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A Woman in Tech, From NASA to General Motors' Advanced Tech Lab

So what if a field has mostly men working in it? That doesn't translate to "no girls allowed."

Technology to me is about solving real problems and opening the door for new opportunities — this is what attracted me to pursue a career in technology.

Early in my career, when I was a NASA contractor, I heard a comment that everyone who works for NASA was there because they wanted to build the bridge of the USS Enterprise. That resonated with me (and not just because I’m a science fiction fan): The idea of having a vision for the future — whether it’s a near future or a far future — and figuring out what you need to create to make it happen is compelling. On the other side of the equation, trying out technologies that others have built and asking what else you might do with that new tool is equally exciting.

The common perception that women are a minority in technology is honestly something I don’t think about. I know a lot of women in the tech sector, including quite a few talented female engineers and designers at General Motors, so I don’t spend a lot of time obsessing over being a “minority,” and I don’t think I’ve faced extra barriers because of my gender. Most everyone I’ve dealt with wants to hire, work with and support people who have the right skills to do the job, regardless of gender or anything else.

When I was in school, I always preferred subjects that had definite answers, where you could prove that your solution was correct (or not) and know when you’d figured something out. To me, non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) classes always seemed like a lot of arguing about how to interpret a story or a poem, with ultimately no resolution. It seemed like not a lot was being accomplished in those discussions. But math and science could help you solve real problems and get things done.

Role models are important

It generally seems like girls are still raised to believe that technology and science are not for them — those subjects are for the boys. Whether it’s through advertising or their own families, a lot of girls are subtly (or not so subtly) pushed away from STEM. The way past that is to give every girl strong role models and encouragement to get into science, technology or math. Female role models played a role in my development; both my undergrad (Northeastern University in Boston) and grad (Stanford University) schools had plenty of female professors. The dean of computer science when I was an undergrad was a woman.

If a girl can see that jobs and careers aren’t “only for men” or “only for women” and that it’s possible to succeed in the tech industry as a woman, that’s a strong message. It’s even better if she has someone in her own life speaking up and telling her that she can succeed, too. A piece of advice I would offer to women is to just push the whole “male-dominated” thing out of your head. If you go in assuming that a field is “for men,” or that people are wondering why you’re there, you’re handicapping yourself before anyone else has a chance to even talk with you. So what if a field has mostly men working in it? That doesn’t translate to “no girls allowed.”

Know your stuff

In my role, I manage mostly men, but I don’t really think about it as a gender issue. My goal in managing is to get to know the people on my team as individuals, and figure out what they need to be productive, happy and successful. What’s important in any industry is to make sure you know your stuff. It’s much easier to be taken seriously by anyone (regardless of gender) if you know what you’re talking about and can express yourself well. Personally, I also have interests that are generally thought of as male-oriented — cars, computers, sports — so I find it pretty easy to relate to male colleagues. I think a lot of people are surprised by my gender at first, mainly because they assume “Frankie” is a male name.

Share your experiences

I think it’s important for successful men and women in technology to share insight on the road they took to where they are today. The technology landscape is constantly evolving as technology advances, so the more that young people (students or those entering the workforce) know about their opportunities, the better. In my role as managing director of GM’s Advanced Technology Lab in Palo Alto, I really love getting to see new technologies that many people may not have heard about yet. Our office is focused on technology and trend scouting, which means I get to spend a lot of my time talking with startups and people who are passionate about what they’re working on. There’s a lot of great energy and excitement in those demos and discussions. I also love learning new things, so the fact that we explore technologies in such a diverse set of areas is a lot of fun. I do think I bring a unique perspective as a woman to my job at GM, because we’re looking at new technologies and trying to figure out if they’re going to be useful for our customers. For a lot of technologies, the use case is different if you’re a woman. Take wireless charging, for example — it needs to work differently if you keep your phone in your handbag rather than taking it out of your pocket when you get in the car.

Find inspiration in what you do

For me, getting to see something I’ve worked on in a production vehicle is just incredible — it inspires me. It’s very satisfying to be able to point to a production feature and know it’s something you created, and that your work had a real impact. At the end of the day, everyone wants to feel like the work they’ve done is worthwhile; having real customers use your technology really hammers home that you did something valuable and important. The Cadillac CUE infotainment system is just one example of current technology that my team at the GM Advanced Tech Lab and I have touched. I get excited when I see a new Cadillac on the road, knowing that these vehicles showcase the CUE system that we helped develop.

Frankie James is the managing director of GM’s Advanced Technology Office in Silicon Valley, where she is focused on identifying new technologies within the Silicon Valley business ecosystem that may be of benefit to GM. Her particular focus is on human-machine interactions (HMI) and driver experience. Prior to joining GM, she was the program manager for Human Computer Interaction (HCI) at SAP Research. She has also worked for RIACS (the Research Institute for Advanced Computer Science), and as a NASA contractor, where she developed voice interfaces for semi-autonomous robots. Reach her @GM.

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