Expecting the Worst

Plant under water

The horrors of Hurricane Harvey as bad as it’s been the last week are, I’m afraid, about to eclipse what we’ve witnessed so far. In addition to the loss of life and flood damage, East Texas is home to the chemical and oil and gas industries. The signature oil sheen on the floodwaters is visible now. And if you think about the garbage, construction materials, oils and other fluids used for the plants that is now floating out into the area, the hazards are just beginning to be known.

We discovered this morning that the best laid plans for shutdown of these plants can go awry. Loss of power followed by flooding of the back up generators has resulted in rising temperatures in trailers filled with a reactive chemical and subsequent explosion.

While social media fills with naysayers and finger pointers at lax regulations for these industries, I go back to my own experience in chemical plants as we tried to identify the ‘what ifs’ for hazards.

I mentioned this in a previous post  the process the chemical industry included in their designs as a result of a 1984 Union Carbide accident in India. I worked for a consulting firm in Alabama for a few months. Their contract with Amoco involved performing HAZOP, HAZardous OPerations, analysis of their existing facility to identify deviations and their causes. Then we looked at the likelihood of any of these situations occurring and the consequences to property and life should a design fail. The results of that analysis then may drive a design or instrumentation change. It may require an expenditure of capital to ensure the consequences are controlled.

For the scenario at the Arkema plant in Crosby, Texas, I’m thinking, regulations aside, the HAZOP analysis may have identified a scenario in which the power failed AND the generator failed due to running out of fuel, or flooding. While the consequences are high for this particular chemical, the likelihood that they would experience a hurricane causing the flooding at levels never experienced before may have been rated very low.

Alternatively, the engineers and safety personnel performing the analysis may have recommended a third back up that was rejected by the company as too expensive to install given a low likelihood of occurrence.

It will be interesting to watch how the root cause analysis results turn out. I’m assuming there will be one and that it will go public. Lack of regulations and oversight by the local and state government could be a possibility, as could a company decision to save the chemical stores ahead of the storm.

After all, how bad could it be?

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Motivation to Finish

During my early morning browsing of my Facebook newsfeed I came across this story: http://newsok.com/stem-student-is-breaking-tradition-at-eoc-tech/article/5537178

It’s a wonderful story of a young woman’s spirit and drive to pursue her goals in spite of being the lone female in the high school STEM classes and who knows what other challenges she may face.

Engineering is not a quiet undertaking. It takes grit and determination, an insatiable hunger for learning, a willingness to remove oneself from the social scene, and an ability to ignore the naysayers, teachers, professors, family, friends, other students, who may try to derail progress towards the goal.

Keeping your eye on the prize, a career full of design challenges and rewards, is worth the sweat equity that engineering studies require.

For Tayte and all the Taytes to come, I wish you spirit and motivation to make your dreams a reality.

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Begin Again – a Retrospective

I decided to wrap up my 39 years in engineering this month. It turns out it was not too hard of a decision to make. Financially, I’m able to support myself although that wasn’t the main reason I left.

Engineering management has changed. You would expect some evolution to occur over four decades. Technology has evolved and with it the incorporation of technology into the engineer’s life would cause a change. How we do our job, the availability of new tools to use in our job, freedom to create and innovate, but not so fast.

Working within the constraints of a corporate structure doesn’t always bring that freedom of thought and creativity. The corporation, or any business for that matter, is in the business of making money, adding value for its shareholders, paying its bills and salaries. A corporation should be in the business of recognizing its greatest resource is its employees. And to that end, provides its employees with benefits and salaries that encourage long-term loyalty and devotion and opportunities for the employees to contribute to the longevity of the business.

What happens when corporations care more about the shareholder value, the stock options, and the cost control? What happens to engineering creativity, quality of design and safety?

When I began my career in the late 1970s, along with the normal wide-eyed innocence of planning to make my mark, I was on my own for the first time. I was determined to make my new-found independence work. The first twenty years of my career were spent with companies who provided outlets for creativity, who encouraged teamwork and who cared about products that not only enhanced shareholder value, but products that improved the lives of customers. There was a willingness to spend the capital necessary to produce a product that was both safe and high quality.

