Kim Heinle Nelson, Senior Quality Engineer Manager, Digi-Key Electronics
BS Industrial Engineering and Management, 1991, North Dakota State University
How does the culture of Digi-Key include/support women, and why do you enjoy working here?
When I started working at Digi-Key Electronics being female was to my advantage because most of the warehouse team members were women at that time. I enjoy working alongside people who are interested in one another both on a personal and professional level. It’s that feeling of community and openness to interact with anyone in the facility that makes Digi-Key a great place to work.
What first drew you to engineering?
My high school Physics teacher first suggested that I consider Engineering as a possible career choice. I must admit, I was not that interested in spending time alone designing mechanical or electrical gadgets but then I discovered Industrial Engineering and Management! Industrial Engineering is the “people side of engineering” and deals primarily with time, space utilization, and efficiency. It is about improving processes and using project management skills to implement improvements. Industrial Engineers work in many different areas like distribution, manufacturing, healthcare, logistics, financial, energy, and service industries.
Were there any influential engineers (women or men) who helped shape your decision to become an engineer (if so, who and why)?
My advisor at North Dakota State University, Professor Elvin Isgrig, was such an inspiration and great mentor. I was enrolled in the General Engineering and Architecture Program when he presented an introduction to Industrial Engineering. His presentation is why I changed my major to Industrial Engineering and Management. Professor Isgrig even visited my workplace many years after graduation because he was interested in what I was doing and what I had accomplished since college.
Tell us about your leadership skills and lessons learned in your career.
One of my greatest compliments came from the president of our company when he said, “You are not the typical engineer because you know how to get along with people.” I am successful by listening to people around me, taking a hands-on approach, thinking creatively, and approaching projects with a positive attitude.
I have more than 29 years of work experience with Digi-Key Electronics. While other engineers take positions with many different companies to gain experience, Digi-Key has grown so significantly, from $46M in sales with 275 employees in 1991 to $3B in sales and 3,600+ employees in 2019, that I have been able to build my work experience as I have grown with the company. I learned it is okay to take a different path than other engineers as long as I keep learning something new and enjoying the challenge.
As a Senior Quality Engineer Manager, I lead cross-functional business teams, identify engineering excellence priorities, and apply engineering philosophy and operations research to business models and design improvements.
What was your biggest engineering challenge and how did you resolve it or what was the outcome?
From a business perspective, implementing same-day shipping of electronic components from a distribution center in northwest Minnesota in the early 1990s was our greatest engineering challenge. We identified incremental steps to minimize disruption to customers, installed state-of-the-art material transport systems, worked with our logistics partners, and streamlined processes from order entry through shipping. It was a team effort across the business and one of the reasons Digi-Key is so successful today.
From a personal standpoint, one of my biggest challenges was to value progress over perfection. Implementing improvements in a more agile way allows benefit earlier in the process even if things are not perfect right away. Fail early and fail fast to get to the best solution while providing incremental results. I still like things to be perfect, but I do not hold up progress or invest too much time before trying new things.
What career advice would you give your younger self?
I would encourage my younger self to be curious about how things work and consider what might make things better. Strive to improve on something new every day.
Voice your ideas, don’t be afraid to fail, and certainly don’t be afraid to succeed!
“The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways” – Robert Greene, Mastery
What do you think can be done to promote greater participation of young women in engineering today?
Coming from a small town in western North Dakota, I did not have the opportunity to see engineering firsthand. I did not know any engineers or what they do daily. Now I volunteer to give career talks at schools or youth groups to give young people the opportunity to learn about possible career choices. Digi-Key Electronics sponsors a First Robotics Team and holds ‘Girls Who Code’ events for the local youth.