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Women and Engineering: A Story for your Daughter

June 21, 2017 by
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Recently, I got the opportunity to present to a group called, “Women Who Code (WWC),” a society for women in software engineering careers. I decided to start with a story that I made up for my daughter when she was little. The kid’s version is contained at the bottom of this post; if you have time, please check it out. But, since you’re likely a harried grown up, here’s the Reader’s Digest version: 

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Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess named Julina living in a castle on a lake. High on a nearby mountain lived a valiant prince who admired the princess from afar. But she ignored him; she was too busy collecting things and playing in her room.

Then one day a dragon comes to the valley and attacks the town by the lake. The prince sees his chance to prove himself to beautiful Julina. So, he grabs his sword and armor, and rushes down to the lake to battle the dragon.

You know the drill: fierce dragon against great swordsman. There’s a clash of fire and scales and dagger-like teeth, against training, agility and determination. In the end, the prince sinks his sword deep into the dragon’s soft underbelly. Dragons always have soft underbellies.

Unfortunately, the dragon just pulls out the sword, scoops up the prince and takes him up to his lair for lunch.

But, before the dragon could eat Sir Loin of Beef, he’s distracted by a loud noise from the lake. The dragon goes down to investigate and finds Julina zooming across the water on a roaring machine!

You see, it turns out that Julina is an engineer. She wasn’t collecting and playing in her room, she was inventing a jet ski with a water cannon. Well, the dragon attacks, doesn’t do so well, and Julina saves the day and the prince. Everyone lives happily ever after. The End.

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My daughter loved that story.

My daughter starts her PhD In Aerospace Engineering at Stanford this fall.

I did a bit of research on RTI’s amazing women for this talk as well. I found that for each of the last two years, our highest-paid employee was a woman.  Fully 50% of our engineering development managers are women. These are great stats. They were well received by the WWC.  But they missed my point.

My point was not that women can succeed. That should be obvious. The “Women Who Code” should not even have to exist. Of course women can code. Of course women can manage engineers. Of course women can make more money. Of course women can get engineering PhDs at Stanford. These should not be twists in our story. These should be boring normality.

Then I realized these are hardly the only twists in RTI’s story. We find things that don’t make sense everywhere we look. Some examples:

In 2015, the Institute of Medicine reported that hospital error is the third leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease and cancer. Why? Hospitals perform many complex operations and procedures and use hundreds of sophisticated instruments and devices, like ventilators and respirators and ECG monitors and oximeters. However, today’s instruments are standalone devices; they don’t even know that they’re connected to the same patient. So, they can’t check on each other. With high patient loads, useless alarms and manual checklists, harried care teams make mistakes. And that kills between 220,000 and 440,000 people a year.

RTI software helps. Our customers like Harvard Medical School and GE Healthcare are connecting smart algorithms to networks of devices. Connected devices can work together to monitor patients much more intelligently, preventing thousands and thousands of mistakes. The distributed intelligent system of devices can join and help the care team.

Isolated systems also plague the power industry. Today’s grid consists of huge generators controlled by a central office. This design can’t deal with “distributed energy resources” like solar and wind. One main reason: big generators can’t react fast enough to efficiently use the variable power flow from these renewable sources.

Connectivity also helps here. For instance, RTI runs the largest hydropower plants in North America.  Hydropower is an ideal complement to solar and wind: it's faster responding, more predictable and more reliable than other "base capacity" generators. RTI also controls large wind farms, such as Siemens Wind Power’s most advanced wind turbines, with thousands deployed worldwide. And, we are a principal in the leading new grid standard to replace central control with distributed field networks for solar, wind and batteries. Networked together, renewable sources can combine to provide the consistent, reliable power we need to meaningfully reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.

But, my favorite twist in the technology story is autonomous drive cars, or “carbots.” I started my career crashing cars doing impact testing. Back then, 45,000 people a year were dying on our highways. Last year, 35,000 died. That’s better, but it’s hardly good enough. Carbots will finally replace the weakest safety system: drivers cause 94% of all fatal accidents. We originally developed our “databus” technology for autonomy (flying robots). Now, it’s great for intelligent carbots. 

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In the end, RTI fights the dragons of convention every day. Convention says 400,000 people will die unnecessarily in hospitals every year. Convention says we have to burn things for power. Convention says it's OK to sit in traffic for countless hours and kill tens of thousands of people on our roads every year.

Convention also says most engineering managers are men. Convention says women don’t earn as much. Convention says women rarely get PhDs in engineering. And convention says women don't code.

Convention is wrong. It’s not always fast and it’s not ever easy, but convention is changing.  I’m truly grateful to the Women Who Code for inspiring women to seek careers changing these outdated conventions. And for inspiring me to brag about RTI’s amazing women, and maybe even attract more. We certainly need them; our women are not paid well or managing teams because we preferentially pay or promote.  They are just damn good.

They prove women can excel in any career.

And little girls can grow up to slay dragons.

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The Princess and The Dragon

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess named Julina. Julina lived in a big castle on a river. This wasn’t an ordinary castle on the shores of a river, Julina’s castle was built on a bridge over the river. The river went right through the bottom of the castle. Julina’s room was on the second floor; she had a big window with a view up the river. But, her window was always closed and covered with shutters.

Julina collected everything. Well, maybe not everything, but lots of things. She collected old shields, swords, and armor from the knights. When the farmers brought their crops to the market outside the castle, they would bring extra corn husks for Julina. She got wheels, rods and metal from the blacksmith. She even went to the kitchen and got grease, candles, old pans and anything else she could find.

She took all these things up to her room. She didn’t tell anyone what was going on in there, but they heard banging, and pounding, and whirring, and scraping, and scratching, and clanking, and clunking, and swishing, and bubbling, and even some screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeching.

