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THE CUTTING EDGE

H-P Team an Anomaly in Engineering

Workplace: 12 of the 60 people working on Jolt and Java are women--rare even at this diversity-minded firm.

May 06, 1996|MICHELLE SLATALLA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CUPERTINO, Calif. — Like the Dirty Dozen, the engineers at work on one of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s most sensitive projects--designing two new microchips to run sophisticated, quarter-million-dollar computers--are each expert in some arcane specialty.

The engineer who uses pencil and paper to diagram memory blocks remains calm even as impossible deadlines approach. The engineer who reviews thousands of lines of chip-testing code sits patiently, hour after hour, teasing the software into shape. And the logic designer who builds paths to allow the chips to pass data to each other has an uncanny ability to envision the whole complicated architecture of each chip.

But what's unusual about the team members isn't the precision they bring to every aspect of their jobs. Nor is it the fact that they're working up to 70 hours a week to finish designing the chips they know only by the code names Jolt and Java.

What makes this team of 60 engineers rare is that 12 of its members are women.

"From the first day I went to college--and I was the only one in the second-floor women's bathroom in the engineering building--I realized I'd better get to know all the other women around me. It was a survival tactic," says Kathy Wheeler, one of the team's managers. "In those days, it was very intimidating. These days, I'm very conscious of my team working together like . . . well, OK, like a family. So it's not intimidating anymore."

Women are still clearly in the minority in electrical engineering, where less than 10% of jobs were held by women as recently as the late 1980s, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The number of women who study engineering has increased slowly over the last 10 years--some educators say an average of 20% of the faces in college classrooms are female--but a concentration of 10 women on a high-pressure team like Hewlett-Packard's is still uncommon.

Experts say the bottom line is this: Men and women are usually hard-wired differently.

"It's not that women don't understand the games of the business world, but the field of engineering is dominated by a certain culture or set of personality traits that men tend to have," says Alice Parker, dean of graduate studies and provost for research at USC.

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Studies have shown that engineers tend to be very goal-oriented, propelled by checklists to finish incremental portions of their tasks. Engineers are also less likely to be guided by intuition than by what they see in front of them and are more likely to be introverts than extroverts--"a collection of traits that tends to exclude women," says Parker, who is herself a professor of electrical engineering.

The result? Even at a company like Hewlett-Packard, which actively promotes diversity and has a U.S. work force of 59,000 that's about 39% female, the high percentage of women on this team is an anomaly.

Many of the female engineers on the team share common backgrounds: Their fathers were engineers or mathematicians; they keep their own private to-do lists; and though many of them tried to avoid dating engineers in college ("Most of them couldn't hold up their ends of a conversation," one woman says), most ended up marrying engineers.

The team's boss, Jack Elward, says the traits the team's women bring to the project are "helping us to get the chips out the door faster. We're working nights and weekends, and it's survival of the fittest. The fact that their personalities make them one of the closest groups I've seen, the fact that they're friends in the office and out, has created a synergy."

That synergy is essential as the team bears down to complete the final stages of its two-year design project. Hewlett-Packard's marketing department--all too aware that rivals like Sun Microsystems and IBM Corp. have similar projects underway--is eager to start selling computers containing Jolt and Java (unrelated to Sun Microsystems' Java software), which represent a new generation of faster, more efficient chips to power the company's HP-9000 family of mid-size computers.

The pressure isn't getting to 37-year-old logic designer Julie Wu, however. Wu, who often zips out of the office in the late afternoon to retrieve her 5-year-old daughter, Rachel, from school, has an uncanny ability to do lots of things at once. Her colleagues tell stories about how she can be on the phone arranging to meet a friend at the same time she's getting Rachel ready for a bath and suddenly she gets a flash of insight into how to solve a chip's architectural problem.

Many team members, male and female, say they come to Wu when they're desperate for advice, because she understands so well how the chips work that she can help solve design problems even outside her specialized area.

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