Systems Engineering Manager
Meggitt PLC in the Aircraft Braking Systems division in Akron, Ohio
Erin Neiss is a graduate of the University of Michigan with a BS in Aerospace Engineering. She started her career at Lockheed Martin Corporation in Virginia as a Systems Engineer in satellite command and control. While working for Lockheed Martin, Neiss obtained her MS in Engineering Management from The George Washington University and completed a two-year advanced technical leadership development program including rotations in business development and project engineering.
After completing the development program, she obtained a position as a Deputy Manager for a Tier III Information Technology engineering organization responsible for supporting 8,000 users. She then transferred to Akron, Ohio with Lockheed Martin — working on mission simulators for the F-35 aircraft prior to gaining her current role at Meggitt.
Not surprisingly, her entry into engineering began with airplanes.
“As a child, I was always fascinated how, against my logic at the time, these big, heavy structures were able to stay in the air. To this day, I can spend hours watching planes fly over my house as they approach the nearby airport. The notion of these ‘flying marvels’ started my curiosity in understanding how things work and shaped my future. Academically, I loved solving math problems and learning about the world around me in science class. The combination of my desire to understand how the world works and academic strength led me to engineering.”
But another big influence on Neiss came from family. When Neiss was nine years old, her sister went to college to study Nuclear Engineering.
“At the time, I thought she was the smartest person I knew, and I was intrigued with her chosen field of study. I had not heard much about engineering before then. From my perspective, she had no fear and no doubts about her choice and her abilities. Because of her confidence, I chose to carry out my own goal to become an engineer. Even when I realized in college that women were underrepresented in engineering, it did not sway me from being what I wanted to be.”
As of 2014, Neiss has been working for Meggitt Aircraft Braking Systems.
Working with people
While engineers are taught to tackle tough science and math projects, not much emphasis is placed on how to introduce change to people. For Neiss, an early experience pointed out the importance of dealing with people.
Ten to fifteen years ago, Neiss was put in charge of improving a process heavily dependent on paper documents that required physically walking those documents around for signatures from up to twenty people. The plan was to transfer that process to a shared database on the network with a front-end user interface to allow for electronic signatures, storage, and search capability.
“This was a big change for the 2,000 users who depended on this process to document temporary procedures for critical assets,” she said.
“As a young engineer, I was given an opportunity to lead a cross-section of users to perform a trade study of three tools to determine the best tool to meet the needs of the entire group. After tool selection, I worked with the software team to develop the tool. I also generated user guides and instructions, performed beta testing of the tool with functional representatives of the user base, trained users, and executed the transition plan into operations.
“As it often happens with change, there were many users who were resistant to adopt the new tool and process. After the transition to the new tool, I spent many hours on the phone with leaders of users re-explaining the need for the change and providing additional training. It was a great project to learn about leading teams, building project plans, tracking schedules and managing risk. It also taught me that any time you implement a new process or introduce a new product, you will need to invest additional time to work with those that are hesitant to change.”
Not all engineering challenges involve design
In 2014, civil aircraft certification authorities were enforcing a new system development process in the industry. At the time, there were processes in place for software development, complex hardware development, and environmental testing of systems. Neiss found herself tasked, as part of a small group of engineers, to create and implement a set of system development processes to meet the certification authorities’ requirements.
“Just as systems engineering is a fairly new engineering discipline, the system development process standard is a newer requirement for certification of civil aircraft systems,” she said. “Trying to implement system-level processes highlighting the importance of validating requirements across the entire system proved a difficult task, as it required changes to other development processes already in place in the organization. Trying to implement the new process late in the development lifecycle caused higher costs on the programs making it challenging to prove the benefit of the new system development process.
“To start implementing the development process earlier in the lifecycle, we met with engineers across the various functions to highlight the importance of proper requirement flow down and understanding the impact of design changes on other parts of the system. It was very rewarding to see engineers grasp and take ownership of the concepts of proper system development and requirements management. We are still working on how to best incorporate these new processes with some of the existing development processes. However, many of the requirements decomposition changes have been implemented earlier in the development lifecycle resulting in less rework in the system during the design phase.
“My philosophy about leadership is people first. I believe in empowering people to solve problems encouraging them to grow within a position and to prepare them for the next position in their career path. Along with that belief, it’s important that when people know about each other personally, they work better together — it adds a human element to work. We spend most of our waking hours at our jobs with our co-workers, and, many days, we spend more time with them than we do our own families.
“When I was a site lead on a virtual team in the mid-2000s, the team was split across multiple time zones. It was a rough and unproductive start with a lot of finger pointing and muting the phone during conference calls to express disagreement with whoever was talking on the other end. We implemented face-to-face meetings every two months for the team alternating sites for the meetings. It only took one face-to-face meeting to get to know the team members from the other site — learning about their hobbies and about their families — to break down the barriers in the team. From then on, the team worked very well together.”
