Erin Walline: Engineering Change in the Tech Industry

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Erin Walline, Director of Engineering – Experience Design for Dell, was a guest speaker at CES 2016.

The relative lack of women in senior management and engineering positions in the tech industry is widely discussed (one survey has found that only 5.8 percent of programmers in Silicon Valley identify as female).

This imbalance was in evidence at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where few women could be spotted among the almost 200,000 attendees.

One who breaks the stereotype is Erin Walline.

Walline is the Austin-based Executive Director of Engineering – Experience Design for Dell. She has worked for Dell for 12 years and now manages a large team that conducts user insight and usability testing, which is used to inform the design of products.

In addition, the Texas A&M grad started a family young — she was seven months pregnant with her first child when she graduated from undergrad, and was in graduate school with her second.

DnA was eager to learn more about her story — how she has navigated life and career, what’s involved in experience design and what is the meaning of “drinking from a fire hose.”

DnA: How did you get involved with user experience engineering?

ERIN WALLINE: I knew from a young age that I was good at problem solving, and was interested in, and good at, math.

I narrowed in on a field called Industrial Engineering because there were a couple of different paths you could take within that.

One was sort of an operations and manufacturing path, looking for ways to make factories more efficient, to drive standard processes, things like that.  And there was another subset that was what we call human factors engineering.

That essentially means thinking about how the worker, or a person using a product, engages with the devices, or with the infrastructure of a factory or whatever environment you’re in.

What’s interesting about it is that it brings people into the picture – people into an engineering perspective.

See Erin Walline, Spike Huang and Alan Luecke of Dell discuss touch technology and its development, based on data gathered from a wide range of users.

DnA: What does a user experience engineer do?

EW: We have what I jokingly call “above the shoulders and below the shoulders” — meaning there’s a cognitive aspect, which is sort of the human factor side of things.  And then there’s also a physical, more engaging with products. How do you make things simple for the user? That’s the ergonomic side of things.

There’s a division of the work that is more product design, and that’s what I do at Dell.  We partner with the people who will actually be using our products to bring them into the product design process, taking their input along the way and making sure that we design products that meet their needs.

We study how they use their existing systems, how they interact with their keyboards and touchpads and touch screens and things like that. We gather that behavioral feedback and we try to drive engineering specifications from that.

DnA: Can you give us an example from one of the projects you’ve worked on that demonstrates “engineering user experience?”

EW:  Sure. For example, we know to the tenth of a decimal point at what point a display-back can be depressed with a finger before all of a sudden it’s perceived as plasticky or low quality. And that number has become part of our “display-back rigidity specification.”

We also look at new technologies that are coming out. A few years ago, back when the concept of touchless gesturing first came out, before it was popularized with things like Wii, there were a lot of companies saying, “Hey look, you can use your hands to interact with your system in the air.”

Well, when you actually get that into practicality, nobody wants to interact with their system just with their hands in the air. They actually like mice and touchpads and touch screens and keyboards.

In some cases however, touchless gesturing is quite appropriate. If you think about doing a presentation, being able to use simple hand controls to move slides or something like that.

There are many different types of input methods, and we work with the teams to determine what are those appropriate methods, how are they used within any given solution that we pull together and make sure that they’re appropriate.

DnA: (At the Dell space at CES) you gave a presentation to a bunch of very smart and energetic young Girl Scouts.

And one of the girls said, “but Erin, what about the sexism?” She definitely had a sense that there was a kind of structural antipathy to letting women get ahead within the tech industry. What is your experience?

EW:  There is a cultural aspect to the situation that the tech industry finds itself in. If you just look at human nature in general, people tend to gravitate towards people like them.

And that could be along many divisions, right? It could be race, gender, cultural background, country of origin, any number of things. People tend to gravitate towards people like them.

What happens when you get into an industry that’s been predominantly male from a leadership perspective is, people tend to want to hire people like them.  And the traits that they look for, or the traits that they consider high leadership traits, mimic their own traits.

I’ve been involved in several industry-wide panels and groups that look at, how do we bring diversification in in a very appropriate and natural way?

At Dell there’s a lot of structure from the HR perspective around making sure we include people with diverse backgrounds into opportunities for leadership or even entry-level positions.

DnA: In addition to being a female engineer in a very high position at Dell, you also had your children quite young. Is that another piece of the tech story, that one has to work crazy hours and it’s difficult to have a family?

EW: Absolutely, and I have a have a couple of thoughts on that. My basic take is that you’re in control of how you manage your time.

In the tech industry, we have a saying, “drinking from a fire hose.” And that’s what it’s like.  As soon as you basically get in the door and start working on things there is so much to do and it’s 24/7. It is like drinking from a fire hose.

You can allow yourself to become consumed, and there’s always work to do.

You have to recognize that there’s never going to be a point in time that you get caught up. You can’t sit still in the industry and you can’t sit still yourself from your own career perspective. But you do have to very specifically make sure that you build in the right amount of time and balance and an appropriate time to balance between family and work.

One other thought on that too is that, many men in the tech industry have wives that stay home. There are things that happen where it’s sort of assumed that male colleague may not have the same responsibilities at home, doctor’s appointments, whatever it might be.

Every family is different, and I don’t want to make massive generalizations, but that is something I’ve definitely picked up on, where it’s not a problem to say, oh let’s have a meeting that starts at 7:00 AM or ends at six, you know, because those people have someone else there to pick up that slack.

My best advice when people have asked directly on a one-on-one perspective, I say, have a plan. Have a couple of backup options. But you really kind of have to take it day by day. You know something’s going to happen.

You know somebody is going to hurt themselves on the playground or some really important critical work meeting’s going to occur and you may actually have to go get your child and bring them back to work and have something to do for them there while that’s happening. There’s no perfect way to do it, but I try not to allow anything to really weigh me down.

All I know is, are my kids taken care of? Are they loved? Are they fed? Is everybody happy and healthy? Yes. OK. If everybody’s happy and healthy then we can kind of adjust from there and make decisions about the day.

DnA: Mark Zuckerberg made a very powerful impact with a statement when his child was born, that he was not only himself going to take four months paternity leave, but he was going to mandate four months paternity leave for his employees. In your position, are you able to make those kinds of decisions?

EW:  As a manager I’m not allowed to make any deviations beyond what the standard HR rules are for that type of thing. I personally think that Mark Zuckerberg’s decision is going to be foundational in changing or starting the conversation in the United States about how to handle maternity and paternity leave.

The way I think about it is, you know the human race, somebody has to give birth [and] females, okay, you got that one.

So when giving birth creates an issue in taking people out of the workforce because of cultural reasons or because it’s hard or because the environment around them doesn’t embrace the fact that half of the population needs to be able to give birth, that is a fundamental problem.

That is not the company, that’s me personally saying that.  It’s something that I believe as a woman leader in this industry, and I would love to participate in driving change in that type of thinking.

For more about CES, the Internet of Things, and the perspective of some girl scouts, check out this DnA broadcast, or read about my experience at CES, here.