Ignorance is bliss - Success on my own terms

In order to tell you my story, let me take you back and introduce you to high school Sara, where my engineering career began.  I made good grades – usually straight As. I sang in two different choirs at school and was crushed that I didn’t get into the most elite one. I was similarly disappointed when my theater director stopped casting me even as a chorus member in the school musical – but it wasn’t her fault that I am not actually a good actor or that I can’t project worth a darn and struggled with not stepping on my dance partner’s toes! 

So where did engineering come in? At this point in my life, I had no particular role models in engineering which left me with no preconceived notions about what engineers did or did not do. In fact, I was the one who taught  my high school  librarians how to get on dial-up bulletin boards and that they should probably block IRC (Internet Relay Chat). I had no awareness that women engineers were uncommon. Nor did I question whether or not I could "do engineering".  I was happy to be me, whether that was in theater or teaching the librarians to be internet savvy. Thus, I boldly wrote on my SAT and ACT bubble sheets, well before I actually knew what engineering was, that I wanted information from schools with Chemical Engineering departments. All I really knew about engineering at the time was that engineers needed to be good in math and science…and that it paid well.  So was money my motivator for getting into engineering?  Sure it was - initially.  But that isn’t what kept me in engineering.

The College Years

I feel that my collegiate engineering experience was pretty “typical” though I am still amazed that I made it through engineering school without taking notice of things that were happening around me. There was mild harassment of the prettier women in the class and several professors made inappropriate comments related to women engineers. Granted, these same professors called the entire class stupid on many occasions. I hope that either of these comments would today be noticeably offensive. Many of the women who started in my first class were nowhere to be seen by mid sophomore year. Again, at the time, these things went largely unnoticed nor were they analyzed as they were considered “the norm”.

My first engineering job was a process engineering co-op in a cement plant where I was one of four women – the other three females were a secretary and two finance clerks.  I wasn’t bothered by not having a female role model in the company – I felt I was an engineer first, woman second. My boss at the cement plant became my first role model.  He had an MS in Civil Engineering but decided that he wanted his professional engineering license in Chemical Engineering.  It took him two tries and months of studying, but he got it!  That is the kind of behavior I admire – tenacity with a bit of “Huh? You decided to do what?!?”  I believe I used that same sort of rationale for becoming involved in theater once again (stage management, costuming, and set building) during college. The theater majors thought I was nuts for studying so hard  and my fellow engineers couldn’t understand why I would give up even more sleep (aka: valuable homework time) in order to go to theater rehearsals.

The journey continues...

After college, I put my head down and charged with all my might toward a control systems job; I landed a job with Shell doing just that. And remember my original motivator for getting into engineering? Well, truth be told, no amount of money is worth the countless hours I have spent at plants, in airplanes on weekends, driving to locations at o’dark 30 (AM or PM), checking out safety instrumented systems in the freezing cold or blazing heat, or typing away furiously at a computer or various control systems over the years. It is my love for engineering and the people I work with, that’s what makes it all worth it. My career path in Engineering has not been "typical" thus far – in fact, some people think I should not have gotten the job I currently have based on my previous experiences. But as you may have noticed, I have had a hard time allowing other people to define how I should/should not think or what I can/can not do.

Today, I am a Process Safety Manager at a refinery in Washington. For me, it is perfect fit for the attributes for which I am noted - will to do a technically sound and thorough job and a passion for keeping people safe in operating facilities. My time as a control systems engineer, especially in my last job where I was the Subject Matter Expert for Alarm Management, helped me better understand how to manage risk and to appreciate the human factors of why people do and think in certain ways. I'm sure my co-workers may have very good reasons for telling me that they don’t think I will like working with certain instrument techs or operators in the field, or that this male manager doesn’t like being challenged in meetings - especially by female engineers, but I don’t usually allow their opinions to change my chosen path.  I am who I am – stubbornness and all. In fact, people often question why I have red or purple streaks in my hair – isn’t that unprofessional?  By who’s standards, I ask? Certainly not mine!


My point is this– your own attitude is what will bring you personal success; you attitude is more powerful than what anyone else says or does.  Better yet, YOU get to define that success – it is whatever success means to you.   I consider some of my greatest successes as:

  • Not quitting engineering
  • Getting a job in control systems right out of school
  • Marrying my best friend
  • Traveling internationally for pleasure and work
  • Asking for and receiving a promotion
  • Becoming the youngest Subject Matter Expert in the company
  • Moving to my 8th state 
  • Volunteering with Society of Women Engineers, Girl Scouts, and a no-kill animal shelter

In my experience, ignorance really can be bliss as you navigate your career. I suggest making decisions based on your own experiences and not the societal norms all around us. Currently, success means to me that my boss thinks I am doing a good job - despite the fact that I am a first time supervisor and before this, I had never managed process safety. My resolve, open mind and quirky nature serve me as well today as they did in high school and college. These qualities combined with with my engineering skills and and my passion for people is what I believe makes me a successful Process Safety Manager.

I would love to hear from other members of the group - how do you define success? What are some of your greatest successes? 

  • Sara - great article! My greatest success has always come from mentoring and coaching others.  Finding a job that feeds a passion is always a path to success.  I really enjoyed reading about your path - good luck!

  • Thanks for sharing, . I have had the pleasure of getting to know you and spending some time with you and I know how infectious your positive attitude and outlook are. It's so nice that you can share this with others through this blog. Success for me is being able to give back in some way, big or small. Success is also maintaining a positive attitude and being a positive influence on those around me. Your positive attitude is inspiring!

  • Great post Sara! I think one of the benefits of experience is that you begin to worry less about what other people think and more about what you think is the right thing and believe would add the most value to your organization. Success is when the value the organization perceives in you matches what you perceive is valuable in what you do. When these align, I think it's really energizing and makes what you do fun!