Facebook Reality Labs’ Oculus VR
When growing up, Caitlin Kalinowski built a lot of “nerdy little things.” When she was three, four or five, she would do a lot of physical prototyping of ideas that she had. For example, she had little machines that would keep water warm or hand warmers and nose warmers. Engineering, she noted, is just using science to solve problems, it’s an applied field. Science and math are important fields in their own right, but to engineers they’re also tools.
“Engineering is all about solving problems and making people’s lives better,” she said. “That’s where we should start when we introduce kids to the field. You start with a problem you, yourself have. Ask your kids how they would solve it themselves? I was lucky enough to have parents who were permissive about me doing all kinds of crazy things. Starting with building toys, like Legos, erector sets, all of that stuff. When I was a kid, I didn’t know what engineering was — I was just playing and building. It took until middle school to start to realize, ‘oh, there’s this field and it uses applied knowledge, and it can help solve other peoples’ problems.’ It slowly became clear that engineering was an interesting career path for me, but I don’t think I put all the pieces together until my freshman year of high school.”
Another thing that shaped Kalinowski early on was her stepfather, who is an experimental physicist. As she grew up in New Hampshire, he would tell stories about his lab at Stanford, and about how he had a motorcycle he rode all around California. She noted that her parents were both academics, but neither of them were in STEM.
“I used a lot of what he said to inspire me, to look into STEM. And I loved talking about how the world worked, from the tiniest particles to the largest forces in the universe,” she explained.
Kalinowski earned her BS in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University in 2007, where she is a guest lecturer at Stanford’s School of Engineering and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. She was a technical lead for Mac Pro and MacBook Air products and was part of the original unibody MacBook Pro team. Today, she serves as Hardware Director for Facebook Reality Labs’ Oculus VR products— including 2020’s Oculus Quest 2, Oculus Quest, Oculus Go, and Oculus Rift.
One of her responsibilities at Apple was designing the lower half of the enclosure on the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops, an important career milestone for her.
“My focus was on the way that the enclosure pieces go together,” she said. “I was able to utilize a fine stamping process to make the gap between the bottom cover on the top cover on Apple’s laptops much tighter. Originally, the part’s perimeter was forged and CNC machined, which was a much wider tolerance than fine-stamping. So, we get the parts much, much closer together.”
Kalinowski said that, just like in cars, the perception of quality in consumer electronics has a lot to do with gaps and offsets between the parts.
“If you look at some more mass-market cars versus sports cars, you can start to see some differences in the way they’re constructed,” she said. “There’s a lot of really subliminal sort of messaging that goes into how tight parts fit together. The most impactful technical work I did at Apple was probably my leadership on the Mac Pro. Since then, my focus has been on my organizational and driving strategy on multiple programs at once.”
And that new focus, building resilient organizations that can scale, has been the hardest challenge of her career, she said.
“In any organization, you have to skate to where the puck is going. In order to build an organization for growth, you have to anticipate what the world is going to look like in a couple of years, build your leadership team first — like scaffolding — then build out the rest of the team,” Kalinowski said. “It’s challenging to figure out what might happen in the future, but also a lot of fun.”
Women in the engineering workplace
Kalinowski said that she doesn’t know that there’s any specific “woman thing” that women bring as a class to engineering.
“Of course, we have different bodies, body sizes and shapes. We can have different clothes, different hair, more of us wear makeup, all these things change the way a wearable product interacts with you, for example. Does your hairstyle allow you to don wearables the same way as men? Does the product size fit you? As one example, having women and men both on the team is critical as far as ergonomics and fit go,” she said.
For women starting out, she feels that it’s critical to motivate them to learn about engineering by helping them determine what problems they are facing that they want to solve, that they can solve with engineering. Then, the focus should be to give them the tools to solve those problems and get them building.
Also important, she said is knowing that you’re going to make mistakes, and that’s fine.
“As long as you have a good manager, there should be space for you to make the right mistakes. The trick is, instead of avoiding mistakes, learn to make the right mistakes, only making them once, and learn from them. I do believe that women, in particular, tend to focus more on avoiding mistakes than going for the best solution whole-hog and not worrying too much. I’ve made some pretty big mistakes actually in my career. And it’s worked out fine for me, I’m still here. So, expect to make mistakes, and work to make sure they’re high-quality mistakes,” she said.
Kalinowski noted that there’s probably more women than men who’ve dropped out of the engineering field after studying it in college, but she has a plan to combat that, personally.
“The research that I’ve read suggests that the first two years of a woman’s career in engineering are fairly formative — and her experience in those first two years has a lot to do with how she feels about engineering and staying in the engineering field. Unfortunately, on average, I think women have tougher initial years than men in the rest of the industry,” she said. “One of the things that I try to do is hire students out of school to make sure that they have a really good first two years of experience in engineering. And I’ve found that that’s actually pretty effective. But if they go somewhere else and don’t have a good experience, then I think that’s where in many cases we start to lose them. I do think that there’s absolutely a Delta in experiences on average. And I think that we as leaders, we, who are technology leaders, have to make sure that women and underrepresented minorities have a really strong, positive experience in tech the first year.”
Being a meaningful leader
Kalinowski explained that being an organizational leader does not mean knowing what to do all the time and telling people what to do all the time. Instead, the job is to support your team, to unblock them, to provide some guidance.
“Really, it’s like being an orchestra conductor, where the work is being done by other folks (which is hard to get used to actually), but your job is to flow the information and the resources — and find gaps and close them before they become a problem. You have to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the organization, and to help the team be successful versus being dictatorial. I didn’t know that at first. When I first managed, I didn’t understand what management was. I learned very quickly, in the first month, that you can tell people what to do but it doesn’t usually mean they’re going to do it. It’s not an effective leadership tactic. The right tactic is to listen as your chief activity, and to understand what’s happening in your organization — and to unblock your team and set your team up for success,” she said.
Part of her passion today is being on the Strategic Board of Lesbians Who Tech, an organization with the vast majority of folks being either early or mid-career.
“I feel really great about our programming. It’s actually the largest technological conference for women on the West Coast and the largest LGBT technological conference in the world. The reach is massive and there’s all these young people who are coming and experiencing being part of their community while they’re looking at tech,” she said. “I feel that the contributions I’ve made to that organization have affected quite a few younger women and younger people. I also always have three or four women I’m mentoring at any given time, both inside and outside the organization and that’s really rewarding to me as well.”
Regarding equality, Kalinowski said there’s a lot that tech does in general, such as the Rooney Rule.
“Part of the way that tech works is you always pick the best candidate for the job, from the funnel that you have. But tech is starting to really look at making sure that the top of the funnel is diverse and making sure that you have multiple underrepresented candidates ideally in the funnel,” she said. “Then, you essentially allow that to drive that diversity at the bottom of the funnel, but that the rest of the process is actually focused. I think that’s a good rule, so you have at least one, but ideally more candidates in the pipeline. You do tend to have to do a little extra legwork to make sure that you have the right sourcing and that you’re looking in the right places for diverse candidates, even when they might not have as classic a background.”
And what of that five-year-old Caitlin, the one building rudimentary nose warmers? What wisdom would she impart on her younger self?
“Don’t worry so much,” she said. “Honestly, it’s going to all work out fine. I think that we have this thing we do when we’re in the moment and we have setbacks — it feels like the end of the world. That’s normal, especially when we’re young. But getting back up and continuing towards your goal is more important than being successful the first time around. People who have success in any industry have the ability to face setbacks, learn from them, and get back on the horse. That is the most important thing, not worrying too much when things don’t go right, or that they might not go right. This takes your energy away from finding solutions.”
Filed Under: Women in Engineering