The end of the 1990s I noticed a shift. Suddenly CEO and executive pay went up and up and up. The term ‘shareholder value’ made its way into our yearly goals. We were expected to provide products that increased shareholder value. Now I’m no expert on corporate management by a long shot. But it seems the companies lost the bubble regarding their greatest resource and with it engineering suffered and continues to suffer.

The focus on value has meant a decline in engineering quality and innovation. It’s all about the money now. Corporations are run by executives with financial backgrounds, barely scraping the surface of technical expertise. Put out the product in the fastest way possible. Fix it later at a much higher cost, I might add.

I get that the military needs are emergent and the way war is currently run with entities for which there are no ‘rules of war’ that there is a need to get updated product to the field in the most expeditious manner. The lives of our service men and women depend on us to get the job done.

I get that the consumer has become a machine with very high expectations for fast service, fast delivery, with an attention span of less than five seconds to hook them. Watch a movie from the 1950s and compare it to the latest ‘hit’ in the theaters. Movies used to slowly evolve, character definition and plot development would take as much as 30 minutes. Now the rule is to get the viewer hooked within 10 minutes or risk the movie being a flop.

My cousin swears this downfall happened with the advent of one-hour photo development and I agree. Back in the day we took our film to be processed with an expectation that we wouldn’t see our beloved prints for a week. Enter the dawn of one-hour photo processing. Drop it off at a kiosk in the parking lot of a strip mall, do your errands and in one hour pick up your prints. Of course now there is instant gratification with the multitude and quality of handheld digital cameras and social media.

In this new rush, we’ve lost the time and the desire to create and innovate. We no longer have time to develop an idea, to thoroughly vet it to determine pros and cons and potentially have to start all over. I’ve seen bad ideas and implementations proliferate into eternity because ‘we don’t have the money to update it’. Turns out we have one shot and that one shot design can carry into eternity.

Not all corporations disallow creativity. Certainly the technology companies are able to produce innovative products on a regular basis. It’s their lifeline to keep up with a consumer who is bored after the latest thing is a month old or less. Rotating employees maintains creativity for these companies. I have to wonder how long one stays with these companies. Either they work a project to completion and then look for the next best thing even if it means leaving the company or the company looks at them as a one-shot creative source and leaves them on the curb after they have performed.

Benefits aside, for companies to keep what is called ‘tribal knowledge’ they have to feed the engineering mind. Engineers have an innate need to explore, to question, to discover and to create.

The company I retired from started facility upgrades to attract and hopefully retain the younger employees providing a ‘cool place’ to congregate. These lounges had couches and comfortable chairs, Keurig machines, and large monitors in which to plug in your laptop to co-create with your peers. Interesting to note they weren’t used that much from what I could tell. It’s much simpler to email or instant message in seclusion.

Could it be the tasking was divided in such a way that coordination and feedback weren’t seen as a need to get the job done? Schedules forced a lot of the lack of teamwork. Maybe by starting as a team when assignments were received would result in a continuation of the teamwork?

There is a thought also that ‘we can always fix it later’. Yea, there’s an idea. Later either never comes or it’s at the expense of the schedule and quality and the employee. Overtime is always an option, isn’t it?

During a proposal phase for one project, the engineers spent some time, and a lot of proposal money, defining a preliminary design. This project was going to be awarded to us, there was no question; it’s what they call sole sourced. We overspent the proposal budget but produced a great product in the end. Great products are defined by the lack of rework and issues the customer identifies after the fact. The program manager scolded us for overrunning her budget. She totally missed the point and even stated we would not do that again.

So what is it they want? A half-assed product that is under budget? I hope not, but that’s what comes across most of the time.

What’s a solution? What provides the engineer with their creativity fix, provides shareholder value, and produces a quality product? Is it possible to intertwine all of these things? We used to. Unfortunately, I think the shareholders are demanding more financial spoils. It’s hard to keep an even keel when one of the entities wants more than their share. And as corporations increase the number of executives who each is then vested in stock options and become shareholders themselves, it’s not hard to see how the creativity and/or product quality suffer.

