Kristen N. Parrish, PhD, Silicon Carbide Systems Engineer, Wolfspeed Business Unit
• PhD Electrical Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, 2013
• MS Electrical Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, 2010
• BS Electrical Engineering, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, 2008
Kristen Parrish is a Silicon Carbide Systems Engineer for Cree | Wolfspeed based in Durham, NC. She received a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and master’s and doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. She was previously a Systems Engineer at Texas Instruments in Dallas, TX. Kristen has co-authored more than 15 publications and 4 patents, and has spoken at several conferences, including South by Southwest (SXSW).
Kristen served on the board of an all-volunteer non-profit, High-Tech High Heels, for several years. The organization focused on closing the gender gap in STEM by funding programs that were proven to support middle school and high school girls, such as teacher equity training, robotics camps, and after-school programs in the community. Currently, she is active in the Eastern North Carolina Section of the IEEE, serving as webmaster and Chair of the Women in Engineering affinity group.
Talk about the culture of your company. What makes it inclusive or supportive of women in engineering and automation?
At Cree | Wolfspeed, meetings and projects are typically democratic. If you have good technical ideas, people speak up – titles and seniority don’t overpower sound engineering work. Even in the pandemic, with virtual meetings, I’ve seen a lot of good discussions happen and ideas contributed by new and junior employees. Secondly, because of that democratic culture, I’ve been given assignments and projects just as meaty as anyone else, and I’ve seen that with new hires as well. We are able to get the support we need to succeed in these assignments, from both technical experts and management. Third, I’ve seen more and more women hired in technical and senior leadership positions since I’ve arrived. Between promotion and hiring of women, making sure we are heard and respected for our contributions in the workplace, and giving us opportunities to show what we can do, I think those are some great ingredients for encouraging and supporting women in the workplace.
Describe a recent company project (in which you were involved) that went particularly well. How did you and your team go about ensuring success?
I’ve been spearheading a strategic initiative at work that brings a lot of smart technologists with different backgrounds and roles together to help calibrate our direction as a business and make sure we’re working on the most impactful technologies. It’s required a good mix of technical, communication, and organizational skills. I’ve had to lean on my team to help understand the various technical challenges (we can’t all be experts at everything!), and I’ve also had to learn how to communicate these technical concepts to senior management, subject matter experts, and engineers who are in tangential fields who need to understand basics of the project. One of the keys to success has been building relationships and trust with everyone involved by having lots of discussions to make sure everyone is on the same page before any big meetings.
What first drew you to engineering and this industry?
Both my parents were chemical engineers, so I grew up knowing it was a viable career option – which is why I’ve always dedicated time to outreach and talking to students, especially women, about what engineering is really like. I think it’s changing as time goes on, with tech companies being in the pop culture spotlight more and more, but when I was growing up it felt like most people didn’t know what engineering was unless they knew someone who was an engineer. There’s no engineer equivalent of Grey’s Anatomy or Law and Order! Luckily, I’ve always loved puzzles and problem solving, and I found that I picked up mathematics quickly, so engineering was a natural choice.
I’ve never had just one technology I was all in on – I’ve always wanted to work on things that are cutting edge and will have a positive impact on the world. When I finished my undergraduate degree, smartphones were just landing, so I thought I’d work in RF circuits for mobile. However, I found myself working on a couple of automotive technologies instead – intravehicular communications, LIDAR and radar for self-driving cars, and now electric vehicles! I’ve worked in a few different fields, but Power Electronics is something that’s easy for me to get excited about. Contributing to using fewer natural resources and helping to make renewable energy applications more prevalent is an impact that I’m passionate about, and I can’t wait for the electric vehicle revolution!
Describe your biggest career challenge. How did you solve it — or what was the outcome or lesson learned?
I experienced a rather abrupt career change a few years ago – the project I was working on as part of a very small R&D initiative suddenly got canceled. I found myself in a new job in a new field, Power Electronics, where I had a lot to learn – I felt like I was starting from scratch, especially when compared to my colleagues who had PhDs in Power Electronics. Ultimately, after a lot of hard work to come up to speed on the basics (with great support from my management), I realized I wouldn’t be able to make an impact if I was always playing catch-up – I had to carve out my own specialty. Instead of feeling down about my lack of experience in this new role, I asked myself what skills and experience I had that my colleagues did not. I figured out where I could leverage previous experience working on high-frequency circuits and electromagnetics to better understand switching behaviors in inductors for power converters, which was not something anyone in my group focused on at the time. This niche led to some great career opportunities, exciting projects, and a few patent filings as well.
For me, the lesson was to figure out where I could make an impact by bringing my skills to the table –technical skills, soft skills, and sometimes just my ability to learn quickly and make decisions based on that information. It’s easy to get intimidated when you’re working with lots of smart people and technical experts – I always make sure to remember what I bring to the table.
What career advice would you give to your younger self?
Remember everything will work out – maybe not the way you planned or expected, but it’s ok to not have all the answers, for plans change unexpectedly, or to say yes to things where it’s not clear how it fits into a career plan. By saying yes to new and challenging opportunities, volunteering for things outside of your comfort zone, and nurturing relationships with people like mentors and advocates, you’ll be able to navigate the unexpected. It’s not about waiting forever for the right train; it’s about getting on the train that may get you to interesting places and seeing where you end up!