No Roads Necessary
Vice President of Engineering for Flyer
Vice President of Engineering for Flyer
This month, I am marking my first full year of working on eVTOL (Electric Vertical and Takeoff Landing) vehicles or “flying cars.” Yes, that’s right: our team at Kitty Hawk is currently building a fully electric personal aircraft called Flyer.
This effort is the latest in a series of path-breaking efforts I’ve been a part of. I’ve been on teams that developed the earliest unmanned vehicles; worked on special effects for movies; contributed to life-saving medical devices including the earliest daVinci robotic surgery system — and now, flying cars. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I want to reflect on this awesome experience, and how I got here.
As a kid, I was free to explore all kinds of things. If there were constraints, my parents didn’t let on. I frequently handled snakes, salamanders, and frogs. I raised an abandoned baby raccoon. When I started sewing and knitting, I preferred to try out my own ideas, not follow a pattern. Teachers tried to get me to fit their patterns, too, but I could never just accept their word. I questioned everything. And it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do whatever I wanted to do. Until I applied to college, that is.
I had my sights set on Columbia University in New York City. When I tried to apply to its undergraduate arm, Columbia College, I was told I had to apply to Barnard College, which was the affiliated college for women, instead. What? I was inclined toward technical subjects, and worried that settling for Barnard meant pursuing liberal arts (not that there’s anything wrong with liberal arts; it’s just not me). Because of Barnard’s close relationship with Columbia, I was able to craft a curriculum in computer science including programming, networking, operating systems and computer languages that really suited me.
When I completed my undergrad work, I was invited to be in the first group of women ever to join Columbia University’s PhD program in Computer Science. I happily applied. Being a PhD student opened even more doors, and I explored subjects in more depth such as computer architectures, computer vision, and robotics, which eventually became my thesis topic.
As a grad student I was able to teach several classes, and here again, I saw constraints. I felt the standard teaching approach didn’t help students really learn the material and worse, that it might not apply to their future work. So, I made up my own project-based curriculum. That was unusual at the time, but the students loved it, and I know they learned a lot more than the standard memorize/test approach at that time. Inspired by an idea in the now-classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I asked the students to assess their own performance, and didn’t give out grades until the very end of the term. Everyone liked this approach, and the students grew a lot over the term.
Today, as I look back, I recognize some pluses and minuses along the way. One big positive: I’ve always felt welcomed and supported among my engineering colleagues who were almost exclusively men. When it comes to managers, though, I can tell you some of them have been challenging. I’ve had to find my voice, and how to speak up in mostly male teams. My M.O. has been to focus on the work I love and to connect with supportive teammates in order to keep moving ahead. Along the way, I have worked with and mentored some incredible colleagues, both women and men.
On the whole, I have largely been astonished by, and appreciative of what I’ve been able to do. When asked for advice about navigating career and life paths, here’s what I recommend: cultivate confidence early about the value you bring. Be willing to take chances to find your own way. And one very important recommendation for today’s job seekers: find a company that cares deeply about diversity and inclusion, as Kitty Hawk does.
Which brings me back to flying cars. Kitty Hawk’s mission is a big one: we aim to free the world from traffic. Flyer is one step along this path, and there’s something else about it — working on Flyer is FUN. It’s fun because we don’t stop at the usual constraints; because you can go wherever you want, in the air and on the job; and because you see the world from a different perspective.
Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.