I think a look back to how business was done 20 years ago is in order. Unfortunately I don’t believe that’s going to happen because there is no impetus as long as a company is making money.

Let’s say the company is struggling with making money. OK, reduce employee benefits. Remove pensions, remove retiree medical, increase health insurance premiums, and lay off the most senior and therefore the most expensive salaried employees. Done! Wait, what?

I think it starts with recognizing what the most important resource is to a company.

I elected to retire because I grew tired of the struggle to engage creatively. I elected to chart a new course for my life that challenges me to create and innovate. I’m excited to jump onto a new road of exploration and discovery.

Those are my thoughts; I encourage you to tell me your side. New engineers: how do feel about being able to be creative at your job? Experienced engineers: do you feel you’ve lost the battle to maintain relevancy? Managers and executives: do you recognize the need for engineers to have some creative freedom?

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What’s a “Gal” to do?

I received an email from my senior manager the other day, as did a number of males and females on distribution. He informed us that he was going to be meeting with the “Capital gals” that afternoon and would keep us apprised.

Wait. What? Capital gals? He referred to the program Chief Engineer and program Finance Analyst with this phrase. Of course they weren’t on distribution.

What does that term ‘gal’ refer to and why is it rubbing me the wrong way? The first thing that comes to mind is ‘guys and gals’. In my engineering career, oftentimes among only male counterparts, I would joke I’m one of the guys. Why is being called a guy more accepting than being called a gal?

Dictionary.com defines ‘gal’ as a girl or woman with its origins going back to 1785.

Think it’s time to move forward? What do you think? Is it accepting in a professional environment to be thought of as a ‘gal’ or should we save that for use outside of work?

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Embracing ‘Bossy’

A few weeks ago I presented the keynote speech to the University of Oklahoma Society of Women Engineers’ Collegiate Section. Their theme this year was “Bossy: Be the Boss”, a take off from Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In effort to Ban Bossy. My speech follows, I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing and presenting it.

Excited and proud to be selected as your keynote speaker, I did what most of us do when our lives take an unexpected turn, I posted about it on Facebook. It wasn’t long before a friend ‘fessed up to calling her granddaughter ‘Miss Bossy Pants’ and commented she needed to stop doing that. Without knowing the details of how she used the term, I assumed it was not in a positive light.

To tell you the truth, when Sarah extended the offer to speak tonight and told me the theme, I had to really think: when was I actually labeled ‘Bossy’. The other ‘b’ word, certainly over the course of my life, many times, but ‘Bossy’?

I figured out it was my mother who was the first person to call me Bossy. It was during times when a decision was needed and since no one appeared to me to be making one, I’d step up and do it for them. Quit being so bossy, she’d say. Maybe it had to do with being the first born for I don’t remember my younger sister ever having the bossy tag affixed to her.

My cousin set me straight years later. I’d had my first child and two months later, my grandmother died. She lived in another state and so my husband, infant and I flew in for the funeral and stayed in my aunt’s house. Amidst the reuniting crowd of cousins, aunts, uncles, their kids, other friends and distant relatives, I struggled to prepare my son’s formula so he wouldn’t starve. Back then doctors convinced us to boil the bottles and all the other accessories. It was an involved task on a good day at home, the kind that takes over the kitchen. Traveling like I was for the first time since his birth, it seemed near impossible.

So while I sweated and fussed and did the tasks necessary amid all of the crowd and noise, my cousin laughed at my antics. She said she would watch me in awe when I managed to coordinate a group activity for adults and yet here was a 2-month-old baby putting me to my knees. She never saw me as bossy. She saw me as an organizer, and a leader. She also saw me as helpless when it came to the baby.

One time my husband was paying for gas, standing at a window waiting to sign his credit card. Another man stood behind him and overheard his last name, Eckstein. The man asked him if he was my husband, we lived in a very small town. He said yes. The other man explained he worked at the same plant as I did, followed by ‘boy, I sure feel sorry for you.’ Of course he implied a lot of things in that statement, bossy being one of them.

The fact that I’m able to recall these vignettes, tells me the impact that bossy made on my life. It also reminds me how maybe, just maybe, my mother calling me bossy stirred a passion in me to persevere and lead as my cousin had noted. I embraced it even though the guy at work looked at me differently.

