This year for National Engineers Week, we are running a series of interviews with women engineers. Today’s interview is with Mary Arras, Senior System Engineer, The Nature Conservancy.
1. What is your favorite thing about being an engineer?
There are two levels I love about my work. The first is getting to build really deep knowledge about technology. The second is then using that knowledge to build things that people can then use to do work in the world. Having a problem to solve, breaking it down, taking what I have learned over the years and then putting that all together to make something that did not exist before is really fun. It is also awesome to be able to track down a problem like a bug in software that no one else has seen before by doing things like reading system traces and memory modeling.
2. Tell us about an exciting project you have worked on
Sometimes the most exciting projects are not the biggest, and big projects can be boring – which is not always a bad thing! When you are building an email system, you want it to work all the time and for that excitement is not a good thing. The most exciting project to me was participating in building systems to support the original iteration of the climate wizard application at http://www.climatewizard.org/ (which has since migrated to a cloud environment) and the current system supporting an application that helps organizations evaluate where to place wind farms (http://wind.tnc.org).
3. Why is it important to have women engineers?
I think it is important to have as many engineers as possible, period, because the engineering viewpoint is taking knowledge and turning it into something real in the world that people can use in their day to day lives. Part of that is having as many different perspectives as possible on what can be done, what should be done, and what will be done. As much as knowledge of a particular field is sufficient to build something, it is not enough to build just anything, the idea as an engineer is to build what is needed. In my experience in technology, I have found that it is often the case that having a woman (or even several women) in a conversation can help broaden both the way people look at solving problems, and the problems we pick to try and solve in the first place. Also, when I have worked for organizations that try to be more welcoming to women, it seems like they end up being more welcoming to everyone, which means more and better people involved in doing the work overall.
4. What advice would you give to other women engineers?
I think the advice I would give to a woman engineer, at least the type of engineering I do with computers, is to make sure to learn more than a narrow specialty. I heard someone describe the ideal knowledge distribution as a “T” shape – try to know a moderate amount about a lot of different things, then concentrate in one or two areas from that point. It will give a broader base for later work. So if you are studying computers and want to be a programmer, make sure to learn more than just software engineering methodologies and a couple of languages – try to spend time running different operating systems and learn about how compilers are designed and understand why, especially in these days of The Cloud, understanding things like storage and networking is very important to doing good systems architecture. So when you reach a weird problem, you can work your way from knowing how all the parts fit together to finding a solution.
I would also say try to have a sense of humor. Because a lot of times you will find yourself under a lot of pressure to build something or fix something and having a sense of humor is always a good way to keep yourself on track and also to keep a team on track.
5. If you could tell a young woman one thing about an engineering career, what would it be?
I would want to pass along what Kalpana Chawla said once in an interview “Do something because you really want to do it. If you’re doing it just for the goal, and don’t enjoy the path, then I think you’re cheating yourself.” That’s how I feel about what I do specifically and generally engineering and technology and science have so much to offer there is almost certain to be an enjoyable and rewarding path for anyone if they give it a try.
Mary Arras is a Senior System Engineer for The Nature Conservancy and has worked there since 1998. Her first exposure to computers was programming an Atari 400 using BASIC and writing those programs to audio cassettes for storage.