Conference calls went from muting the phone constantly to open, productive discussions and ending the calls asking about families and plans for the weekend.
“Because of the virtual team experience, I make it a point to get to know and understand the people I work with to better support them. When you build trust in teams, team members are more willing to work the extra hours when there is a tight customer deadline. They are also more willing to admit when they make mistakes and work through them versus trying to cover them up,” Neiss said.
Challenges for women in engineering
Whether you call it inherent bias, sexism, or other terms, women in engineering must still be smarter, better, and more emotionally together than men engineers. Some think a part of the problem is society’s definitions of femininity and masculinity.
Neiss has experienced the bias that because she’s a woman she is seen as not as technologically savvy as men and is thus steered towards more managerial roles rather than technical.
“How many future Grace Hoppers and Stephanie Kwoleks are we preventing by inadvertently redirecting women towards less technical roles? The biases and barriers are not as explicit as they were in the past. However, because the biases are typically subtle, often people are unaware of the biases they hold, making it more difficult to point them out and resolve them,” she said.
When it comes to career advancement, Neiss sees some lessoning of bias.
“Advancement occurs at the individual contributor and lower management levels, but women are still underrepresented in boardrooms and in the executive levels of engineering,” she said. “Also, even with the moderate improvements in career advancement, there still exist the subtle prejudices and perceptions from co-workers. For instance, as a mid-career professional I was told by a previous co-worker that I should be home baking pies for my husband instead of being in the office. I also fought through prejudices that I am not strong enough to deal with the personalities of those I have led through my career. While the comments and implicit biases towards women are not always barriers to advancement, along with the lack of female role models in upper management, they are factors that contribute to the trend of many talented women choosing other career paths.”
To help alleviate some of these issues, Neiss participates in a number of STEM events.
“While working in Virginia, my favorite event consisted of a full day dedicated to introducing young women in the eighth grade to engineering. Female leaders from the organization talked to the group about what engineering is in addition to tips on how to be a leader. My group and I designed an engineering project for the participants and assisted the teams during the design and build phases of the project. I enjoyed watching the creativity of the teams and the confidence building within the young women participating in the day’s events,” she said.
“In my current role, I have the privilege to work with many young engineers including students from the University of Akron participating in our Co-op program. The co-op students gain an understanding of our system through three to four rotations in different engineering functions within the company. Each session, I see a different co-op student rotate through the Systems Engineering department. I meet with the student weekly to discuss goals for the rotation, career plans, and any questions he or she may have about the organization. It is amazing to see a co-op’s confidence and technical abilities grow in the short time he or she is with the group. In this last rotation, I was honored to watch a female co-op student go from being unsure of her own capabilities in her first rotation to running her own project, learning new skills, and presenting the results in front of a group of experienced engineers. You could see the improvement in her demeanor around the office. Witnessing and being a part of that development is the one of the main reasons I became an engineering manager.”
As far as encouraging young women to consider engineering, Neiss offers three tips:
The key is getting young women engaged in the excitement, adventure, impact, and challenge of engineering as early as possible. Ask a young girl what an engineer does. I bet she will have an idea of what a doctor, veterinarian, or teacher does. These are all well represented professions in television shows, movies, games, and toys aimed at young girls. You don’t see many female engineers developing new ground-breaking technology on the latest kids’ shows. The more examples we provide of women succeeding in the profession of engineering, the more young women will believe that they can do the same.
There is also more excitement in the tangible, something we can see or touch. As I wait at a gate at the airport on an airplane, I have a sense of pride knowing we provide the braking system that supports taxi, takeoff, and landing phases of flight. I smile to myself thinking about seeing that braking system back in our lab for testing and the sheer amount of testing and paperwork we are responsible for that is needed to ensure this critical aircraft system is safe for everyone who flies. When a young woman gains hands-on experience to understand the inner workings of a system including its impact on the world, she becomes more invested to making a better product.
All relatives, instructors, and mentors need to foster practical applications for young women to introduce them to engineering. Show them how engineers have helped to solve some of the problems facing our world. Challenge them to think about how they would solve some of the current issues today with technology. Many young women don’t even know that engineering is an option until it is too late. I was lucky to have my sister in my life who made “engineering” real for me, and I hope other young women have someone in their lives who will make “engineering” real for them too.
And a last piece of advice:
“Don’t be afraid to think of yourself as smart, a trait I think women struggle with. Strive to be confident in your own abilities and realize that being inquisitive is not a weakness,” she said. “Asking questions is the only way to learn about a new job or new technology. Have patience with yourself when starting a new position. Even if you have a natural tendency towards math and science, it takes practice, research, and plenty of hands-on experience to understand the system you are working on. And when something scares you and excites you at the same time, those are the opportunities to go after. Those are the risks worth taking where you will achieve the most personal growth.”
Filed Under: Women in Engineering