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Engineering To The Top


March 24, 2015  


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When Trina Alexson looks out across her organization for a next generation leader, the regional vice president with Cisco Systems Canada Co. is not watching for the engineers with perfect
attendance or research reports that are completed on time and on budget.

Those are valuable qualities, but the civil engineer turned senior executive says she looks to the pain points in her organization for the rising stars.

“Where there is pain, there are problems to be solved,” she says. “Follow the problems and there are always learning opportunities. It’s problem solvers that really get noticed.”

Alexson was one of four senior female engineers who gathered at the Ericsson Visitors Centre in Kanata outside of Ottawa recently to share employment tips and tricks with 90 women hardwiring their careers in technology.  The event was co-sponsored by the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) and Women in Communications and Technology (WCT) and chaired by Lynda Partner, vice president of marketing with Pythian Inc.

Growing up in pre-oil Newfoundland where double-digit unemployment was the norm, Alexson learned “the value of a job” early, leaving her open-minded about pursuing all opportunities.

“I remember vividly the male engineers I worked with early on would kick up a fuss about doing tasks that weren’t cool or operationally routine. “Let Trina do it”, they said and I always did. It was awesome. I moved around a lot after that because it gave me the foundational skills I needed.”

Those skills took her to San Jose, Calif. where she ran a
development team and had a ringside seat as the Internet
revolution was born.

Julia Elvidge is also a big fan of embracing the positive in any situation. She says her penchant for “saying yes to almost any opportunity” helped power her rise from intern engineer to president of Chipworks, an Ottawa patent and technology firm which counts global tech giants as customers.

One of just six female electrical engineers in her University of Waterloo graduation class of 1987, Elvidge used her technical skills to land a job at Chipworks and then built out her value proposition by finding ways to work across all parts of the operation.

Marketing and sales are still not “her thing”, but because she learned to talk that language, she became an invaluable conduit linking different parts of the operation.

“They used to call me the Manager of Everything Else,” she says sharing a laugh. “What it really meant was when the time came,
I was presidential material because I’d been exposed to so many parts of the business.”

Nilufer Erdebil agrees continual learning is important, but the CEO of Spring2Innovation, an innovation and commercialization consulting firm, insists you sometimes have to be prepared to take roles you may not initially be interested in.

“Over the 17 years I’ve worked as an electrical engineer in telecommunications, application development, program and IT management, I’ve been offered roles that I didn’t think suited me at all, but I always said yes. In most cases, I was thankful for the experience it brought me.”

A 2014 recipient of the Ottawa Forty under 40 Award, Erdebil believes her willingness to be flexible made her an obvious choice when her bosses were looking for engineers to work on leading edge projects or to experiment with circuit board designs that had never been attempted before.

Variety has played a key role in Maria Elena Carbajal’s career. In the 20 years leading up to her current position as Ericson’s Solutions vice president for Global ICT Centres TE & Cloud, she worked for the company on three continents, managed teams in 10 countries and worked across multiple verticals.

“I was never afraid to learn and try different roles —  aerospace, IT, development, point of sale or advanced engineering. I had role models and mentors along the way, but I never left it to anyone but me to manage my career,” she says.

Her recommendation to young techs in the infancy of their
careers is to find something you are passionate about and then
run with it.

“Passion shows,” she says. “Passionate workers stand out from the crowd.”

Each of the women have stories about sexism in the workplace such as bosses or colleagues who’ve expected  them to get their coffee or take notes at meetings, but in every case they were able to manage around the roadblock. They still see instances of discrimination, but in general believe the challenges facing women engineers are falling to the wayside.

If that is true, the quartet at the presentation can claim at least a modest role in shaping the new reality.

Carbajal is head of Ericsson’s Womens Network and shares her insights at numerous speaking engagements around the world targeting both men and women.

Elvridge was the first female president and CEO to get involved in Mindtrust, a leadership development program for graduating students at Carleton and Ottawa universities.

Meanwhile, Alexson has co-authored the book Bit by Bit, a guide for young women aged 15-25 considering careers in technology.

The women are clear their ascension could not have been accomplished without tapping into a buffet of mentors and champions within their organizations.

“You cannot climb your career ladder alone,” says Alexon. “In fact, I recommend against it. Think of your career as a pyramid. Build out your network in everything you do. It’s a lot more stable at the top of a pyramid than a ladder.”


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