Being an engineer is a lot like playing chess: you try something, see how it goes; based on the feedback, you play that position again or change your move the next time around, all while dealing with outside forces that can throw a monkey wrench in your plans at any time.
That's the analogy that Nita Patel draws, and she would know as she's both a member of the United States Chess Federation and an electrical engineer. Patel is the systems and software engineering director at L-3 Warrior Systems, as well as the founder and chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) 's Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference, which is coming up in San Jose, Calif. in May. (See IEEE to Host Women in Engineering Leadership Conference .)
As someone who has been entrenched in STEM for more than 20 years, her ability to experiment and adapt has served her well in her career. It's also enabled her to give good advice for young girls who are tepid about a career in STEM, even if it's not the advice you'd expect: Worry less about the science, technology, engineering and math aspects of STEM, she says, and think more about analysis, problem solving and helping other people. A career in STEM might seem like a better fit when you get down to the core of what it's really about.
Patel caught up with Women in Comms to offer up more advice on how to -- and why you should -- pursue a career in engineering.
Women in Comms: Tell us a bit about your background and how you got started in engineering.
Nita Patel: When I was young, I was curious and got excited when I figured out a way to solve a problem with limited resources (similar to MacGyver). My parents encouraged me to pursue engineering. I can't remember exactly when, but I decided that I would be an electrical engineer relatively young because I liked gadgets that could think on their own (through electronics or software). In college, when I learned the incredible variety of what you could do with electronics, I was even more committed to this field.
WiC: What do you see as the biggest issue facing women in comms/engineering today? Is there anything you want us to cast a bigger spotlight on?
NP: I think the pace of technological change is a challenge for everyone. Sometimes it seems to be a struggle to simply maintain your technical competency. Being a part of organizations such as IEEE Women in Engineering or Women in Comms will help you stay aware of what's happening in your technical field. It will also provide connections that are useful to learn, share and advance. I think women tend to underestimate the value of networks or don't fully take advantage of them. I think women should think about volunteering as a way to expand their network and to learn new skills. Volunteering for IEEE Women in Engineering helped me learn and practice leadership skills that have advanced my career.
WiC: What are the most important technical and non-technical skills for an engineer in today's workforce?
NP: I think an inquisitive heart is necessary and willingness to constantly learn is essential for all engineers. Engineers definitely need to learn communication skills. Active participation with Toastmasters has transformed me from a shy, quiet introvert to a confident, articulate introvert. That's a huge difference. In addition, it doesn't hurt to understand the business and to understand people; therefore, I would encourage engineers to gain some fundamentals of project management, finance and emotional intelligence.
WiC: What is your advice for young girls who are interested in STEM, but unsure if it's a good fit for them?
NP: Don't focus on the math and science. Think about the analysis and problem solving. If you are curious, enjoy solving problems or have a passion for impacting others, then engineering is the field for you. Also, I would ask why they are not interested. Many times, people have a perception that leads them to think something is not right for them. It may or may not be true. I'm not saying that engineering is the best choice for everyone, but I do think it's important to look into why, collect data and make sure because it's such a rewarding field.
WiC: What is your biggest piece of personal advice to a woman pursuing a career in STEM?
NP: Take all the opportunities that come across your path. There is only success AND failure, not success OR failure. Yeah, it can be scary but rarely is it deadly. It's so much more rewarding to learn than regret.
WiC: How has your chess prowess helped your engineering career?
NP: I would not call it prowess. In fact, I think engineering and chess compliment each other. Both are very experimental -- you try something, see how it goes; based on the feedback, you play that position again or change your move the next time around. Also, both have outside forces (the other player in chess) that can throw a monkey wrench into your plans. You analyze the situation, re-plan and go forward from there. I like that they both challenge me to think of how to solve the problem in the given situation.
— Sarah Thomas, , Editorial Operations Director, Light Reading