Deborah R. Castleman: Speech given at the CPP CoE Femineer Summit
April 7, 2017
I am really happy to be here today! I love that all you girls are working on these engineering projects. That you are on teams. Not only is it fun for you, but I can see that this will really help you in your future.
Because, when you are grown-up and get a job: this is how work is done. You all are learning at an early age to work together with other people on teams to get something done. How to meet deadlines.
Also, you are learning about technology – how things work in the world! How to design something. How to troubleshoot and fix problems.
I’m here today to talk with you a little bit about my own life and career. I’m really, really glad that I studied engineering in school. But when I was your age, I didn’t know anything about engineering. So I’m thinking that you may not realize is that there are a lot of different types of engineering jobs out there. For example, although I learned in college how to design circuits, I was never particularly interested in doing that. I didn’t know the name for it at the time, but what I wanted to do was be involved in the whole system – how all the pieces fit together, working with the customer, testing the product, getting to travel to different places… that sort of thing! I later learned that this has a name: it’s called “systems engineering.”
So I’m here to tell you that I’ve done a lot of different things with my engineering background, and I’ve had fun in lots of different jobs. The work was always interesting, the people were great, and the pay was always good. But I want to tell you about another big benefit to studying math and engineering. I find that the things I learned in school help me, now, in my life – even though I don’t have to work anymore. And here’s how it helps me.
Studying engineering trains your mind to think clearly.
If I don’t know something, I know what to do. I know to get started. I know how to approach a new subject that I know nothing about.
And most important, I feel confident in my ability to solve problems and get things done.
I grew up in a different era then many of you here in the audience today. It was the late 1950s, early 1960s… it was the baby boomer era, when people were having lots of kids. I was the fourth child in a family with eight children. My parents worked hard in raising this family and we didn’t have a lot of money. Somewhere along the way, an ambition for earning money, taking care of myself and doing something MORE with my life developed within me.
I had NEVER heard of a woman becoming an engineer. I didn’t even know what an engineer was: I thought that it was someone who drove a train! I only heard about engineering when my older brother started studying engineering in college.
Recently, I came across a “Dear Diary” letter I had written to myself in March 1965, shortly after my eleventh birthday. In this letter, I described how hard I had worked the day before on a task where I was earning some money from my older brother. I was always trying to earn money! I was determined to finish this task before going to bed. My parents were at a church function, so my older sister was in charge. Now, she was very bossy. So, while doing this work, I had to be very quiet so that she’d think I was already in bed – because it was past my bedtime, and I was afraid she would see me and make me go to bed. Fortunately, she didn’t see me, and at 10pm, my parents came home. I heard my mother say: “Where’s Debbie? I bet she is still working.” She came into the room where I was, and said “There you are.” She smiled and quietly left the room.
As I look back on that incident, an incident that would have fallen into the dustbin of history if I hadn’t written it down, I realize now, more than ever, that my mother always believed in me. It was shown to me in her actions and manner.
However, she never pushed me. She didn’t shower me with compliments.
I now see how valuable that was to me: I think it was because of her that I was, and still am, a “self-starter.”
I don’t need someone else to push and encourage me… I get it inside myself.
AND… I also realize this, now more than ever: she let me make my own choices.
She was always trying to learn and improve herself. In another “Dear Diary” letter I wrote at age 12, I wrote that I was looking words up in the dictionary and striving to improve my vocabulary. I also wrote that I read the local newspaper every day and was trying to learn about current events. I know that I got all of this from her, because that’s what she did.
Also, she always had an attitude that “this problem can be solved.” Money was tight in our household, but somehow she made everything work. She sewed most of our clothes for us. We all had lots of chores to do. She cared about staying healthy and fit. I remember doing calisthenics with her to the “Jack LaLanne show” on TV in the 1960s, and this developed in me the conviction that exercise is something you should always do, all your life.
In terms of my career ambitions, however, what really made a difference for me was something that happened in August 1970.
In August 1970, the feminist movement – what many people called “women’s liberation” — hit the mainstream. It was the 50th Anniversary of women’s right to vote in the U.S. I’m sure many of you girls probably don’t think too much about the fact that women used to not be able to vote in this country! News about the 50th Anniversary and the feminist movement was on the cover of Time magazine – a magazine which, back then, everyone read.
Inside the magazine, I read about the feminist Gloria Steinem. She was this smart, beautiful, independent woman, and I was electrified: I wanted to be like her!
