INTOUCH : Why engineering is fun

A career in engineering doesn’t mean being stuck in some lab – neither is it nerdy or anti-social activity. It’s fun.
That’s the message from senior vice-president worldwide for Lenovo’s product group, Fran O’Sullivan who was in New Zealand recently to launch the company’s first ‘thinkpad’ university in partnership with AUT – and to talk about topic close to her heart: getting more young women into technical careers.
“I was horrified to discover about five years ago that we have fewer female engineers graduating in the US than we did in 1980 – and there weren’t too many then. I believe for us to keep our economies vibrant, to keep inventing – we need increased numbers of technical graduates not less.”
She believes it’s PR problem, particularly when it comes to attracting women who are entering the legal and business professions in droves but seem unaware of the career potential in engineering. In an attempt to get the message out, she’s recently teamed up with former US astronaut Sally Ride to present live webcast: “Global marathon for, by and about women in engineering.”
Encouraged in her own technological bent by her engineering father, O’Sullivan’s career has included testing payloads and satellites for the momentous first launch of Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981. After being involved in the early days of the PC industry, she participated in the product development at IBM that led to the thinkpad. Ongoing product innovation remains one of her responsibilities and she runs design teams that straddle three offices – in Japan, Beijing and North Carolina.
“One of my most fun jobs is looking at emerging products – working on what is the next new thing in terms of design, development, customer needs.”
That’s an endeavour toward which women can offer unique contributions, she says.
“For anything to be successful it is always good to have diversity – for people to approach issues from different perspectives. I also think women are often more in touch with the human aspect of design. I’m personally fascinated by frustration research – what drives you nuts about particular product.”
An example in thinkpad development terms is the temperature of the PC – in warmer climates, it’s just too hot to have on your lap, says O’Sullivan. To remedy this, Lenovo’s Japanese lab has just announced release of system that is 10 percent cooler. Another example is the introduction of encryption technology that requires thumbprint rather than password.
“A more typical male engineer would probably describe all the various specs around the biometrics or encryption hardware and it’s true there is all that but the other thing is that it’s darn convenient because you don’t have to remember whole series of passwords. It makes life easier, there’s less frustration. I think women are perhaps more in touch with that aspect of thinking about things from the customer’s viewpoint and how something might make their life easier – rather than engineering for the sake of engineering.”
O’Sullivan’s advice for young women who want to succeed in technology careers is to be confident, be assertive, to network, seek out mentors and to have fun. And she reckons there’s no shortage of the latter.
“I ask young people if they can imagine life without PC or texting or the internet. But these are things that were not yet invented when I graduated. What’s so exciting about engineering is that you can contribute to those things future generations can’t imagine living without. That really is fun.”

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