Engineering careers can take their twists and turns, and where they lead can be unexpected. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a first-term congresswoman from southeastern Pennsylvania, didn’t see herself walking the halls of Congress when she applied to Stanford to pursue a degree in engineering … she simply wanted to be an astronaut.
Houlahan, who grew up in a military family — her dad and her grandfather were both P3 pilots — lived in a variety of places during her childhood, including up and down the East and West coasts, in Florida, Washington D.C., Rhode Island, California, and Japan.
Those different living situations, as well as her father’s hard work, taught her a lot.
In fact, Houlahan’s father was a refugee, so she saw the struggles of building a life from scratch firsthand: “It’s really important to have that lesson of what it means to come up from nothing.”
“[Moving a lot] also taught me that everybody is the same, and yet everybody is different. In other words, having the opportunity to live in different places such as Japan and California and Florida and New England gave me an understanding of how even while all people have unique lives and perspectives, they always have a lot in common. And it’s especially important, now that I sit in government, to remember that — and not to have only lived in my own siloed part of the world.”
Houlahan chose Stanford for a variety of practical reasons. She was finishing high school in Rhode Island while her family was stationed in Hawaii. Trying to head west was a way to get her closer to her family. Another benefit was that she had lived in the Bay Area before.
“The Bay area was a place with which I was familiar. I was really an admirer of Sally Ride, and she went to Stanford — and I really wanted to be an astronaut,” Houlahan said. “Part of my thought process was that I needed to find a school that has engineering; Stanford obviously does. I needed something closer to my home; Stanford obviously was. I also need something having a ROTC program, because I wanted to be a pilot … and I thought the Air Force was a more likely possibility.”
“If you talk to my parents, you’ll hear that I always wanted to go to Stanford. That’s probably true, but it also kind of satisfied all of the right requirements for me. It’s also a university that doesn’t have an engineering school. So you get into the school, and then you can major in whatever it is that you want. I thought that was a really nice thing as well.”
Indeed, Houlahan was Air Force ROTC at Stanford … and after graduating and separating active duty, she went to MIT. There, a consortium of the military and the aerospace industry paid for her degree.
“The defense contractors and the military got together,” she said. “Lean manufacturing in the auto industry, particularly in Japan, was kind of the thing back in the 80s and 90s, and our defense industry wanted to understand how to take those lessons from lean manufacturing in Japan and apply them to our defense industry. So, I got what amounted to a research assistant position to transition out of the military into MIT to work on that program. I was really, really lucky.”
Full STEM ahead
Houlahan served in the Air Force in active duty for three years and in the reserves for 13 more. She worked in both the private sector and the nonprofit sector. While working as Chief Operating Officer for AND1, a footwear and clothing manufacturer, she was given company paid time off to do community service work — and she decided to work with young women in STEM programs.
“As a young girl growing up, I was in a mostly male environment,” she said. “That’s because I was always interested in math and science … and then of course in college it was engineering … and then I was in the military. I was raised to recognize the importance of science and technology, but I also knew how hard it was to be the only girl in my classes, to be one of only 10 Stanford women who graduated with my degree, to go into the military and be just one of a handful of women who were engineers.”
That only continued as Houlahan progressed in her career. “Then I was in a basketball apparel and footwear company where my job was to be the operations person, and my job was the technical part of the business. It was really important to me to try and help the next generation, including women and girls in STEM and STEAM as well as underserved communities in general. So, I spent my community service time on both of those things.”
The day I spoke with Houlahan, she had just returned from an exercise hosted by Washington state’s Rep. Suzan DelBene, who (according to the Pennsylvania representative) is one of the other people in the House who thinks about things technical. The exercise let members of Congress learn and receive a certificate for coding.
“I was walking back and talking to one of our technical staff members here — pontificating about the fact that I’m a Stanford and MIT educated engineer. I have three grown girls, and none of them were interested in engineering or technology, math or science. And I worked really hard in my house to could encourage my kids to think about those fields,” she said. “I had one female professor at Stanford and no female professors at MIT. Thirty years later when my daughter went to school, my degree had changed names but still only 10% of the students who graduated were women.”
What advice does Houlahan have for young women? It’s pretty simple.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t negotiate with yourself and decide that you can’t perform a particular job or achieve a particular goal. I think women and girls assume they must be super-qualified and super-capable to do anything or to even try anything — and that mentality even applies to the concept of running for public office,” she said.
Research into the female attitudes towards ambition tends to support this. “Women must feel as though they’ve checked every box and done everything required to be qualified. In contrast, guys are just like, ‘Sure why not? Why wouldn’t I be qualified to do that?’”
