This year’s Grace Hopper Celebration may be over, but we’re keeping the party going by highlighting inspirational technologists here at Starry. We sat down with Jen Webb, our Director of Firmware Engineering and a 30-year veteran of the industry. Read on to hear everything from her thoughts on life at a startup to advice for students.
Can you briefly describe your career?
I’ve been in the industry since 1987. Early jobs in my career were all individual contributor roles, software engineering, despite having an Electrical Engineering degree (which typically is a path to hardware or RF work). I’ve worked for some very large companies and some super-small startups, and I’ve definitely found the startups most interesting. The breadth of things you get to work on and see developed, and the actual impact you can have in a small company is tremendous.
Which role did I like best? Aereo was fantastic, other than the final outcome. People loved the service. We were doing something new, different, and game-changing. Since the Aereo decision, virtually all broadcast and cable channels are available to stream online, which means you no longer have to be tied to your television. I like to think that Aereo had a lot to do with that, with moving the industry forward and providing people with more choice.
What are your day-to-day responsibilities at Starry?
My official title is Director of Firmware Engineering, but that’s kind of a misnomer. Most of my days are spent working with three teams: WiFi firmware, internet firmware, and QA. I make sure priorities are in order and other teams have what they need from mine (and vise versa), and help customer support resolve the more complex issues that people encounter.
What’s one of the most rewarding things about this job?
As you advance your career, the reward comes from seeing the people on your teams succeed. Getting releases or products out that customers enjoy and engage with, seeing the QA teams get traction and find issues that otherwise customers would find, watching younger engineers grow in their development and maturity – all those things are extremely rewarding. So I guess that’s success, in many different ways.
Who/what were some of your biggest influences for getting into engineering?
That’s kind of a funny thing. I had never heard of engineering when I was finishing high school and looking at colleges. None of the guidance counselors ever suggested engineering to me. They suggested that I become a teacher, math or sciences. There are many teachers in my family, and it is an admirable career, but I really didn’t feel that that was for me. My father wanted me to be a doctor, so I figured that was what I’d do. I went to Dartmouth for a year, focussing on pre-requisites and pre-med type classes and hated it. So I withdrew after a year.
A friend of my sister’s asked me why I didn’t look at engineering, since I was a math dork. I’d never heard of it before, but I looked into it and it looked good to me! So I enrolled at Northeastern in the electrical engineering program. I eventually made my way to UMass Amherst and got my EE degree. Engineering was the right spot; it had the right challenge level for me and I really found it a great area to work in. To me it’s like puzzle solving and I could do that all day long.
Was there a defining moment that put you on the path to where you are today? Any major turning points in your career?
I got an internship at Digital Equipment Corporation and I ended up writing software with the diagnostics team. I was hooked. It was definitely more “instant gratification” than hardware, which fits my patience level better. So I think that internship really changed the course of my career for the better.
Did you face any major setbacks or hurdles? How did you overcome them?
Setbacks, no. Hurdles, sure. Being a woman in any engineering discipline has its challenges. Electrical engineering was very male dominated and still is today. There were two other woman in the electrical engineering program when I was at UMass. There were no female professors. I had one professor call me into his office and demand to know what boy was helping me do well. When I told him there wasn’t one, he was angry and told me he would be proven right after the first exam. I got the second highest grade in the class on that exam. Still annoyed that I didn’t get the highest.
What advice would you offer aspiring engineers, especially those who are female, about being successful in this industry?
Find something that you love doing and do it. Don’t just get a degree and do what’s expected with it (unless you really like it); look for those things that you just can’t put down. That’s what you’re going to love doing day after day. For women, don’t be afraid of engineering even if it’s still male dominated; it is an awesome field full of all kinds of cool stuff to work on. Ignore the people who ask you why you’re doing it, who tell you you should be doing something else – they’re just afraid that you’ll be better at it than they are. Don’t get angry or upset when people say stupid, sexist things; just let it go and prove that you should be there because you are just as good or, more likely, better than they are. Also, go for startups! Women tend to stay away from startups because they’re more risk averse but don’t do that. Take a risk! Go beyond what you think is safe or expected - look for new challenges. It is a blast and it gives you great experience. You can make a contribution and have a great time doing it! You can also meet some seriously smart and fantastic people. Every startup I’ve been at has provided a path to the next one and they just keep getting better and better!