One thing you may not know about me is that before I became an interior designer, I was an engineer! I actually studied chemical engineering at Cornell University, and graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Engineering. While I ultimately decided to move in a different direction, I'm grateful for my engineering education and definitely believe in supporting other women engineers. Unfortunately, women are still a minority in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, despite the skills and talent we have to offer. I recently chatted with Kate Scarcella, my friend, classmate and sorority sister from Cornell University about her career in engineering. Over her 14 year career, Kate has worked in a number of engineering roles, most recently developing and managing the execution of a solar boiler that will be installed in a massive solar power plant. She also spent many years working on electrical components for jet engines, and her job has taken her to unique engineering facilities from Las Vegas to Israel. Still, Kate is only one of two women in a team of twenty, and women engineers are high in demand. Keep reading to learn more about Kate's career, the best and worst parts of her job, and her advice for women considering a career in engineering:
When did you decide you wanted to become an engineer? What drew you to the field of engineering?
I decided that I wanted to be in engineering back in high school. I was always interested in science, and it encompassed all of the subjects that I was good at - math, physics, astronomy, etc. I decided to go into electrical engineering because the electronics and magnetism sections of my physics classes were always so much more interesting than the mechanical portions! I'd also like to think that there was a little bit of career planning in there (although sometimes that's a lot to ask for a high school student!) because I knew that female engineers were in demand.
Tell me about your job and what you do.
Right now, I am a Project Engineering Manager for the Solar Receiver Steam Generator (or SRSG - to use the technical term, but it's very similar to a typical boiler that you would have in a fossil fueled power plant except that you use the sun to generate steam instead of burning coal or gas) that will shortly be lifted to the top of a very tall tower at the Ashalim Concentrated Solar Power Plant that is being built in Ashalim, Israel. This is an extension of the project that I was first hired at Alstom to do, which was to lead a group of engineers through the development of this SRSG so that it would be ready to bid as a commercial project. Eventually, we sold the product and I transitioned into being the Project Engineering Manager for the execution of the commercial project itself. Now, the SRSG is built and is about to be lifted to the top of its 210m tall concrete tower where we will then actually make it work!
"Don’t sacrifice who you are as a woman to fit into what is still a man’s world in engineering"
Can you tell me a little about your background - your education, and how you ended up where you are now?
I did my undergrad at Cornell University in Electrical & Computer Engineering, and then ended up working for a power company as a dispatch supervisor in Ohio for a couple of years. I was the shift supervisor for dispatchers that worked with our linemen to help address power outages within our territory. It was a lot of fun to look at the outages that we had, sometimes with very little information, and work with the dispatchers to determine where to send the linemen to be most effective in solving the problem.
After a couple of years, I wanted to move into more of a Project Engineering/Project Management role to manage projects to improve our infrastructure, but that opportunity wasn't available and I ended up doing Project Engineering at Hamilton Sundstrand (an aerospace and industrial manufacturing company) for United Technologies in Connecticut. There I got to use a lot of problem solving and investigation skills because my main focus was to lead investigations to determine the root cause of failures that my components had in the field. I was responsible for most of the electrical components on the F119 engine (on the F-22 Raptor). In the middle of this, I got my MS in Operations Management, which is very similar to Project Engineering.
After almost 5 years of doing root cause investigations and working redesign programs in order to fix those problems, I decided that I needed a change and moved over to Pratt & Whitney (another UTC company) and became a Customer Support Engineer. There, I still got to work on these root cause investigations, but I also got to interface directly with our Field Service Agents that were at the United States Air Force bases, addressing their issues directly. My favorite part of this position was writing the instruction manuals that the FSAs used in the field to do maintenance on my components. I had the very educational opportunity of going out to a base and watching someone take apart my entire system and then put it together again so that I could update the procedure to have the best practices from the guys in the field, which makes it easier for everyone to handle this hardware. So, I found myself out at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, 6 months pregnant in the middle of summer, hanging out with a bunch of Air Force mechanics and writing procedures. It was a really fantastic experience. After about 2 years of that, the opportunities for career growth within that group were not there, so I started looking around, ending up at Alstom (now GE) as a Project Engineer in the R&D department for Concentrated Solar Power Plants.
"I’ve come to learn that it’s almost always worthwhile to challenge the status quo, and at least discuss the feasibility of off-the-wall ideas...because you never know what will work. there’s no harm in saying that an idea won’t work, too – as long as you can tell me why"
What is a typical day like at your job? What are the most important skills that you use?
As a Project Engineering Manager, my main focus is to plan and coordinate all of the activities that my engineering team has to do in order to design this product. This includes working with the team to come up with solutions for the problems that we encounter – because nothing is ever easy! It's an interesting balance because the engineers do not actually report to me as a manager, but they are still responsible for doing work for me. On a daily basis, I make sure that everyone is on track with the tasks that they are assigned to do and work with them to solve issues that come up that prevent them from getting their work done per our plan. My job is mainly about communication and really focusing on the results that we need to get – which is a high quality product that meets our customer’s needs. This becomes particularly important when dealing with our partners in the power plant, as it can become very easy to only think of your own budget and schedule when coming up with the solution to a new problem. Instead, you need to focus on what is the right way to fix the problem for the overall plant (while still considering any impacts to your own plan).
What is your favorite part of your job?
