March 29, 2021
In honor of Women’s History Month, Vecna Robotics is highlighting the work and lives of women in tech. According to SWE Research only 13% of all engineers are female. Jenna Hormann, Test Engineer on the Validation team at Vecna Robotics shares her experiences in life, education, and career. Jenna explains how and why she became an engineer as well as the obstacles and triumphs she has experienced as a woman in tech.
I grew up in a small town in New Jersey with two older brothers. My mom was an English teacher, and both of my brothers as well as my dad were engineers. Because of that you’d think I’d have known from a young age that I wanted to follow in their footsteps, but that wasn’t the case. All growing up I would begrudgingly help my dad fix the car or install floorboards or something, and there are so many pictures of me holding a wrench and not smiling. I was shy and serious as a kid, but very observant. It makes me laugh because as an adult, I am the opposite of serious.
It wasn’t until high school that I acknowledged my interest in science and technology. I’m grateful for the early exposure. I learned from an early age that my interests and career options aren’t limited, whether it was something I wanted to pursue or not.
I attended Northeastern University here in Boston, and studied Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Biomechanics. I didn’t start my first full-time engineering job until about two years after graduating, actually. Some of that time I was travelling, and some of that time I was working in a restaurant, both of which I really enjoyed. I was worried that it would be difficult to find an engineering job having been out of college for so long. But I knew that sticking to my own timeline was what was best for me. More companies are focused on finding the right culture fit and know that candidates who follow different paths can add just as much value as those who follow traditional paths.
I am currently a Test Engineer on the Validation team at Vecna Robotics. It is my team’s job to find potential failures in our products before we release them to customers. We also run tests to validate any design changes and ensure that we are making the best decisions for a robust design. I love my job because I get to interact with all parts of the robot and work with every discipline – mechanical, electrical, and software. Every day is different, and it involves a lot of problem solving. I like that it’s hands-on and it’s fun when your goal is to break things instead of building them. I think I’m better at breaking things.
I wish I had one of those crazy inspiring stories about helping people. Honestly, I think the first moment I can clearly recall was when I was standing in line at Disney. I watched the animatronics and thought, “Could I make that??” I was definitely a teenager by then, but ever since then I’ve just wanted to make cool stuff.
I used to try to involve myself in STEM events as much as possible because I loved showing kids that there’s nothing stopping them from pursuing a career in tech. Sometimes it was doing activities with young children to show them that they were capable, and other times it entailed sitting on a panel answering questions that older students had about being in the field. I think it’s important to be candid and address the concerns that make them hesitant to join the industry.
Yes, it can be difficult, but it’s absolutely doable if it’s what you’re interested in. No, you don’t have to have to be a straight A+ student. No, you don’t have to fit the mold of what people think a stereotypical engineer looks like – you can be feminine and social and still like to get your hands dirty. Fewer and fewer people are having these limited impressions as the times change, and it’s wonderful, but we definitely still have a way to go.
Relatively speaking, I’m pretty fortunate in that I never really experienced too much adversity as some women in tech until I entered the workforce through internships and full-time positions. The greatest challenge for me as a female engineer has been finding and maintaining confidence in my work. When I first started my career, I was always afraid to make mistakes. Partly because of who I am as a person, but also because of the pressure I feel being one of the few women in tech. Unconscious bias doesn’t help either. When you find your ideas being dismissed, you can’t help but wonder why. Is it because because you’re a female, because you’re young, or simply because it wasn’t the best idea? Most of the time it’s truly none of those, but it can still be difficult to find the courage to stand your ground.
It wasn’t until one of my previous managers assured me that very few people are 100% sure of themselves, and that they are just more confident about taking their best educated guess, that I started to slowly use my voice more. It’s important to remind yourself that you’re not any less competent for making mistakes, as long as you’re learning from them.
Finding mentors and peers to help navigate these situations and feelings has been incredibly helpful to me. I gain great insights from those who have already been through certain scenarios. It’s inspiring to see a powerful female executive who seems cool and collected. Still, it’s just as inspiring to feel supported by the women in tech closer to your level helping each other through similar challenges. I also think it’s good to get in the habit of celebrating each other’s achievements more frequently so that your confidence can gain momentum.
I think establishing women’s groups is a good place to start, or some sort of mentor matchup program to facilitate these relationships. I’ve seen a lot of companies doing this already and I think it’s great. Other efforts such as acknowledging the accomplishments of women by celebrating Women’s History Month, show support and appreciation for a company’s female employees.
I never feel like being a woman in tech explicitly prevented me from moving up in my career. But I do believe that I’ve been held back by the personal belief that I couldn’t thrive in certain roles due to the qualities that women inherently tend to have. I’d always figured that I wouldn’t be a good leader or would have trouble making effective decisions because of my emotional nature. I’ve since learned that emotional intelligence actually works to my advantage. It’s hard to break those preconceived notions but I think seeing more examples of different personalities in higher positions has broadened my view.
Don’t be afraid to take risks. It sounds terribly cliché but it can feel like there’s pressure to be perfect when you’re in the minority as a woman. Also, find your strengths and continue to develop them. It can be overwhelming to be constantly learning new things and feel like you haven’t mastered anything yet. Leverage what you are good at; that will help you stay grounded and confident.
Read More Humans of Robotics stories here.