The article about Gloria Steinem said that she was a lackluster student – meaning, she didn’t study much — in high school, but then she studied hard in college. I would do the same, I vowed to myself. So when I started college at Fresno State University, I thought: “This is it.” This is my chance to make a better life for myself. Like Gloria Steinem, I was going to study hard. Sit at the front of class and always pay attention. Do all my homework.
Overnight, with this new perspective, everything changed for me. I studied diligently and for the first time in my life starting getting all As. Getting good grades was my metric of success: I felt like I was finally getting somewhere, like I was a success already!
I also decided that I would become an electrical engineer, even though I had never met, or even heard of, a woman who was an engineer.
While I was going to college, money was always a concern. I was living at home, so food and rent were taken care of by my parents. But I needed a way to pay all my other expenses: tuition, books, car payment, gas, clothes, and all my personal items. So I always had a job where I worked at least 20 hours a week to pay for all this. This meant that I couldn’t take too many classes at school, because I wanted to be able to still get good grades.
Then one of my girlfriends joined the Navy! She told me that would get the G.I. Bill when she got out.
The G.I. Bill gave you payments for attending college. If I had something like that, I knew that it would greatly lessen my financial worries. But four years in the military? The only military jobs open for women in the early 1970s were clerical, medical and maybe – if one was lucky – air traffic controller. So I could be in a dead-end job that would be assigned to me after I had enlisted and had no way out? No way, I thought – if I was going to be in the military, I wanted to do something exciting, like work on airplanes or something.
However, changes were starting to happen as the feminist movement gained steam and got stronger. It even affected the military. So I was intrigued when I learned that the military had just opened up some mechanical and electrical jobs to women. These were jobs that women couldn’t get into before, just because they were women. You girls may not realize how bad things used to be for women! I then read that the U.S. Air Force even had a “guaranteed job” program so you would know what the job was BEFORE you signed up.
I didn’t immediately think of joining, because I was doing well in college and wanted to continue. But all these thoughts swirled around in my head, and I kept thinking about it.
Suddenly, one day in class – my heart was racing because I had had too much coffee that morning – I all of a sudden just KNEW that I would join! I decided that I would go visit the Air Force recruitment office that very afternoon. I felt like I was on some sort of covert mission, because I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing this.
I marched into the office, and announced to a very surprised-looking recruiter that I would join the Air Force if he got me a “good job in electronics.” I filled out some paperwork and set up some appointments to take some tests. Then I went home to tell my parents that I would be joining the Air Force.
A few weeks later, the Air Force recruiter called me on the telephone and asked if I wanted the job of “Integrated Avionics Component Specialist, Mission and Traffic Control and Penetration Aids.” I had no idea what that was, but it sounded so impressive to me! He explained that it meant that I would work on avionics (that’s short for “aviation electronics’) for the F-111 aircraft. I was very excited and said yes!
I finished off my third semester of college in January 1974, and left Fresno nine days later. It was my 20th birthday. It was a good move for me! What an adventure! Not only do I have the life-long satisfaction of having served my country, I got to travel and live in bases all over in the U.S, I was immersed in military life, I did lots of interesting things, and I learned a lot of electronics. It also toughened me up – I learned how to deal with men, some of who didn’t think women should be in these types of jobs.
I got out of the U.S. Air Force in August 1977. I packed up and drove my red Volkswagen across the country from Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York to California. I was very eager to start my classes at Cal Poly Pomona – I had missed being in college and wanted to get back to studying. By the way, I loved being at Cal Poly – the academics were solid, and the campus was – and still is! — beautifully-situated and fun to roam around on. The engineering we were taught was at the very forefront of technology: I remember learning during lab to program microprocessors in machine language… all this, I learned later, during the time that Bill Gates and Paul Allen at Microsoft and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Apple were just barely getting started, and were basically doing the same thing!
Even though I was receiving the G.I. Bill check every month, money was tight. After about a year, I was able to get a part-time job at an electronics company to supplement my income. This was after the first company I had applied to didn’t hire me – I later found out that the owner didn’t want to hire a woman!
Later, I got an even better job at General Dynamics, which was very close to campus. I had a job designing low-noise amplifiers for missiles (using computer-aided design tools on a computer, which was super cool – back then, hardly anyone worked on a computer). This was the only time in my career where I actually did circuit design.
During my time at college I studied, studied, studied… and graduated with a 3.9 GPA.
Despite this, I would advise other struggling students to put the focus on learning rather than on the grade you get in any particular class.