As you may have picked up, I really enjoy problem solving. The best part of being a Project Manager is working with my team to come up with creative and effective solutions to problems that crop up, and implementing them into the system. Especially for a first of a kind design like we are working on, we have a lot of those issues. I’ve come to learn that it’s almost always worthwhile to challenge the status quo and at least discuss the feasibility of off-the-wall ideas with my engineering team even though I’m not that technical anymore because you never know what will work. Part of this, though, is making it clear that there’s no harm in saying that an idea won’t work, too – as long as you can tell me why.
I also really enjoy all of the travel opportunities that I’ve had. There’s almost nothing better than going to visit the site of a project that you’ve worked on and being able to see it come together in real life when you’ve only seen it in 3D models or drawings before. I was able to visit the Ashalim project site when it was just bare desert and during the construction of the Solar Receiver Steam Generator (SRSG). Hopefully, I’ll be able to visit a few more times as the plant gets up and running. Visiting the equipment is not the only goal, though. There is a lot to be said for meeting with your colleagues face to face and being able to talk with them. Coordination works so much better when you’re able to sit across the table from someone, even after you’ve returned home.
What do you like least about your job? What could be done to make improvements in this area?
I get frustrated when there are decisions being made that are not, in my view, the best decision for the plant, the customer, or the future of our product – and when the people making those decisions are not willing to explain or listen to differing views. Unfortunately, I believe that this is a common issue at most companies, not just engineering ones! I think that sometimes decisions are expected to be taken too quickly or the people making the decisions do not have enough bandwidth to look into the story in more detail. What could be done? I’m not sure, because companies do need to move fast or else you get stuck in analysis paralysis. But, there is something to be said for taking a moment and making sure that the important technical questions are answered – and not just from one source. Understanding each other better lets us understand the issues better, which helps everyone make the best decision for the project or the business.
Tell me more about what it's like to be a woman in engineering...
What is the percentage of men/women that you work with?
Currently in my group we have 2 women (me and our administrative assistant) to 18 men. In general, our facility does not have a very high ratio of women, although I expect it is more than 10%. That being said, I am very pleased by the fact that this year GE has started their #BalanceTheEquation initiative in 2017, and is actively working to increase the number of women in entry level STEM positions.
Is the culture at your workplace supportive of women from a professional standpoint?
I would have to say yes, but it is both because of work that I have put in and also work that my colleagues have put in to help us be part of a cohesive team. When I started at Alstom, this was not necessarily the case. In the R&D group, they had never really worked with Project Engineers before – they worked at their own pace. Then, a little blonde chick comes in and starts asking them about what their process is for design and asking for commitments on when work is going to get done – they didn’t know what to do with me. Not only was I learning about what a boiler is and what an SRSG is, but I also had to figure out how to deal with people who had no use for my position – and the only women they were used to working with were admins. Fortunately, over the past almost 5 years, we have come to understand each other much more and work well together now. As a parent as well, I have never had an issue having to leave for snow days or to deal with a sick kid – but I also work from home during those times as well.
Is the culture at your workplace supportive of women from a social standpoint?
Socially is slightly more difficult than professionally. One of the reasons why I enjoy going on business trips so much is because I get to know my colleagues that I’m traveling with much better. This has also been a critical part of building relationships with the people that work in the same office as me, in addition to the people that I usually correspond with only via email and Skype. It’s definitely hard to be socially active after work when you have kids that need to be picked up from school. On the other hand, though, to be frank, the invites are also not usually there.
Do you ever feel excluded or underestimated in your field because you are a woman?
Absolutely. And this is where women have to work harder in order to prove that they know what they’re doing and provide value. I definitely feel that I have to prove that I’m worthy of being there when I step into a new situation, more so than my male colleagues. And, while I am a Project Engineer, I do have to explain to people that I am, in fact, an engineer by training – not just by title. It’s important, though, not to get defensive in these situations – just matter of fact. It’s also important to understand that you are the one that is going to show your worth – you cannot expect other people to defer to you if you are feeling unsure. But, yes, it happens pretty much every time.
Have you noticed a change in the way women are perceived in your field during the course of your career? Where do you see things moving in the future?
In the past ~14 years (gah!), I don’t think that I’ve seen things change that much for women in engineering, but I also think that I have been lucky in the places that I’ve worked. When I worked at UTC, I had many more women colleagues than I do now, in fact. I think that we’re on the cusp of a big change, though. There has been much discussed recently with regards to the gender pay gap and the lack of women in STEM. Large companies such as GE and UTC, while they were already working to create an inclusive environment, have both started initiatives to actively make an impact.
What changes could be made in the engineering field to encourage more women to participate?
A couple of years ago, I was visiting a friend who is a professor at a small and progressive university. She asked me to join in on a discussion with their Women in STEM organization. The students were complaining that not enough was being done for them to feel included within STEM. This concerned me because no one is going to drive your career except for you, and I’m concerned that these women are waiting for someone to hand them a career. I think that more can be done in the educational system in order to prepare students (women and men alike) for the working world. Many of the classes at universities and colleges are based upon the latest research done by professors, which is very interesting, but does not always prepare you for the work that will actually be asked of you and what is expected of you as an employee. As much as I enjoyed being at Cornell, I was very disappointed at how unprepared I actually was when I stepped into the workforce.
What advice do you have for young women who are thinking about a career in engineering?
My advice would be: Don’t sacrifice who you are as a woman to fit into what is still now a man’s world in engineering, but also don’t expect people to provide special accommodations because you are a woman. Everyone brings their own expertise into a team – including you – so you need to make sure that you make yourself a valuable member and are not waiting for other people to see your value. By being who you are and being an active contributing member of your team, you are in fact creating the culture that you want to work in.