Last summer I volunteered to be a voting representative from the Baltimore-Washington Section of the Society of Women Engineers to their regional and national conferences. This meant I was entitled to two no-expense-paid trips, the second being to lovely Newark, where the police officers begged us not to walk alone (there were about a hundred of us) from the conference to our hotel. Instead, they so generously offered to escort us and hang out with us in the hotel lounge.
Like the trip to Kansas City for the national conference, my trip to the regional SWE conference was eventful. I had arranged to carpool with my friend Nes to the conference, but when she picked me up at the metro station the night before, her check-engine light went on. Being engineers, we brainstormed several solutions, finally settling on picking up a rental car at the airport. We got back to her place at 11:00 that evening, then woke up at 4:00 in the morning to drive to Newark for the conference. The rest of the trip was fine, until we actually got to Newark and tried to match the cryptic traffic signs to the cryptic Google directions. My theory is that the traffic engineers intentionally created misleading signs to direct drivers over the $6 toll bridge. We never found Route 1, and I’m not convinced that it exists. But we did get to talk to a toll collector with a fun-to-imitate accent.
One of the first sessions that morning was about “Unorthodox Careers for Engineers.” That sounded applicable to me, so I sat in to listen. The presenters weren’t quite as unorthodox as myself, but they were still very interesting. The first presenter was a high school teacher. I don’t really consider teaching as an ‘unorthodox career,’ but I’m sure it’s not easy finding engineers with unorthodox careers. The next presenter was a technology analyst at the CIA. It was probably a job that required a science or engineering degree, so although it was somewhat atypical, I was not convinced of the classification of ‘unorthodox.’
The last presenter was an FBI special agent. She did such a good job of convincing me that her job was unorthodox that I decided to sit in on her afternoon session. I also stopped by the FBI’s booth at the career fair, although I was really just passing through for the bottled water in the back of the room. During lunch, I even sat next to the large group of FBI agents who came to recruit. No, they didn’t talk about kickback schemes, or catching felons, (both of which I have related job experience in). The most interesting discussion was about the weird cheese in the turkey wraps.
Not only is the FBI an unorthodox employer for engineers, they also run an unorthodox conference session. In the afternoon session, we solved a case involving an information leak. The agent gave us the phone records, bank records, interview transcripts, and trash from two suspects. In the trash for one of the suspects, there was correspondence from a financial institution to the FBI agent. The agent’s excuse was that her husband threw it in there, thinking the bag contained household trash to be thrown out, not brought to a conference. Luckily the trash was mostly paper and cardboard. When I caught a real felon, the trash I found contained melted butter and long clumps of the suspect’s hair.
During the session, the FBI agent talked about how much the FBI loves engineers because of the way they think. After analyzing the case, I mentioned that perhaps I should apply to work at the FBI. She said they were having a hiring freeze.
The regional conference offered something I had never seen at a conference before: makeovers. I also saw several young women washing lots of makeup off of their faces in the restroom, possibly explaining why I never see makeovers at a conference.
In the evening, we had a nice banquet buffet. The dinner speaker was a former national SWE president. She discussed her book, “HerStory,” which features over a hundred women who have played a significant role in the history of science and technology. The after-dinner entertainment was a hypnotist. He had a tough crowd, and even tougher set of volunteers, including myself. I didn’t go along with most of his suggestions for making fools of ourselves, but when he asked questions such as what kind of pet did we get from the zoo, I did make up silly answers like cockroach.
I believe the request to submit conference evaluations before breakfast must have come from the breakfast speaker. My confidence in her professionalism started out low when I saw her in her Army fatigues, smoking outside before the talk. The purpose of her speech was to complain about how the engineers didn’t design batteries that lasted long enough for combat, engineers make technology that the soldiers don’t need, and that the engineers can’t describe the technology in terms that soldiers can understand.
The conference concluded with the voting meeting – the reason I dragged myself all the way to Newark. When we got to the part where we needed to vote, it turned out that all nominees ran uncontested.
A version of this article appeared in the April newsletter for the Baltimore-Washington Section of the Society of Women Engineers