Marked annually on March 8th, International Women’s Day (IWD) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.
The campaign theme for International Women’s Day 2021 is ‘Choose To Challenge‘. A challenged world is an alert world. And from challenge comes change.
To coincide with the celebration, we caught up with Catriona Hewetson, a senior software engineer with Intel Ireland, to find our about her experiences in engineering. Catriona is currently working on software to enable the next generation of low power artificial intelligence hardware. She has spent most of the last 14 years working on low level software that enables new hardware accelerators (machine learning, cryptography, compression, etc.) to power future technologies. Catriona has PhD and undergraduate degrees in electrical and electronic engineering from University College Cork.
1. At what age did you start to think about becoming an engineer?
I really enjoyed science, maths and applied maths in school, but an engineering career wasn’t particularly on my radar. It wasn’t until I attended a college open day in my final year of school that I considered studying engineering. The open day explained that engineers turn ideas and theories into reality and used their problem-solving abilities daily at work. This really appealed to me and aligned with my favourite subjects at school. Also, the open day highlighted the broad career prospects available both here in Ireland and globally after completing an engineering degree.
2. What skills do you need to become a good engineer?
I would say problem solving of course but also communication (listening as well as presenting your ideas) are two important skills. Also, I think you should love learning, trying new things and not being afraid to fail – the world around us and our understanding of it keeps changing so engineers must continue learning and innovating. Working for a large company like Intel has been great in this regard as there is a wealth of training (both technical and soft skills) and supports to further your education and skills.
3. What can be done to encourage more people, and in particular young girls, to explore careers in engineering?
Previously, engineering might have had a bit of an image problem, but I think that is changing as companies highlight the range and diversity of disciplines, skills and people that work for them. Now if only there was a television show that appealed to teenagers that showed this reality instead of the nerdy socially awkward engineer working on his own in a dark room stereotype!
I think initiatives like CoderDojo, junior achievement, science fairs, etc. help to engage with young people and to show them who engineers are and what they do. Also, these programs can give people fun practical experience of taking on a challenge to build something useful. I’m sure if young girls are equally exposed to these opportunities as young boys they will equally consider careers in engineering.
From a software point of view, it has never been more accessible to try engineering in my view. There are Raspberry Pi and Arduino starter kits available and a wealth of information and projects online that are free to access and contribute to. Intel, for example, have worked in recent years to provide a ‘Junior Cycle Coding in Action’ program for schools which supports schools and teachers in their introduction of the short course in Coding within their junior cycle programme.
I recently took some time out to look after my two young children, and it was great to be able to maintain and improve my skills while at home. I took a number of free machine learning courses online and I bought a relatively cheap Google AIY vision kit to put some of my learnings into action. There is also a wealth of open source projects to contribute to that give insight on what is involved in delivering a software engineering project.
4. What is your favourite thing about your job?
For me, I love root causing and fixing problems. As more and more complex tests are performed on a new system defects can be found. Finding out what is causing the failure and fixing it can be a big task that requires some imaginative thinking. However, I get great satisfaction from having fixed the problem and from learning how not to make the same mistakes again.
5. How has the career differed from what you expected, particularly initially?
In college and at school I loved the in-depth technical details of my subjects. Starting my career I wanted to work on the most challenging thing that required a real depth of technical knowledge. However, it turns out I got a lot more satisfaction developing those technical advances and knowledge into products that bring value to customers and society. I suppose I was fortunate to start my career at an R&D group at Intel so I got to work in both research and development roles. I was also lucky to get a great education from my managers and mentors on the more practical disciplines of software engineering early in my career at Intel.
6. What has surprised you the most during your career as an engineer?
Working on engineering projects really is a team sport and for the team to be successful takes all sorts of people with all sorts of backgrounds and interests. If everyone is interested and passionate about the same tasks and ideas things get missed and you deliver an inferior product.
Also, what has been a pleasant surprise is that things never get boring – there are many ways to grow your career in breath and depth and many new innovate projects to develop. Here at Intel I can use and develop my skills not just on different products but also in different roles from software development, design, testing, project management, customer support or sales.
7. What inspires you about your work?
As a software engineer it is inspiring to witness the speed of innovation in technology and how much it touches and enriches our lives. The computers we fit in our pockets now would have required rooms-worth of space not so long ago. This tremendous decrease in size and cost and increase in performance has led to many advances in a short few years including the increased access to information via the internet, improved medical devices, climate control software, the automation of mundane tasks, etc. It is inspiring to work on products that improve society and help others.
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