Women in Engineering - Rachel House
June 23rd is International Women in Engineering Day and Everactive would love to salute and celebrate the contributions of the driven and intelligent women who are changing our world through engineering.
Beginning in the UK in 2017, National Women in Engineering Day went worldwide due to enthusiasm developed by the international audience and participants in previous years. International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) was born to enable the celebration of women in engineering to become global.
In honor of the occasion, we were privileged to have chatted with Rachel House, a Principal Engineer here at Everactive. She shared her journey as a woman in engineering, her role models and influences, and her advice to young people looking towards careers in engineering.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, your current position and a brief history of your career and experience?
I am currently a Principal Engineer on the Analytics team at Everactive. I went to the University of Virginia (UVA) for my undergraduate degree in computer engineering, and during my time as a student, I worked part-time as a system administrator in the UVA Computer Science department. That job kicked off my career in technology, and I really enjoyed my experience fixing computers and responding to help desk requests.
After graduating, I began work at Northrop Grumman as a systems engineer. I worked in that position for a little over a year and found it to be highly uninspiring, so I sought out other opportunities at Northrop and was able to move to the proposal writing team. For several years, I wrote proposals and responses to government Requests For Proposal (RFPs), to sell our solutions to customers who needed them. This period coincided with rampant layoffs in the defense industry; my team of six was reduced to a team of four. I began developing applications solutions to automate some of the work that needed to be made up so that we could continue to function as a leaner team. That development was my bridge back into engineering and software development.
After Northrop, I moved to a digital advertising company, Merkle, where I worked as a back end developer for four years and gained experience writing tested, production software. However, during this time, I also became highly interested in data science and data visualization. My next career jump was to S&P Global, where I joined one of their data science teams. At S&P, I gained exposure to modeling and spent a lot of my time building and improving our infrastructure for model training and production deployment. Then, about a year ago, a former coworker from Merkle (who’s now my manager at Everactive!) reached out and told me that Everactive was looking for someone with my experience and skill set. So I interviewed, met the team, thought it would be a really cool place to work with great problems to solve, and now here I am!
How did you get involved in engineering?
It all started at home for me. My dad got really into personal computers when they became accessible for the everyday person, and so when I was a kid, we always had computers in various stages of assembly around the house. I loved computer games from an early age (I still do!) and when I was a tween I asked my dad to buy me my own computer. Dad said no, but he followed up by handing me a thick book on PC architecture and a promise that he’d buy me the parts that I needed. So, after reading, research, and coming up with a parts list, I built my first computer, funded by dad’s capital investment. That experience of building something functional and enjoyable, fueled by my own research, really stuck with me.
I moved from gaming to coding in middle school and high school, progressing through basic HTML and VBA before being able to take computer programming classes in C++ in high school. I then went on to study computer engineering at university.
What do you like about being an engineer?
I love to build things. In my line of engineering, we use a digital stack, and so “building” things involves writing a lot of code. Sitting down to code is always a good day! I love the process of taking a problem, thinking about what I could build to support the underlying need, architecting a solution, and then doing the work to implement it. I also really enjoy technical communication and distilling complex ideas into relatable mental models for people that I work with and people outside of my field.
What do you find challenging about being an engineer?
One thing that is challenging, particularly in the AI and data space, is that things are moving so quickly! It’s literally impossible to keep track of every new development. You have to strike a balance between learning about what’s new and applying it to what’s being built and the need to have something completed and working on a schedule. Sometimes it’s definitely overwhelming to feel like you have to “know-it-all” when you don’t.
Another challenge in engineering is that you often find yourself maintaining existing and legacy systems that you had no hand in building or refining. It might not be the most glamorous or exciting part of engineering to fight fires when bugs arise. The challenge lies in preserving enthusiasm and dedication for both new development and everyday maintenance.
What impact do you feel you have created as a visible woman in this field?
I think the biggest impact that I’ve had is the things that I have personally created during my career. Each time I have moved to a new opportunity, I’ve always felt with the old job that I created something impactful that helped how the business ran or that I made a product that made others’ lives easier. I consider my impact to be the good engineering work and results that I’ve accomplished.
Who have been role models (real-world or fictional) for you as you navigate your career in engineering?
I’ve been very fortunate to have had important mentors in my life, particularly during my early career. At Northrop Grumman, I was able to work with a very talented Senior Writer on our team who trusted my work. He not only elevated my writing craft, he showed me how to deal with the politics of a role in which you had to churn out a product, on a tight deadline, but didn’t have any organizational power to hold others accountable to produce their required inputs.
On the same team, when I started to branch out into app development, my boss at the time was very supportive and gave me unprecedented control over what I was building and how I used my time. After I had created the first iteration of the system we were using, he continued to give me the green light to keep building and developing autonomously. It was an important experience in my early career because it instilled confidence in me to pursue what I was interested in. Having that support from mentors and leadership helped me build professional confidence that has continued throughout my career.
Can you provide some advice to other young women interested in entering STEM careers?
Engineering doesn’t exist in a void, you can connect it to something you’re already interested in. If you take a topic that you like, even something non-technical, like music, movies, or photography (anything that floats your boat, really) you can use what you’re already knowledgeable about as a backdrop for learning a new programming language, tool or technology. Engineering will be more accessible, memorable, and fun if you experiment with building something that you care about, versus working through generic code tutorials. Let your interests drive your learning instead of saying “I guess I should learn to code” without any connections to the real world.
There’s a growing number of organizations supporting young people in STEM like Girls Who Code or local chapters of youth STEM groups. Since the pandemic, a lot of these organizations are taking their communities online, and they offer great connections and resources. I’ve always been a proponent of “If you’re interested in something, take a class!” The opportunity to learn exists in many places – not only are there formal computer science and engineering classes in school and college (which are great classes to take if you’re interested in a STEM career), there’s also now a multitude of formal and informal learning venues online, like Coursera, Pluralsight, Codecademy, even Youtube. If you’re interested in a STEM topic, the web is at your disposal to seek out the knowledge that’s going to grow your engineering experience and understanding.
What do you find most exciting about working at Everactive?
I’m excited about the potential of our technology to have a positive environmental impact, especially with our steam products. Everactive’s self-powered technology in and of itself is incredibly cool. I’m enthused about how we’re using our unique technology to monitor machinery in the real world and reduce CO2 emissions in our atmosphere.
Within Everactive, I’m excited that our team is working on building out an internal platform for machine learning and data science that will enable us to grow and scale much more quickly than we can now with our current tools. It’s been quite an experience to be part of this ground-floor effort and say “Hey, how are we going to do this? Let’s figure it out, and go forth and build!”