Throwing back to the 80’s I remember a fellow female engineer had a poster which compared male traits to female traits: He has leadership skills, she’s territorial, he’s assertive, she’s aggressive, he’s confident, she’s bossy. The list was quite long. We’d laugh at it then but it still hurts to see we’re fighting these stereotypes 30 years later.

Robin Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkley, stated in a 2014 Huffington Post article: “Bossy” per se is not the problem: the problem is that we still see power and authority as male prerogatives, and women who aspire to them as unwomanly, unlikeable, and bad. The real task is to change the world, not the word.

Dictionary.com defines bossy as domineering and autocratic followed by its use in a sentence: She’s very bossy, a take-charge gal (Attributed to the 1880s+). The words that indicate leadership didn’t make this dictionary.

How can you lead without being perceived as overbearing? What are the keys to adding value to your company, your employees, and your co-workers without being labeled domineering? I’ve got a few ideas.

Challenge yourself – I’ve judged a few projects here at OU and it’s very noticeable that the boys present most of the technical stuff while the girls hang back. The engineering school curriculum is built upon projects whereas in my days at OU it was solely based on lectures and book learning. Actively participate; take on tasks that scare you; Embrace challenges, persist despite obstacles.

I graduated with a Mechanical engineering degree. Imagine my delight when a co-worker asked me if I’d like to transfer jobs from my current base in Alabama to Oklahoma, it meant a return to my home state to be near my parents and my children’s grandparents. I was ecstatic. Then he said I’d be performing software test.

My heart dropped. Software? What an unknown that was to me. My experience to that point was limited to piping, pumps, and hardware. We didn’t even have our own desktop computers back then. I took the required Fortran class years ago and still have nightmares over that. He assured me I would excel so I took a leap of faith. Guess what happened? My peers awarded me with a custom t-shirt commemorating my leadership in being the best tester on the program. I was successful because of that friend’s encouragement and my own curiosity to see if I could discover what he already saw in me.

See your efforts as a path to mastering skills. You may fail, you will make mistakes, and you will learn. Everyone doesn’t have constant success although it may seem like it. Success is a series of failures and triumphs blended with tenacity.

Be inspired by other women’s successes. Collaborate instead of competing with one another. Help each other.

This can be a hard one. I think on some levels we are programmed to only help ourselves out and to be jealous of others’ successes. A fellow engineer, a friend, a co-worker is successful on their projects. Celebrate it, ask and think about why she was successful.

Too many times we as women have a tendency to down trod on other women. When you catch yourself being critical, stop and think. Wouldn’t you want others to celebrate you?

Stop apologizing – This drives me nuts more than anything with women. I’ve worked with several female co-workers who regularly end emails in which an opinion is stated with something like ‘maybe I’m missing something or I could just be way off base’. Be assertive; if you have an opinion or need action, state it. ‘Please provide me with…’ is more assertive. ‘Do you think we need to do…’ is asking permission.

Ask for help – seek out mentors, if someone offers to mentor you, accept the offer. They probably see more in you than you do yourself. A good mentor can be brutally honest with you. After I botched a presentation that I felt I was well prepared for, my mentor’s first comment was ‘you really screwed that up’. He was right; I had more work to do.

Volunteer – leadership development can start within your campus clubs, sports organizations or civic community service. Volunteer for projects at work. See a need and take charge. Offer to lead a project, present ideas to the board of a non-profit, the more exposure you have speaking in front of different types of people, the more your confidence will soar.

It’s not easy to speak up, but it is definitely worth it. With practice, you will learn when to speak up. Don’t worry about leaving anything out. How many times have you said ‘I wished I’d have said this instead of that’? I’m sure tonight I’ll go thru that exercise in my head about this speech. If you forget something follow up with a communication later.

Learn how to ask questions. You know asking demanding questions doesn’t work on you, so don’t do it to others. Another mentor of mine had some sage advice: always ask questions that begin with ‘how’ and ‘what’. They diffuse any kind of hostility and most importantly you make people think. How will your idea work? What will be the impact?

