference is the largest women’s engineering conference in the world. It hosts a job fair of epic proportions, with almost every large firm that employs engineers represented. I received one of my first internships from that job fair in the year 2000, with Corning Inc. in the micro-manufacturing and robotics division. This year for the first time, SWE had two smaller regional conferences, one in Pittsburgh, and one in San Jose. Synapse was selected to give a talk on prototyping, presented by Kathy Fedirchuk and myself.

Our talk was called Prototyping 101: How to Do It, and Do It Better. We covered the basics of prototyping as well as the importance of planning, strategy, and testing. Our audience was a diverse mix of collegiates and professionals. After the talk, we took additional questions and spoke to over a dozen new connections and friends.

Martine and Kathy presenting at SWE Local

Throughout the three days of the conference, we went to keynotes, workshops, and presentations. The opening keynote featured Celeste Mergens, the founder of international nonprofit Days for Girls, who spoke about the importance of user-centered design to the feminine hygiene mission of Days for Girls. Ms. Mergens did an amazing job of relaying how critical user-centered design is to all design work, and really to human collaborations on a larger scale. She brought home the commonly overlooked point that design should think about the product from procurement/creation, storage, use, all the way through disposal. It’s critical to consider the end user here: for example, they made this product colorful, so when it is drying on a clothesline, it’s not a taboo object, just another piece of cloth. Also, each step of the process should be considered as to whether there are other benefits it could bring, for example, by training women to MAKE the product, they’re providing employment AND product. At Synapse, we’ve been practicing this through our formal TRIZ/ideation training, but it was so powerful to see it in a real-world application.

Maya DiRado, the Olympic gold medalist swimmer gave an amazing talk about growth mindset. She opened with the mic dropper “I am a mediocre back stroker. I hope to convince you how normal I really am.” From there she explained that the ‘only special thing’ about her was her desire to step beyond her limits in small ways, consistently. She quoted Bill Gates as saying ‘most people overestimate what they can do in one year, and underestimate what they could do in ten.’ She also presented a bunch of data on her swimming (she’s an engineer, after all!) and it was fascinating to see how using just small gains she went from not even being in the top 300 swimmers to winning four Olympic medals.

Aside from the keynotes, there were a huge variety of technical (and non-technical) talks and panels to go to. My colleague Kathy and I attended presentations on breadth vs. depth in a career, unconscious bias, the state of the engineering industry, introverts vs. extroverts at work, and the Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey. We also managed to fit in a few more fun talks, like ‘Hairstory: a Story of Natural Hair’, and ‘A Systems Engineer’s Guide to Disneyland’ (fascinating!)

The unconscious bias and the Women in the Workplace talk were very complementary. For the unconscious bias talk, a woman from the Anita Borg Institute presented some of their research findings: namely that unconscious bias is a thing that really does happen, and it continues to pervade the tech workplace. The Women in the Workplace talk (presented by Northrop Grumman) reiterated that fact, and connected it to a huge disparity in the numbers of men vs. women in leadership roles. Interestingly, women are as likely as men to exhibit gender bias, so we’re ALL the problem. However, there are lots of things that do work to combat bias, such as setting fair and consistent metrics, doing bias trainings, and making sure performance reviews are free from known bias-prone faults. This subject alone could fill up a whole separate blog post!

Source -

Introverts vs. extroverts at work was fascinating, it was a presentation and a panel discussion. The panel was led by Jennifer Bly and Erin Carroll from Intel, and our good friend Holli Pheil from Nike served as the extrovert on the panel. They discussed and answered questions on the working style of different personality types. One of my favorite slides was an infographic on how to manage introverts vs. extroverts. I had never before even considered whether my direct reports were introverts or extroverts and it was a great exercise.

‍Photo courtesy of LinkedIn page

Let’s face it, AFTER learning about tips to make my workplace more free from gender bias, how to better lead introverts, and being inspired to follow precepts of user-centered design, learning how the systems engineer gets all the best Fast Passes at Disneyland was like icing on the cake! I haven’t even covered Facebook’s Aquila System, “returnships”, the 50k Coalition, and how Caterpillar is taking on 3d printing. For those details, you’ll have to come to the next SWE conference, WE17, Oct. 26-28 Austin, TX!


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