Diversity in technology and engineering companies has become a sticking point for many critics of these industries, where women are traditionally underrepresented. Aerospace is no exception. Even just a few years ago, only 11.3 percent of aerospace engineers were female. Just last year women accounted for only 19 percent of the new college graduates with engineering degrees.
But with more than 3,500 open jobs in the field of aviation and defense, and nearly a third of those in aerospace engineering, opportunities abound for women in STEM to step in and become the future of aviation.
To get an idea of what the future of engineering jobs might look like, we spoke with Amy, an avionics integration engineer at a major international aerospace company. Our conversation ranged from the skills most needed in the industry to her experience in a male-dominated field to the leaders that have had the biggest impact on her career, encompassing enough that we’ve split our conversation into two posts.
In Part 1 of Amy's in-depth interview, she dives head first into what it's like for a female working in this male-dominated industry. Don't forget to come back for Part 2 where she discusses her take on the future of engineering and divulges not-to-miss advice for other female engineers.
Q&A with a top female avionics engineer
Q: First, can you tell us about your current role and what a typical work day is like for you?
A: I integrate avionics systems on military aircraft. A typical day for me really varies. I could either be traveling somewhere and working with a flight test team on flight tests, or I could be working on documents sitting at a computer. I could have a day full of meetings, or I might not have any meetings.
Things really change around because you go from a development stage of the project lifecycle to a test stage where you have to validate all of the requirements. So, the beginning is always a lot of paperwork, then you get into testing the hardware and software, and then you get into testing all the aircraft. Once the cycle comes to an end, you’ll start working on a report and then you go back to documentation again. So it changes daily, but it also varies a lot year in and year out, and month in and month out with project cycles.
Q: How did you get your start in the aviation industry?
A: I was a manager at a rapid prototyping company and I wanted to do something new. So I started out with my company as an industrial engineer supporting manufacturing, but I moved to electrical engineering after receiving a layoff notice my first year and I’ve been working in electrical engineering doing avionics integration for the past 10 years.
Q: What excites you about going to work every day? What's the most rewarding part of your job?
A: Being an engineer, I really enjoy fixing things, and I enjoy the pressure of finding solutions for customers. Our customers expect perfection and what I enjoy the most is the challenge of identifying potential issues and solutions for our products, so that in the end what we deliver meets or exceeds that expectation. It’s the challenge of making everything work smoothly. Sometimes when something is very difficult, just like software coding, you feel like you’re never going to find the solution; then, when you do, it’s the big “aha” moment and it’s really fantastic. That’s what I do it all for.
I also really enjoy getting to fly simulation in order to either integrate the avionic hardware and software, or evaluate that hardware and software. That can be a lot of fun, though I admit, it does sound a lot better than it is. A lot of times you’re sitting around for a complicated system to be brought together, or you’re bringing it together yourself, so you tend to do a lot of effort for only a little testing. But that’s what needs to be done before it goes on the aircraft!
For that testing, I am sitting in a mock cockpit and I’m using some of what’s real and what’s simulated hardware to do a virtual flight -- and during that time you’re testing if the avionics are working as designed.
Q: What do you find to be your biggest challenge in working in aviation?
A: I think over the past couple of years the biggest challenge has been to translate engineer speak to pilot speak, to really understand where the pilots are coming from. I understand the nuts and bolts about how avionics works; however, pilots understand -- very, very well -- how to fly the aircraft. So sometimes something that I’m looking for may or may not seem important to them and you really have to share your knowledge and explain to them why it’s important. The situation can also be flipped. There are times when there’s something that’s very important to pilots, but engineers aren’t as tuned into the design -- we aren’t in their seats so we don’t realize it could be a potential issue.
It takes time to figure that out. It takes time when you’re talking to them. It just hit me one day that I really have to try adjust to understand where they are coming from. So, for example, I need to recognize and adjust when I’m working on a team and someone else on my team doesn’t understand what I’m saying, why it’s important, or how it could relate to them. Or the other person on the team doesn’t want to spend time on something that I know is important and that I think is very interesting.
People always say you have to ‘look at something from another person’s point of view’. But that’s just a catchphrase until you are really challenged to do it. It’s very different to recognize another person’s perspective before you actually put yourself in their shoes.
Q: What skills do you think are critical to success in aviation today?
A: I think keeping lines of communication across different engineering teams is essential. Engineers don’t always communicate frequently, and it can be even harder in large companies because you can be very separated both physically and organizationally. Trying to keep lines of communication open, feeling comfortable asking questions, and trying to communicate with the other groups around you is really important in order to find issues before they leave the company and go out to the customer.
I’ve always been pretty confident in my technical skills as an engineer and learning new technical aspects of my job. It’s always in the people skills that I’ve worked hardest.