It takes practice, determination and courage to become comfortable speaking up and taking charge and letting your voice be heard. I hope these tips inspire you to be the best you can be. Think back to your high school senior self. You’ve come a long way already, haven’t you?

Urban Dictionary has a slightly different take on Bossy: in addition to the traditional uses of mean, annoying and that other ‘b’ word, site users have added classier definitions: Assertive, a natural leader, the ultimate cool. I’ve known some of you for a few years now, watching you grow and mature into fantastic young women and engineers. You have the tools you need to be the ultimate cool.

And finally: Be kind. Always. Embrace ‘Bossy’; thank people who recognize your leadership, even if they call you ‘Bossy’ while doing it.

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Space is back, baby!


I was fortunate to catch the movie ‘Gravity’ this weekend, in 3D, of course. The movie stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who are two of my favorites. But it wasn’t the ‘star’ power that caught me, it was the other star power: well, the stars, universe, astronauts, space, the final frontier (although I am NOT a trekkie). 

I worked on the International Space Station (ISS) during its design phase in the 1990’s. It was a fun program as the design constraints were so ‘out of this world’, a world without gravity, there were things we had to consider that we wouldn’t normally here on earth.

I was buzzed to see an interior scene of the ISS and warning lights labeled with the modules that I worked on. It even had some appearances that reminded me of the drawings and sketches I was privy to back then.

I thought they got the movie correct on most levels. I read an article provided by a friend that pointed out the distance between the Hubble telescope and the ISS was fiction in the movie. (As this is a new, just-out movie, I’m trying to be careful with the details so as not to spoil it for everyone else.) But the other details about life without gravity appeared to be dead on.

The intricacies of space exploration and the high risk to life and limb for the astronauts is fascinating to me. For one, to remember those who gave their lives so that the 1960’s space program could continue only to have more young adults put their name in to be part of it (this one included). For another, dealing with weightlessness and lack of force at all (Force = Mass * Acceleration, right?). So when you have no mass, force is zero and then what?

The movie played up this concept in several terrifying scenes demonstrating a gentle push sends matter off into space. Astronaut Alan Shepard hit a golf ball on the moon during his time there. I’ve often wondered, as did my friends and family, how long will that ball circle the moon? Is it still circling? I’m guessing ‘Yes, as long as something didn’t interfere with its flight path.

I also was in awe of the screenwriting, but that’s for another time or actually, a different blog.

Other news articles I’ve read today indicated most of the moviegoers to the flick this weekend were over 40. I find that interesting. Why wouldn’t younger viewers flock to this film? Are the stars of the movie too old to be watched or not as cool as some young starlet? Is it perhaps there are no promises of aliens or blood and guts Jason-types running after them?

Is this part of NASA’s PR problem in getting support for their programs? It’s not ‘exciting’ enough by today’s standards? Have the young adults been so galvanized by the science fiction industry, books, movies and video games, that adventures in space and the technology it takes to make it happen is… boring? 



I really hope not. To do my part, I’ll put up rather than shut up. My kids listen up: want to see a great movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat without aliens and horror? Mom will pay. Let’s do it. 

And you, the parents and over 40’s, do the same.

My younger readers: Try it, you’ll like it. I guarantee it. Open new worlds for yourself and when you hear about cuts to the space program, support it. 

It’s about more than Gravity, after all.

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The Old Day Attitudes are Back!

I’m still fuming for a friend who had ‘one of those’ experiences with a male co-worker. The new hire had an arrogant tone about him and he didn’t go out of his way to work with ‘Linda’ (not her real name). She had been successful in avoiding much to do with him, but then discovered her lead had given him new assignments; assignments that could have gone to her. 

Recognizing there was a cozy relationship developing between the new guy and her lead, Linda managed to keep her distance and get her work done.

One day, Linda asked the new guy if there was anything she could do to help him. He replied…

Wait, are you sitting down? Good.


“You could do the laundry.”

What really steams me about this guy is that he is just a year or two out of college. Probably not even 25 years old. I would have thought this was something from the 1970’s. 

Why do these stereotypes and attitudes exist today? Have we started to back track?

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