SWE Magazine Feature: Spooky Stories in Engineering

Ghosts and goblins aren’t just for kids. Engineers can recount excruciating details, decades later, of their own scary, spooky, and even abnormal experiences on the job.

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“Spooky Stories of Electrical Outages, Adventures with Babies, and Weird Co-Worker Warnings” was written by Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor.


Spooky Stories featured members

Whether it’s an electrical outage, moving to a new country with a newborn, or enduring a co-worker’s weird, ominous warning of an imminent threat, women engineers have fought their own versions of ghouls and goblins — and conquered.

Stella Uzochukwu-Denis, an electrical engineer in her native Nigeria and a SWE global ambassador, quickly became the go-to leader at her otherwise all-male workplace after university. As a telephone switch engineer, she shouldered the responsibility of handling emergency call outages, even as she had to reassure her male colleagues that she understood all of the procedures.

After Uzochukwu-Denis got married and had a baby girl, her colleagues still looked to her to work around the clock. The first day she returned to work from giving birth, an electrical outage brought down the phone system.

The result?

“Everyone said, ‘We don’t want to know if you gave birth yesterday or today. We just need to know we’re going to fix those systems and everything is going to come back up,’” Uzochukwu-Denis said.

So Uzochukwu-Denis’ husband had to bring her the baby at about 1 o’clock in the morning so she could breastfeed at work. It took another three-and-a-half hours to get the system working, and she had to stay on the job.

Her husband made a second trip at 4 o’clock that morning for another breastfeeding session.

“It was a great challenge,” said Uzochukwu-Denis. She now runs the SWENext club in Nigeria and is program director for the Odyssey Educational Foundation, introducing girls in 12 states in Abuja, Nigeria, to robotics, artificial intelligence, computer programming, mobile-app development, and other STEM programs.

That baby is now 12 and a Constance & Nano SWE Comic Challenge winner, featured in SWE’s second comic book adventure, released last year.

A baby also was at the center of what mechanical engineer and Agile coach Karen Chan, P.Eng., defined as her spooky experience.

She and her husband, electrical engineer Hsiu-P’ang Chan, moved voluntarily to Mexico from their native Canada with their 1-year-old son to work at an auto-assembly plant. They spoke no Spanish, knew no one there, and disregarded their parents’ protestations.

“Moving to Mexico for almost two years was hard and scary,” Chan said. “Our parents were ultimately supportive, but they worried for us and tried to convince us not to do it.”

Chan was the only female employee of the plant, and her day shift prevented her from going to meetings with the wives of other workers on international assignment. Her husband, on the other hand, enjoyed going with his friends to male-only cantinas.

“I had read before we moved that there’s a period of high enthusiasm and then you could come crashing down. Then it plateaus and you’re happy,” she said. “We hit that point of homesickness and everything was bad. Then it came back and we were good.

“I can understand how relocation can break a lot of families and couples,” Chan said.

The couple persevered. They worked separate shifts — she the dayside, he the nightside — and used walkie-talkies to communicate daycare drop-offs and pickups and to keep track of the assembly line and other workplace issues.

“Our relationship came out strong,” she said. “It was a team effort. We figured out, ‘How do we win together?’ It wasn’t, ‘I’m better, you’re worse.’”

Chan said she also learned that she’s resilient and adaptable.

“Scary things don’t really scare me anymore,” she said. “I’d be happy to go on another international assignment.”

But there’s one situation that Chan still remembers vividly. It happened prior to her move to Mexico, when she had moved from an engineering-design to a supervisory role, overseeing experienced hourly auto plant workers.

When Chan had to cover for a night-shift peer, one of the female workers warned her that Chan had better beware one of the male workers.

“She told me, ‘Just be careful you don’t get caught alone with him at the end of the night. Because you’re exactly his type.’ I don’t know if she did it to mess with me or to warn me,” Chan said of the incident 16 years ago. “I was genuinely afraid. If it’s an open secret that this guy is like this, why are you leaving me alone with him? Even now I ask myself, ‘How could this organization be so blasé about potential rape in the workplace?’”

She called her husband to meet her when she finished her shift, and she left safely.

Though Chan made sure to walk out with a friend from that point on, she said she felt it was “an abnormal situation.”

“I never felt the organization’s culture was one that would allow physically jeopardizing people,” she said.

Engineering Was Her Constant

Another form of freeze-inducing fear comes from our own thoughts — of anxiety, uncertainty, and defensiveness.

That’s what held back Brianne C. Martin, who ended up not only dealing with her anxiety, but fashioning her own job promotion and creating a global brand as “The People Engineer™” (see www.briannecmartin.com) — a Latina who has created an online community of partners and advocates who support one another.

“My mission is to share the stories of the underdogs in our industry,” Martin said.

Martin suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after being sexually abused as a child by a father figure, beaten and locked in a closet as punishment by another father figure, and growing up amid chaos.

Despite seeing a therapist in high school, it wasn’t until Martin began studying engineering at university that she could no longer wait to confront her demons. “I would furiously take notes in class because I was anxious all the time. That made it hard to focus and recollect what the teacher said,” she recalled.

She worked with a psychiatrist, who prescribed an anti-anxiety medication that enabled Martin to succeed. “It was incredibly weird for me,” she said. “I could actually sit there and listen while the professor was lecturing.”

Throughout, engineering was her constant.

“Amid all of the chaos and inconsistency, math and science were consistent and disciplined. Two plus two was always four,” she said. “There was a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong.’ The fact that I could solve external problems gave me a sense of relief.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi.