It’s true that good grades help when you are applying for your first job or applying to graduate school. But once you get started in your new job, what matters most to your success are your work habits, your skill set and your ability to work with others – and these are the things you are learning right now with the Femineers!
If you can, decide what kind of position or work you would like to do after graduation, and visualize it NOW, while you are still in school. This will help keep you motivated to study and learn as much as you can. I was FaceTiming with my 16-year-old niece Julie the other night, and telling her about some of the topics of this talk. She pointed out that some of the students might not know what they wanted to do in the future. I hadn’t thought of that, so I’m glad my wise niece pointed this out to me. If that’s the case for you, then think about what aspects of work interest you: would you like to have a job where you travel a lot? Would you like to work with other people, or do you prefer to work mostly by yourself? Do you want to have a job where you sit at a computer most of the time? It’s good to think about as many of those things as you can, and you can decide later what the actual type of job it would be. And, even when you do decide what you want to do, it’s okay if you change your mind later and do something else instead.
As for me, I knew what I wanted to work on. While I was still in the Air Force, I read an article in “Scientific American” magazine about communication satellites. I was interested in space, I was interested in radio waves… and this had both those things! So I knew right then and there that I wanted to find a way to get a job at a company that made communication satellites. I decided that my first choice was Hughes Aircraft Company, because it was the #1 company in the world at that time in building satellites.
So when I graduated in January 1981, I interviewed and got the job I wanted: a position as a “satellite systems engineer” at Hughes Aircraft Company in its Space & Communications Group. I started out in the Satellite Ground Equipment Division, which built the stations on the ground that transmit and receive signals to and from the satellites. I got to travel and work at satellite ground stations in California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and I even spent three months in Indonesia. Later, when I transferred to the satellite side of the business, I was able to get work on the high bay floor testing satellites, and then I became a “Spacecraft Manager,” one of the first two women to hold that position at the company.
I should be clear that I wasn’t assigned any of these positions, but rather… I asked for them. This was particularly true when I worked in the Satellite Ground Equipment Division, where I detected some initial reluctance from some of the “old hands” to put a woman in this sort of work, where you are out in the field on assignment and actually working on the equipment.
But remember, I had been in the military and was used to this sort of resistance, so I didn’t let it intimidate me. I remember meeting with my boss’s boss “Smitty” – kind of a mean-looking old guy – and making the case to him as to why I should be able to go on these assignments. He hemmed and hawed, but then reluctantly agreed that I could go on these assignments because… he could find no good reason to say “no.”
It was easier for me, later, after I transferred to the “Commercial Satellite Division.” This was the satellite side of the business where the higher-ups of the company operated and where it was understood that women could and should perform in these formerly all-male jobs.
In 1984, I saw a flyer on the bulletin board at Hughes that stated the company was looking for two “satellite systems engineers” (that could be me, I thought with excitement!) to go up in the Space Shuttle!! The person selected would be on the shuttle as a “payload specialist” when a Hughes satellite was being launched from the shuttle. I heard later that I was among five hundred Hughes employees who eagerly applied for and filled out the questionnaire. I ended up being one of the final fifteen people who then had to meet in front of a formidable and serious-looking panel to answer questions. I was really excited, but nervous too. I tried to answer the questions as best as I could.
Later, one of the people on the panel told me that he liked my enthusiasm about wanting to go on the space shuttle, but that the person the panel had chosen had talked about how his presence on the shuttle could benefit Hughes (rather than himself). I realized that this nice gentleman was telling me that I had talked too much about how exciting it would be for me to go up into space, how much I would love it.
I hadn’t talked about why it would be good for the company to choose me. This was some really good advice.
I now know that when you are interviewing for a job, or trying to convince someone to add you to their team, talk about how you think they would benefit by hiring you, not just how much you want to do it!
This nice gentleman also said that there would be eleven future openings for Hughes payload specialists, giving me a hint that I would have another chance! The person who had been selected, Greg Jarvis, had a master’s degree in engineering and he also had been a Spacecraft Manager.
So what do you think I did? Well, I decided then and there that I would 1) get my masters’ degree in engineering and 2) find a way to become a Spacecraft Manager. I figured that by doing these two things, I would a better chance to be picked next time!
My company, Hughes, had a program at the time whereby an engineer could get a “Full-Study Fellowship” at selected schools in the area, so I applied at Caltech. This is where all my effort to get good grades at Cal Poly paid off – those good grades got me accepted at Caltech, and I was awarded the fellowship! Meanwhile, I asked for my boss’s help, and he arranged for me to get a temporary assignment on a test team in the high bay testing area, with the understanding that I would become a Spacecraft Manager when a particular spacecraft (what was called an HS-376) became available.
