A few weeks ago, we went to northern California on a white-water rafting/camping trip open to Northrop Grumman employees and their families. One night, after a long day of rafting and an arduous (I’m talking swimming upstream in freezing water, balancing on toppled tree trunks, shimmying across a high ledge with numb legs…) but ultimately rewarding hike to a waterfall, the campers gathered around the flickering light of the campfire. The sounds of various musical instruments mixed with the white-noise of the river and the crackling of the campfire. Upon my request, a fellow camper, Corinne Givens, graciously agreed to let me interview her for this blog. Corinne is originally from Florida and now works at Northrop Grumman as a manufacturing engineer.
What do you do at Northrop?
I am a manufacturing engineer, and I majored in mechanical engineering. Manufacturing differs by companies, but basically what I do specifically is kind of floor support. We have design engineers, and they’ll make the drawings. There will be people who dictate the tolerance values, the stack-ups, anything interfacing, and we’ll do the producability. So we’ll be like, “Hey, you’re making this with titanium. You can’t drill holes in those. You need to figure something else out,” and we’ll push it back on them. So basically what we’re doing is we’re making it possible for the tech to do their job. The techs are the people who actually do the hands-on, but we’re that kind of interface. If they have problems on the floor, we have to go see what’s going on, and we kind of report back to design and say, “Hey, this is wrong. We need to figure out a fix to this” or we’ll make those patches ourselves. It kind of depends though, with everyone in the different industries. Between Northrop and Lockheed, there’s a vast difference as far as what I was doing. Even within manufacturing, there’s still different phases too because it depends on where you’re at in your program life cycle. In the beginning of a life, when they’re doing the design phases, it’s a lot more guessing, like “I think this is going to be an issue. Let’s try and fix it now.” Whereas when it’s already an established program, you’re more like fire fighting. It’s kind of set in stone, you just have to fix it. So, I mean, that’s what I do. That’s a lot of words for what I do, but hopefully that makes sense.
How did you get into engineering?
I started out in high school, and I just really loved math and science. That’s really what it was. I liked physics, and I just kind of was like “Yeah, I really like this.” I went into engineering and every single class, I was like “I really like this.” Then I failed a class, and I was like, “Wow, why did I choose this?” Then I moved onto the next class in it. At the end of it, it didn’t really make sense what I was doing, but at the same time, I love my job now. That’s the biggest thing. You have to realize school and what your actual job is going to be are going to be completely different. In school, you’re going to be learning all the technical stuff, or they’re going to be cramming it all down your throat because they want you to know it. They want you to know how to do it, but you’re not going to apply every single principle you learn. On-the-job training is really where you’re going to get your most experience because you’re going to be looking at specialities and getting into your niche. In school, you have to kind of learn everything. You’re forced to get the basics of everything. So it’s like, you may not like this, but you have to do it. Now that I’m kind of in the real world, I love it a lot more. I can actually choose what I want to look at and work on and develop. It started out because I just really liked math and I really liked physics.
Did you ever consider other careers with those? Sometimes I go between maybe being a mathematician or possibly a professor, but now I’m finding all these other options that I haven’t even learned about before.
I know a physics person who is actually a test engineer now. They’re the people who develop the test plans, who say “Hey, we’re going to do this to this to see if it actually holds this weight.” There’s tons of ways you can go with it. I got a mentor kind of person in that field, so it’s kind of like swimming your way through it and finding out what kind of stuff you want to do. I will say with being a mathematician or a professor, you lose a lot of opportunities as far as things you guys can do because you’re very limited as far as where you can go. The more specialized you go into one area, you’re kind of branching yourself in. If you’re doing nuclear engineering, there’s only like 5 plants in the US that you can work at, and they’re at specific locations, so you’re narrowed into a small field. The more you’re like, “I’m going to do statistical theory for this one biology thing,” that might sound really cool, and you might really want to do that, but there might not be a need for that. That’s stuff you need to think about too because when I was jumping into it, I wanted to do architecture. I really love buildings and designs of buildings and all that stuff, but it was such a niche, such a small world to get into. You basically had to be from an established architecture company or family or something to even get in that as an established person. I had to think practically, as far as like, 10 years from now, when I graduate and I’m working and all that stuff.
Is engineering a pretty open field?
I would say so. Mechanical specifically because it’s more one of those ones that everyone assumes that if you have a mechanical, you can do everything else.