Moving into elected office
Houlahan was elected to Congress in 2018, representing Pennsylvania’s 6th district, which she describes as purple in political orientation. The district contains roughly 40% Democrats, 40% Republicans and 20% Independents, so a moderate voice is required to represent the voters there.
“I call us farms and pharma,” said Houlahan. “We’re pharmaceutical towards the east and the city [Philadelphia], and farms, very rural, towards the west. We are the mushroom capital of the world, and we have a lot of dairy farms as well. What’s also cool about the district is you’ve got very suburban, frankly very affluent areas here towards the city, very rural, very farming westward of the city. To the north, still in my district, you have the city of Reading. A former industrial giant, Reading is now is one of the poorest cities in the country. It’s a really, really interesting community to serve. I’m lucky. I have kind of a little American Petri dish.”
She has been a passionate supporter of the Armed Forces Digital Advantage Act, which is basically a centralization of the HR process. It creates kind of an HR czar within the military who can think about career paths from people with technical backgrounds.
“Very importantly for me, I thought there weren’t clear pathways for people with tech backgrounds [in the military]. We were trying to hire people in a more traditional and military way with skills that are very different than the skills of traditional military people,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out a way to centralize the HR process across the DoD so that when we were looking for cyber people or people with tech backgrounds or whatever, that you were actually thinking hard about what it is that you’re looking for from a specialty career area. And that you’re also centralizing it so that everybody’s not having to learn the same thing across the different parts of the DoD.”
Houlahan said that one contributing factor to why she left the military was that she wasn’t able to visualize a career path for herself.
“I couldn’t really look up and understand where I would be in 25 or 30 years. I couldn’t really understand — with a technical background and also as a woman — what it would look like to be here for a long time. If you’re looking at your career trajectory, you want to make sure you understand that. I think now it’s even more acute, that technology moves so, so rapidly and these skills are so much different than they were when I was a kid, that I think it’s really important to think hard about what the DOD looks like and how we hire people.”
Houlahan thinks that we need more engineers, more technical people serving in Congress. (Cambridge University Press lists 16 currently, out of 535 members.)
“Do I think there needs to be more people with technical backgrounds in our government? Yes. Look at the things that we’re talking about — the accuracy of missiles that just dropped, for example: Was it intentional that nobody got killed? I would certainly like to know what kind of missiles they were using and what their accuracy was,” she said.
“I’d also like to understand what it means to be a person who codes right now. It’d be helpful to have that knowledge.”
“This morning, I had a meeting on biosecurity and synthetic biology. Who’s in that meeting? There’s me — and I’m certainly not an expert in synthetic biology, but at least I can pronounce those words.”
Houlahan thinks that working familiarity of information technologies might be most helpful of all: “I think such knowledge is absolutely critical for legislators who are being asked to think about data privacy. In fact, I just had a meeting on data privacy; it would be really nice if we had more legislators with technical backgrounds on that.”
Engineers are sometimes thought of as poor communicators. But Houlahan sees the issue differently.
“There are definitely certain people who communicate in different ways — and having spent 30 years in industry now and seeing the spectrum of people, I actually value the way that engineers communicate … and I have considered myself to be an engineer whisperer in some ways,” she said.
“In this translator role, my job is to take what engineers are thinking and saying and doing for our business or enterprise and translate for to the folks employing that work — and to communicate why it’s impossible to code it this way or configure it that way … and why we must ship it this way or pack it that way … or manufacture it this way. My job is to be the communicator.”
“I frankly miss the engineers with whom I had to work because I enjoy communicating in a more strategic and tactical way … and it’s harder for me to understand a lawyer, for example. I also appreciate the way that engineers think.”
Leading and accommodating
To describe her own leadership style, Houlahan explained that she sees herself as a sort of fluid engineer and tries hard not to be too rigid in her thinking.
“That has to be part of success of building enterprises and organizations, to allow people to do what they’re good at it, and to recognize that you’re probably okay at some things … but you probably have a lot of people on your team who knew a lot more about certain things than you do,” she said.
“I identify obviously as a woman, as an engineer, as a veteran — but fundamentally, I think that my bigger identifier is as an entrepreneur. And I think that entrepreneurial leadership or that kind of way of moving in the world has to do with the concepts that the best idea wins, the best team wins, and ideas can come from anybody and anywhere. You can find mentorship laterally, down, up. And you can provide mentorship that way, as well as leadership and guidance.”