Melissa Sommer, Senior Program Manager — Americas Regional Business Unit, Automation Infrastructure
Melissa Sommer began her career working as a Mechanical Development Engineer at other companies while continuing her education in a Masters of Engineering program and then in a Masters of Business Administration program. During those other positions, she always kept Phoenix Contact in her mind because her mother had worked for the company. In 2003, Phoenix Contact expanded its global footprint, creating the Regional Business Unit in the Americas. Missy joined the company as a Mechanical Development Engineer. As Phoenix Contact continued to expand, additional opportunities were created, which led her into Project Management and to her current position as a Senior Program Manager.
What first drew you to engineering? / When did you first know you wanted to be an engineer?
When I grew up, there was no such thing as STEM in our schools or job-shadowing opportunities. I didn’t know any engineers. I happened to be good in math and then found a love of physics when I was a junior in high school. That is when my physics teacher, Mr. Thomas Rutland, stopped me one day after class and asked me what I wanted to do when I graduated. I told him that I knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t know what I wanted to study. He asked me if I ever considered Engineering. He saw a potential in me that I didn’t know existed. I had never even thought about engineering because I didn’t know anything about it. Mr. Rutland got me information on engineering (these were the days before the internet), and we spent time talking about it from then on after class. Finally, that was it…I was hooked!
Were there any influential engineers (women or men) who helped shaped your decision to become an engineer? If so, who and why?
As I mentioned previously, I did not know any engineers when I was growing up. Engineering was never presented as a career option until I met my high school physics teacher. Honestly, it wasn’t until I started doing internships during the summers when I was in college that I met an actual practicing engineer.
Thus, I can’t say that any particular engineer was influential in my decision-making process. But I looked to each internship, job, career step as an opportunity to seek out engineers who I admired and respected to open a dialog with him/her/them. The discussions that I had with each person have strongly influenced where I am today in my career. Now, at this point in my career, I seek to be part of organizations with engineers and leaders I respect and can constantly learn from. The environment at Phoenix Contact allows me to be part of such organizations and to be inspired each day.
What barriers do women face in today’s engineering world, if any?
So much has changed since I started my career back in the ‘90s, and many of the challenges that existed then are no longer acceptable in today’s working environment. With the most recent changes that occurred due to COVID-19, many people are now working from home. This has allowed greater flexibility between our home-work life balance, and that is greatly appreciated – especially for this working mom of three teenage sons. However, that doesn’t mean that challenges don’t still exist.
I think one of the biggest barriers for women in engineering today is the lack of women in mid-, upper- and executive-level management in technical organizations. Generally speaking, our education system has been doing a better job to get young girls interested in STEM, and that translates into more women seeking STEM degrees at universities. However, study after study is now being done to analyze why the retention of women in engineering fields is so much lower than for male engineers. With such a significant percentage of women leaving the engineering field, this creates fewer women in mid to upper management for all engineering organizations. If we don’t have women in these positions, then there are no women role models in technical management to mentor the women just starting their careers and who are looking for opportunities to advance in their companies. I believe that not having these women as mentors is a barrier in one’s career development that men don’t necessarily experience in the workplace.
To help address the topic of women leaving the engineering field, Phoenix Contact has Women Engineering Clubs/Organizations that foster networks of women working in technical areas. These organizations exist not only in the U.S. but at Phoenix Contact’s headquarters in Germany. The goals for these groups are for women to seek out professional advice, have (or be) a mentor, take part in peer discussions about a podcast or a book, engage in outreach activities in our communities, and celebrate one another’s successes. I believe it is important for all companies to recognize the importance of such organizations and to actively look at mentorship as one way to help retain the engineering talent of its female engineers.
Give us an example of your involvement in: a design project, a product launch, the development of a new technology, or the adoption of a new technology or process. How did you better your team, if applicable?
I spent much of my career as a Mechanical Development Engineer, designing new products. There is something really exciting about taking an idea from your head and seeing it come to life. I have worked on numerous new development projects where I would think in my head, “Ok, I am not sure how I can make this work….. but I know I’ll figure it out.” And in the end, I was able to figure it out, but it was never done in isolation. Sure, I had my own ideas and concepts, but I always questioned things and sought out additional ideas from my colleagues. That is what I bring to each of the teams I work with: questioning the status quo and always searching for new and better ways to do something.
Now that I am a Program Manager and lead the Project Management Office (PMO) within my organization, I approach each project with that same philosophy. As engineers, we are always being asked to develop more complicated products in a very fast timeline, while being economically feasible. We can’t do this if we don’t work together to question and seek new solutions. Working at Phoenix Contact, I am not only encouraged to take this type of approach, but the company actively supports this way of working as a collaboration tool to continuously make improvements to what we do everyday.
Describe your biggest engineering challenge. How did you conquer it or resolve it, or what was the outcome?
A few years ago, I was working as both a mechanical development engineer and a project manager for a new product family being offered by Phoenix Contact. The initial product launch had a total of 72 new part numbers, all of which were being displayed at the Hannover Messe, which occurs every April in Hannover, Germany. Phoenix Contact launches a huge number of new products at this trade show. To be prepared for the product launch, I had to ensure that all 72 part numbers were ready for sale and available in inventory by the start of the fair (German time on a Monday morning!). Once customers see the new products on display at Hannover Messe, it needs to be available to them to place purchase orders immediately.
Due to delays in agency approvals, logistical challenges and the “typical” development delays that seem to occur on projects, we were up against a very tight time crunch in the last weeks. I was able to work together with the project team to organize a clear plan on who needed to do what, and by when, based on Phoenix Contact’s company processes. Even when the timeline is tight, there is never a discussion about missing any quality gate. And in the end, the last part number was put into inventory the Friday before the start of Hannover Messe, and I finished all of the system and sales releases late that Friday night. The last weeks and days were about organizing and leading a team through each step, each issue, each process – and the team pulled together to make it happen. There is no bigger joy for me than seeing a team that I am a part of be successful and knowing that I had a part to play in that!
Filed Under: Women in Engineering