Martin learned to take her recovery one step at a time, and she now counsels others about how an engineering mindset can help women achieve their career goals and live a fulfilled life. “Get out of the way of what you have control over and what you don’t,” said Martin, who now works as senior manager of membership relations for the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

“You can identify those opportunities instead of falling a victim to victimhood.”

Fighting Fears

A change in mindset helped prevent Sarvenaz Myslicki, an engineering director at American Express and chair-elect of SWE’s editorial board, from reacting defensively to constructive criticism.

“I could do 50 great things, but I would get so affected by the one thing I did wrong,” said Myslicki, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science.

Myslicki credited a “direct and to-the-point” boss with helping her identify her defensiveness — her deep-rooted discomfort with imperfection — and redirect her focus.

Prior to her learning experience, Myslicki said, she felt she had to quickly come up with a defense to counter what she deemed a critique. Now, she said, she digs deeper by fighting her instinct to defend and instead ask for more details.

For example, if a manager gave feedback that he believed Myslicki “wasn’t present” during a meeting, her initial reaction would be to make assumptions and counter them. “In my old mindset, I might have assumed he wanted me to have spoken more, and I would defend his feedback by saying, ‘But I added several talking points throughout the meeting,’” she said.

By halting her assumption and instead asking the question, “What made you think that I wasn’t present?” she said she learned that the manager actually was concerned that she had sat in the corner of the room and failed to fully engage with her body language.

Myslicki has also learned to fight her fears when she’s on the other side — giving feedback to her direct reports. She oversees 50 employees in her role managing customer servicing applications for American Express. Myslicki said though it can feel “spooky” to have to give employees negative feedback, it is absolutely critical if you need to let someone go due to lack of performance.

“If you don’t do the spooky part of providing feedback, the person has no chance to improve,” she said. “Then, if you do need to let them go, it will be 50 times more spooky because it will come as a surprise to them.”

“If you don’t do the spooky part of providing feedback, the person has no chance to improve. Then, if you do need to let them go, it will be 50 times more spooky because it will come as a surprise to them.”

– Sarvenaz Myslicki, engineering director, American Express

If the feedback and an improvement plan are ineffective and you need to fire a subordinate, you will want to come prepared with facts, since these discussions can quickly become emotional and unpredictable, Myslicki said.

“I’ve had associates shift the topic from their performance to very personal matters,” she said. “It was as if they were putting their personal, financial, and family’s well-being in my hands, rather than taking responsibility for their situation.”

Similarly, Myslicki said she overcame her spooky feelings about having to lay off someone due to budget constraints by working hard to sing the deserving employee’s praises. The employee ended up getting a new position prior to the scheduled layoff.

Diving Into the Unknown

It can be even more spooky for an employee who gets called into the human resources department for no apparent reason. That’s what happened to Lisa Rimpf, a SWE senator, more than two years ago.

Rimpf still remembers vividly that the HR manager closed the door, and she definitely got spooked.

The reason? Rimpf’s employer was in the thick of negotiating a bolt-on acquisition, and Rimpf was asked to take an unspecified opportunity. Like a secret spy mission, Rimpf had to decide — right then and there — whether she would board an airplane the next day so she could meet with a company senior vice president.

“I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do that,’” Rimpf said. “Yet I didn’t know anything. It was the week before Christmas. I was thinking to myself, ‘But I’m supposed to be on vacation.’ Yet here I am, leaving the next day, and I have no idea why.”

Though the adventure ended with a big career boost for Rimpf, it involved an even spookier challenge: She had to decide within 24 hours whether to accept the role as integration manager and move away from the only home she’d ever known — the Cleveland, Ohio, area, where she was surrounded by her family.

“Here’s this woman — me — who has never thought about moving, and within 72 hours, I’ve taken a plane ride and don’t know why; been interviewed but didn’t know for what position; and then, I had to accept a new role within 24 hours that would require I move to Madison, Wisconsin.

“Here’s this woman — me — who has never thought about moving, and within 72 hours, I’ve taken a plane ride and don’t know why; been interviewed but didn’t know for what position; and then, I had to accept a new role within 24 hours that would require I move to Madison, Wisconsin.”

– Lisa Rimpf, director of operational excellence, Dürr Universal Inc. and Dürr MEGTEC LLC

“Since it came out of nowhere, it was pretty overwhelming,” said Rimpf, who holds a bachelor’s and a master’s in chemical engineering. “But it really paid off.”

She took the next spooky step: She accepted the promotion on Dec. 23, 2016, and reported to her new home base on Jan. 3, 2017.

She sold her house in Ohio and moved into a condo in Wisconsin with half the square footage, giving away huge portions of her belongings in the process. Because the new job was so intense and deadline oriented, Rimpf said she quickly had to figure out which household essentials were really needed.

“I think of it like a juggler,” she said. “You can’t let the glass balls drop because they’ll be broken and they’re hard to put back together. The rubber ones can bounce.”

One of Rimpf’s key coping strategies in accepting her new role as integration manager was doing nightly video chats and real-time “face-timing” with her then 7- and 2-year-old niece and nephew. “They just put a smile on my face,” she said.

Rimpf was in for more spooky times when her employer was bought in October 2018. That move turned out well for her, too, because she’s now director of operational excellence, overseeing special projects with an eye toward streamlining business operations, for Dürr Universal Inc. and Dürr MEGTEC LLC.

In many instances, Rimpf said, she realizes that she is very fortunate. Yet she also accepts that she will face benefits and trade-offs in every situation.

It’s impossible to go through life without some type of scary, spooky, or disturbing experiences, but as these women engineers prove, by fighting their versions of ghosts, goblins, and monsters, they persisted and triumphed.


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