How do the different branches of engineering work? My dad started with I think computer engineering, and there’s different kinds. Biomedical sounds like a cool one.
Yeah, it’s very specialized. Mechanical is like the modest one, the most versatile one, in my opinion. The next one besides that is aerospace. A lot of people dual major in those ones because they’re very similar. There’s also civil engineering, which focuses on bridges, buildings, anything to do with people. There’s electrical, and that deals with circuits and electricity, anything that you have flowing, that way there’s coding and stuff, which is like computer engineering. There’s environmental, where people do the studies on the environmental stuff and their impacts, stuff like that. There’s biomedical of course. There’s all sorts of little specialty ones, if you really have a niche. If you really want to help people or something, and you want to get into the body as well as being in engineering, there’s a niche for that. There is something. I will say that with mechanical, I’m always a firm advocate for mechanical because even within mechanical, there’s branches you can go into. You can do material base mechanical engineering, or you can do straight mechanical. There’s niches within it. It’s so versatile. You can do anything from roller coasters to working on cell-phones to working in the defense industry. You can be anywhere you want to be. I’m just thinking about it because I did my senior design stuff, and there was another group that did cadavers, so they developed something for, like if you have an amputee or somebody with prosthetic legs and stuff, they were working on better ways to implant stuff into the bones because a lot of people get pains from putting all their weight on their bone. They worked out a way to insert some sort of peg in there so it distributes the weight, so that it’s not painful to use. It’s advancements like that. There’s opportunities in that field still, but you’re stemming from mechanical. It’s all about making connections and really networking out and just talking to different people and seeing what opportunities they have available and just saying yes to everything and trying things out and really seeing where it works for you. For me, whenever I helped the defense industry, I was like, I love this, because I work with military people. You have a purpose. For me, it was like, this makes sense for me. This is my niche. This is the thing I want to be in. There’s a whole bunch of companies that I can work for. It just fits.
You were talking earlier about how engineering is a mainly male-dominated field. I’m guessing you find it important to have more females in it.
Yes, I absolutely do. I was a part of SWE, which is the Society of Women Engineers. I’ve been a part of that since I was in college, and that was actually my network of people that I started with whenever I went for jobs, when I did interviews, when I started working up for any of that stuff. They were the people that I talked with. They were the people that I basically was with. I was always surrounded by all of these female strong engineers that did awesome things, and now they’re all across the country, and I can go visit any of them. It’s those connections that are super awesome to have. We did all sorts of events. We did middle school and high school events and stuff where we brought girls in and we did all sorts of things teaching them about the different types of engineering. We just said, “hey, this is what it is,” and then we did panels and let them ask questions, whatever they wanted to know.
It is a national organization?
It is. It’s actually across the US right now. I think we have a couple of international chapters, but they’re just not as big yet. It’s in development, but it’s been around for a bunch of years. There is a local one, and then there’s a national one. Usually you stay local for most of your events and with your groups, and your organization does things there. Then there’s bigger events, where we have conferences with people from across the country that come together and share their experiences, share what works, what doesn’t work, fighting the stigma against women in this field. I mean, tons of opportunities out there. It’s getting better, but I will say I’ve come across some, eh, less than willing participants for taking directions from a female. It’s just one of those things. You have to kind of deal with it. You have to outperform your male counterparts just to be considered, “Oh, ok she’s good now.” I mean, there’s still a lot of work to do there, but some places are definitely a lot better than others. Don’t sell yourself short by any means, if that’s something you come across.
One last question: Why do you love engineering/math, or however you want to answer that question?
That’s a very broad question. (laughs)
Whichever one you want to do, just why do you love it?
I love math because it’s like a universal language to me. It’s just something that everyone can see, and it’s the same answer, you know? It’s a very logical progression of things. For me, I like to see a+b=c, and that’s the answer. That’s it. There’s no in between. I mean, yeah, there’s fancier ways of getting there, but to me, I just love the sequences, the patterns, all those little things and just thinking about all the problems, the things that can arise from it. To me, it’s like solving a big riddle. That’s why I really love engineering too. Engineering is like, ok, now I have this even more massive problem, that I may never encountered, and as I’m going through, I’m learning stuff from people around me and picking things up. It’s constantly an ebb and flow between people who are new and people who have been there for 30 years. I always have somewhere to go.