Julina liked to play in her room, but Julina’s favorite thing of all was her pretty white dress. Every afternoon, Julina would put on her dress and walk around the castle and the garden. Her dress went all the way down to the ground, with poofy sleeves and pretty flowers sewn down the front, and a hundred buttons down the back. She loved her dress.

Down the river a little bit from Julina’s castle, the river went through a canyon between two big mountains. At the top of one of the mountains there was another castle as big as Julina’s. In that castle, there was a Prince named Phillip -- the biggest, strongest, bravest knight in all the kingdom. Prince Phillip was a great hunter and a great swordsman. He could ride his horse better than any knight. And he could even cook.

Every afternoon, Prince Phillip would look through his telescope at the castle built over the river below. He saw Julina in her beautiful white dress. She was soooo pretty. He really wanted to meet her, somehow.

One day, all of a sudden, the earth shook! There was a terrible noise, like a train crashing into a tornado and rolling down a mountain over a pile of rocks and squirrels. The mountain across the river from Phillip’s castle cracked! Tons of rock came crashing down, splashing right into the river. It blocked the river and the river started to turn into a lake.

The lake was growing and growing, getting big enough to cover the gardens around Julina’s castle.  Everyone was scared that the castle would be underwater soon. But suddenly, a screech came down from the top of the broken mountain! Everyone looked up, and there was a HUGE dragon coming out of the mountain! The dragon had bright golden scales, a huge sharp tail, and big green wings. Its huge mouth was filled with crystal dagger teeth, so clear you could see right through them and so sharp you could see the sun glint from every one. And when it screeched, it breathed a huge blast of fire!

The dragon swooped down from the mountain and wheeled over the lake that was now deep enough to cover the bottom floor of Julina’s castle. Prince Phillip grabbed his sword and jumped on his horse. He charged down the mountain to save Julina!

When he got to the castle, the dragon attacked. It swooped down, with its claws out and fire shooting out. Prince Phillip blocked the fire with his shield and stabbed the dragon with his sword! But the sword just bounced off the golden scales.

The dragon came back around, zooming low and fast. Prince Phillip dove on the ground and held up his sword. When the dragon flew over, he slashed at the dragon’s throat!  But the sword just bounced off the golden scales again. But, when it flew over, Phillip noticed that the dragon had a dark underbelly, with no golden scales.

The dragon went way up high in the sky.  It dove straight down at Phillip at 100 mph, screaming all the way. Fire shot out. The dragon’s claws aimed right at Phillip. The crystal dagger teeth shone like a thousand suns. Phillip knelt down on the ground, his sword out, aiming for the soft underbelly. The dragon swooped. Phillip stabbed!  The sword went right into the dragon’s underbelly!

But, then the dragon ripped the sword out with one claw and grabbed Phillip with the other one! It flapped its great wings and flew up to the top of the broken mountain. It dropped Phillip on a rock and opened its great mouth to eat him for its supper! Everyone below heard Phillip yell: “Help! Help!” Phillip was in trouble.

Just then a roar arose from below. Brrriiinnnnnnndddd-din-din! Julina’s shutters flew open, broken glass blasted out and Julina came roaring out on a machine on the water!  You see, Julina was an engineer, and she had invented a jet ski, and built a motor and turned the corn husks into fuel. Her jet ski made a huge roar unlike anything ever heard in the kingdom as she shot across the lake.

The dragon heard the noise. It took off and swooped down across the lake, straight for the jet ski. Julina turned towards the dragon!  The dragon shot out a stream of fire. Julina turned her jet ski just in time, splashing the dragon with water.

That made the dragon even madder. He swooped way up high over Julina’s castle, and started a screaming dive. Fire shot out. The dragon’s claws aimed right at Julina. The crystal dagger teeth shone like a thousand suns. Julina turned her jet ski straight at the dragon and hit the gas hard. Brinnnnnddddd-din-din! Brinnnddd-din-din!

The dragon came screaming in low across the lake, shooting a huge, hot flame. Then, Julina pulled a lever on her jet ski, and a long black tube came up. It curved towards the dragon. It said F---P---X! Fish Poop Express!!!!!!! The bottom of the tube went deep into the lake. It sucked up water and muck and fish poop, and shot it straight at the dragon!

The water and muck and fish poop hit the dragon! It put out its fire and smacked it right in the face! It couldn’t see! It shot right over Julina, swerved a bit left, a bit right, up a bit, down a bit, and right into the rocks that were blocking the river! Scales went everywhere!  The crystal dagger teeth shattered into a million zillion pieces, flying miles away in every direction. The rocks flew away, breaking the dam, and all the water went rushing down the river.

The castle was saved! The dragon was dead! Phillip didn’t get eaten! Everyone at the castle on the river yelled "YAY!" Everyone at Phillip’s castle yelled "YAY!"

Phillip climbed down from the mountain. He had to talk to Julina, and thank her for saving his life. She was the most amazing girl he’d ever seen. On his climb down, he found a piece of dragon’s tooth, a crystal-clear piece harder than any rock. He found a piece of golden scale. He shaped the scale into a ring and put the dragon’s tooth on top. Then he went to ask Julina to marry him.

She said yes, and he gave her the ring. She wore her pretty white dress to the wedding and they lived happily ever after.

And to this day, when people get married, they get a ring made of dragon scales with a piece of dragon tooth on it. The tooth is crystal clear and harder than any rock. When the sun shines on it, you can see the flash of fire that came from the dragon’s mouth. And the bride wears a pretty white dress.

The End.

Postscript: I used to ask my kids to give me three or four things, and I would tell them a story that included them all. This story was the result of the set: a princess, a dragon, a jet ski and fish poop.

© Stan Schneider

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