By Barry Zepel, Contributing Writer
While women make up a solid majority of this country’s college students, they represent only a small fraction of those training for careers in engineering, technology and the sciences.
The dramatic growth of the Silicon Valley Women in Engineering (WiE) Conference, hosted annually since 2015 by San Jose State University’s Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering, figures to have a robust impact on closing that gap. Educating greater numbers of women for such careers has been the objective of Belle Wei during her three decades at the university, the last two as Guidry Chair for Engineering Education.
“Women account for 58 percent of college graduates, but they make up only 18 percent of engineering and computing graduates,” said Wei, who served 10 years as dean of the college.
She reported a record attendance for the third annual WiE conference held on campus on March 25. The 365 attendees who registered included 178 SJSU students, 56 from other universities, 105 community college students, and 13 recently admitted to SJSU. They came to learn from 84 faculty members as well as presenters and panelists made up of Silicon Valley technology leaders and San Jose State alumni.
The day-long conference featured two major categories, professional development and emerging technologies. Wei said that the latter one was expanded for this year’s symposium.
“We’re in Silicon Valley, where emerging technologies are being developed every day,” she explained.
Conferees chose from eight break-out tracks – Leadership, Communication, Careers, Climate Solutions, Foundational Technologies, Smart Living, Individual and Social Well-Being, and Human/Computer Interactions. Each track offered three related sessions.
The full conference reconvened at lunch and in the early evening for inspirational keynote presentations by Shellye Archambeau, CEO of MetricStream, and Selina Lo, CEO of Ruckus Wireless.
Archambeau, named one of the top 2 “most influential African Americans in technology” in 2013 by Business Insider, spoke of the challenges she faced as a young person preparing to enter the business world.
“I decided early, while I was in high school, that I wanted to run a business,” she said. “But when I looked around, I realized that the odds were not in my favor because I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me. That didn’t stop me and it shouldn’t stop you. I believe that you can do anything you want to do, and that you can be anybody you want to be, as long as you make a pact with yourself.”
Archambeau, whose Silicon Valley-based software firm helps other companies improve their business performance, emphasized the immensity of future career opportunities in technology.
“Of the top 25 jobs in terms of growth and pay, 10 of them are in technology,” she said. “Technology is in our workplaces, in our homes, in our cars, and it’s on our bodies. It is everywhere. A U.S. Department of Labor study reported that between 2014 and 2024 there will be more than a half-billion new jobs in technology and computing. That means opportunity for all of us.”
“Be brutally honest with yourself”
Like Archambeau, Lo talked about her movement up the career ladder, noting that her first job was taking real estate listings from a binder and typing them on to a computer so that her employer’s branch offices could share the information. This was before the arrival of PCs and Macs. The UC Berkeley computer science graduate went on to work for HP and eventually became vice president of marketing for a startup called Centillion.
To prepare the conferees for career advice, Lo shared her “most difficult assignment” for an employer, when a piece for a product arrived too late and the ensuing product was too expensive and not performing properly. She said she had to do “a complete technical and marketing pivot” to save the product, and in doing so, defined a new market for load-balancing switches.
Lo urged students to “be brutally honest with yourself about what is not working. Build great teams, and remember that open, direct communication eliminates most of the politics. And hard work is the foundation for everything.”
“Pay it forward”
Attendees also learned about opportunities in the tech and engineering fields from San Jose State alumni successful in those industries. Erica Lockheimer, a 2000 SJSU grad, was one of many to speak at one of the four career panels, the topics of which included: Information Technology; Electronics and Biomedical; Semiconductor Equipment and Aerospace; and Building, Infrastructure and the Environment.
Lockheimer, senior director of engineering for LinkedIn, was the first member of her family to earn a college degree. She said she feels a responsibility to “pay it forward” by offering insight and advice to current students checking out the industry.
“I realize the struggles I went through early in college and early in my career,” she said. “I wish I had a version of myself talking to me 17 years ago to help me.”
This was the second year that she spoke at the WiE conference. Lockheimer also participated in a campus career session a month earlier hosted by the SJSU Alumni Association.
“San Jose State is one of those schools that, anytime they ask me, I’m here to volunteer.”
“Your goals and success can be reached”
One of the beneficiaries, SJSU sophomore Desiree Rodriguez, was thrilled with what she learned and who she was able to network with at the conference.
“There’s many takeaways from this conference,” the aerospace engineering major said. “The most valuable are the inspiration that I drew and the added motivation to continue going, regardless of how hard it is. I met people from Lockheed Martin and NASA Ames, to name a few. The professionals who came today let us know it is difficult, and that there are not a lot of women in engineering.
“However, it doesn’t mean that we can’t change that. If you work hard, your goals and success can be reached.”