This year for National Engineers Week, we are running a series of interviews with women engineers. Today’s interview is with Karen Catlin, Leadership Coach and Advocate for Technical Women, Karen Catlin Consulting.
1. What is your favorite thing about being an engineer?
I love making things. I’m also an avid knitter, and I enjoy the process of design and creation with my yarn and needles as much as with code and a computer.
2. Tell us about an exciting project you have worked on
When I graduated from college in 1985, I joined a research group at Brown University to work on a hypertext system called Intermedia. This was well before the world-wide web, browsers, HTML, C++, and Java. Our software allowed users to create a collection of documents, to link information between these documents, and to view and comment on the resulting web of information. We also developed a rich set of object-oriented building blocks to speed our programming. And the software industry took notice! We had a steady stream of visitors and invitations to give demos and talks on our system. We had built a system that would influence something that we all take for granted today: the web.
I’m so proud of that research group and the ground-breaking work we did. I feel fortunate for what I learned during this time, such as the importance of craftsmanship in user interface design and object-oriented architecture, and the skills to write research papers, create compelling demos, and give presentations at large conferences. These learnings served me well throughout my career.
3. Why is it important to have women engineers?
I see many reasons why it’s important to have gender diversity on engineering teams. Generally speaking, men and women are attracted to different kinds of problems, handle stress differently, and are comfortable with different levels of risk. We need to balance people who can multitask with others who can focus deeply on a single issue, and to blend the “fight or flight” response to stress with “tend and befriend.” With a balanced team, we can create a healthy portfolio of high-risk features and engineering solutions with more prudent ones. Gender diversity is key.
4. What advice would you give to other women engineers?
Be sure to ask for what you want. Over my career, I asked for part-time and flexible work hours so that I had more time to spend with my children. While my managers were always supportive, none of them would have offered these arrangements without being asked. During your career, you may want other things (to take a class on a new technology, to spend more time visiting customers, to live oversees, and so on). When you know what you want, be sure to ask. You just may be pleasantly surprised by the answer.
5. If you could tell a young girl one thing about an engineering career, what would it be?
I have a friend who, as a child in the 1950’s, was told that if she learned to sew, she would always be able to support herself. If she were a child today, better advice would be to learn to code. Not only would it be a great way to earn a living, she would create software to solve problems, perhaps changing the world for the better. She would enter a career of making and learning. I think she would enjoy it!
After spending 25 years in the software industry, I’m now a leadership coach, advocate for technical women, and blogger about the intersection of leadership and parenting (www.karencatlin.com). Previously, I was a vice president in the office of the CTO at Adobe Systems. I’ve also worked for Macromedia, GO Corporation, Hitachi Europe Limited, and Brown University, where I received my B.S. in Computer Science.
I’m married to a great guy, and we have two teenagers who are pretty awesome.
I am passionate about helping women, especially in the male-dominated tech industry. In fact, my favorite quote is by Madeline Albright: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” It’s a guiding principle for how I decide to spend my time.