So, I did both. I completed my assignment as a Spacecraft Manager, and in September 1985, I started my year at Caltech. But on January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch. Greg Jarvis – the one the panel had picked — was on that shuttle, and so he was killed, along with everyone else on board. With that tragedy, it was decided that Hughes would no longer be launching satellites on the space shuttle. There would be no more openings for “payload specialists.”
I feel that I am lucky — it turned out to be a good thing that that panel didn’t pick me. So I never worry anymore if things don’t go exactly as planned, because… you never know.
During the time that I was a satellite systems engineer at Hughes Aircraft Company, I got married. I had a nice salary as an engineer, but getting married to a high-level executive improved my financial situation even more. And, it left me with expanded options. So, after five years with the company, I decided to leave Hughes and engineering to pursue a new path.
I had a plan in mind to study defense policy and eventually work in Washington, D.C. I applied to the Claremont Graduate School, got accepted, and obtained my second masters’ degree, this time in International Studies (with an emphasis in defense policy). After graduating, I became a space and defense policy analyst at RAND, which is a think tank located just three miles from my home. During my interview for this position, I proudly emphasized my new-found knowledge of defense issues, but I found that the people at RAND were much more interested in my engineering background, and in particular, my experience with communication satellites.
Over and over again in my life, I find that knowing something about engineering always gives you an edge.
During this time, I also became involved in working in my off-hours to elect more women to political office. The political connections I made during this time eventually led me to the 1992 campaign for President. After Bill Clinton won the election to become President, I interviewed for and got the job of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control and Communications. I don’t have time this morning to talk too much about these experiences, but just know that none of this came easy. I had to look for, and seek out, opportunities in this area. When an opportunity did come, I just jumped in and said “yes” and figured it out as I went along.
So I moved to Washington, D.C., and got an apartment at the Watergate. For 2 ½ years, I had a “commuter marriage,” whereby my husband traveled back and forth from our home in Santa Monica, CA to our place in Washington, D.C. It was an exciting time, and I loved my time at the Pentagon – I did so many interesting things there, it would take hours to talk about it all! Meanwhile, my husband and his brother had formed a startup company developing a hybrid-electric powertrain for automobiles. When I left my position at the Pentagon, I came back to California and got on board at the new company. I served as a vice president and eventually, working closely with my husband, I became the de facto C.O.O. – that means “Chief Operating Officer” — of this 70-person company. Now, this was the kind of job I loved to do. I wasn’t actually doing any engineering design work myself, but I was involved in trying to make all the aspects of the company work together, in motivating people to get the job done, in explaining to the press and potential investors what we were doing – and my engineering training was crucial in my ability to do all this, and to do it well.
After the company closed in late 1997, my husband and I formed our own company, but that later closed also. After this, I decided to no longer actively seek full-time work. I’ve done a lot of interesting and fun things since then, and I love my life. I have also developed a lifelong love of learning: no matter what the subject is, I feel that my training in engineering and math has given me the confidence that I can learn about anything.
In closing, I want to say something else. This is a really good time to be alive. You are living in a country where anything is possible, and you can achieve your dreams if you set your mind to it.
I used to worry when I was younger. There were a lot of stories in the newspaper and on television about how bad things would be happening in the future. On the very first Earth Day in 1970, I read an article in the newspaper that said that the earth wouldn’t be around in 40 years. I also read that there would be a “population bomb” where there would be too many people on the earth, and there wouldn’t be enough food for everyone. None of these things turned out to be true.
Instead, air and water pollution in the United States have decreased since then. More and more people around the world have access to energy, to food, to good health, and more wealth than ever before. And we now have: global television, computers, the internet, smartphones, cars that don’t break down all the time, widespread air travel – so many things that we didn’t have when I was your age. Almost all of this is due to the work of ENGINEERS. We make the world a better place!
Today, I don’t like it when I hear talk that the “planet needs saving.” The planet is doing just fine, and in fact has gotten greener since we’ve been putting more carbon dioxide into the air. I now know that there will ALWAYS be scary stories like the ones I read about when I was sixteen, because there is something in human nature that likes to think we humans are bad and are ruining everything.
So, just because you hear that bad things are going to happen, you don’t have to believe it. Instead, be excited at the great future you have ahead of you!!