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  • Writer's pictureEmily Shepherdson

Lady Boss #4: Lisa Crofoot

Lisa is currently completing her Masters in System Design and Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has a BASc and MASc in Mechanical Engineering from Queen's University. Prior to graduate school, she worked as a mechanical and systems engineer at a manufacturing company that designed and built large structural mechanical systems like telescopes and amusement park rides. Lisa aspires to be a technology leader, and to make products that make the world better!

Lisa loves being active outside - she likes camping, hiking, and cycling. She is a masters swimmer and is learning to surf. In her spare time (which is when??) she loves travelling and is a strong advocate for weekends and vacation!

What has been your biggest professional accomplishment?

I'm most proud of the work I did on the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).

A bit of context: TMT will be the largest telescope in the world when it is built. The enclosure protects the telescope - so it is a building the size of a hockey arena that rotates to open and close. I was the Systems Engineer, which meant my focus was on making sure the different parts of the enclosure and telescope would work together. I worked with the customer to make sure our design would meet their requirements. I worked across disciplines within our team to make sure the enclosure would be safe and reliable.

The design was a new architecture and there were lots of hard technical problems we had to solve. I got to work with a fabulous team and learned a ton. I was regularly complimented on the quality and thoroughness of my work by my teammates and the customer. I can't wait to see the great science that TMT does in the future!

What life accomplishment are you most proud of?

I'm really proud of the relationships I've built with friends. I've moved around a bit, so I've acquired friends all over, and I don't get see all my friends all the time. But, I know that when we see each other we will just pick up where we left off. It's wonderful to have people in your life who are supportive and fun to be around!

What makes you feel most proud to be in STEM?

I am a do-er. I like to make stuff happen. In technology and engineering you get to build stuff: stuff that makes the world a better place, stuff that advances knowledge, stuff that makes people's lives easier or more fun. Being able to build stuff makes me proud. Plus, it's suuuuper satisfying when things work!

Lisa and the Gemini telescope in Hawaii!

Provide an example of when you doubted yourself but were able to push through and succeed.

All of my memorable experiences involved a feeling of doubt at some point in time! I have two great examples: a work project and a hike.

When I first started at my last job I was developing a novel mirror polishing technology using robots. I didn't know anything about optics, or polishing and had minimal experience with robots. Mirrors in telescopes have really stringent shape accuracy requirements. They need to be polished to within a fraction of the thickness of a human hair. So we were trying to build a machine that could achieve that accuracy, but faster, cheaper, and on larger optics than other systems. It was primarily just me and a (brilliant) co-worker designing, installing, and testing the whole prototype. There were so many times that I doubted it was possible and doubted that I was the one to make it happen. But we just kept working on it, asked for help when we needed it, and it worked!

I like to go on adventures and sometimes those require some perseverance as well! One particular backpacking trip was much harder than expected. I was in great physical shape, but the hiking was more technical and steep than I was used to. There were so many times when I wanted to give up. But in the back-country that literally isn't an option, so I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and eventually, we made it down. Like most instances of "type 2 fun", it is now a fond memory and I'm hoping to go back!

Lisa on a hike just outside of Vancouver.

Other examples include: my internship at Amazon, travelling alone, my first (and second) triathlon, building my test system for my Master's thesis, riding my bike up a mountain, that time I tried to make macarons (oh wait... I never succeeded at that). Seriously though, the list is endless. I love doing things outside my comfort zone -- that's how you learn! But it's, by definition - uncomfortable - and self-doubt is part of that.

Have you ever felt that being a woman in a technical field has held you back in your career?

That's a good question and it's really hard to say because I can't look into that alternate universe and see "what could have been". I have spent a lot of my career as the only female on an engineering team. Seriously... for a while at my last job the engineering department had more Daves than women. I've generally been seen as a leader on those teams, but haven't been given many formal leadership opportunities. I honestly don't think it's because I'm a woman. More likely it's because I never asked. But it does make you wonder. Especially when there aren't other females in leadership roles.

I will say that I probably would have discovered engineering sooner if I were male. When I was young (high school and earlier) I was always great at math and science. In grade 5 I was on Breakfast Television in Toronto to showcase my invention for the "Invention Convention". (I built a machine that would turn the skipping rope for you). Regardless of my skills and interests, no one ever really suggested that engineering might be a good path. It wasn't until a presentation in my 10th-grade math class about first-year engineering that I thought "hmmm maybe this is the thing for me!" I'm pretty confident that realization would have come earlier if I were male.

After undergrad where/what field did you start your career?

Right after undergrad, I got my Masters in Mechanical Engineering. I studied renewable energy, which is an area I remain interested in. After that, I went to work as an engineer at a consultancy that designed mechanical systems (HVAC, plumbing, fire protection) for commercial buildings.

What inspired you to make a change in your career? What has the journey been to get you where you are now?

Oof.. well how much time do you have? I've had a.... non-linear career path. The TL;DR is: I led an R&D project using robots; designed a ride for Nintendo land; designed the enclosure for the soon-to-be largest telescope in the world; went back to school; now I'm going to work on software for Alexa. All while having fun of course :).

When I started my career I played it relatively safe, but as time went on I have become more comfortable taking risks. I stayed at my first job (HVAC design) for less than a year. I wasn't finding it particularly challenging and I got an opportunity to move out west to British Columbia. In Vancouver, I worked at a company that designed amusement park rides for places like Universal Studios and Disney. There I led the development of a novel optical polishing robot. Then I took a few months off and travelled Europe. When I got back I jumped on a project to design a new and unique ride for the Nintendo Park at Universal Studios. I worked on coming up with a concept for the vehicle and modelling the vehicle dynamics. It was fun and challenging, and yes, I did get to go to Universal Studios and ride the attractions! The project changed directions after the concept design review when I took a role as the Systems Engineer for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) enclosure.

My experience on TMT prompted me to go back to school. I am now a Masters student in the System Design and Management (SDM) program at MIT. I study system architecture, system engineering, and program management at the MIT School of Engineering and School of Business. I also teach and do research at MIT. I'm a teaching assistant for SDM, so I get to help other mid-career professionals through the course and program, which has been super challenging and rewarding. For my thesis, I'm researching how large scale agile product development organizations manage dependencies between teams.

If you could go back in time and give yourself advice based on what you know now, what would it be?

Can I give several?

1. Everyone is just winging it; don't worry if you don't have it all figured out!

2. Travel early and often. Life will wait. Go - even if you have to go alone. It will be more fun that way anyway.

3. People matter more than product or job function; find a team you like and can learn from.

4. Leadership is not a job title. It's about bringing people together to make something happen. Take the lead when it's needed.

In your opinion, what age would this advice be best suited for and why?

Early 20s. The transition to the workforce is kind of hard. In school, you're used to being told what to do and getting feedback all the time. When you start working you realize you need to figure out what needs to be done, as well as how. And often no one will even tell you how you're doing. It also seems like everyone else has their sh*t together (but they probably don't!). It took me a few years to build the confidence that I can "figure out" just about anything if I set my mind to it!

When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?

To be honest, I'm not sure that I ever really knew. But I think that's okay!

Now, what do you want to be when you grow up?

I like to think about "what I want to do" rather than "what I want to be". I want to solve hard, meaningful problems, with talented individuals who care about the work we're doing and challenge me to be better. I want to continuously learn new things. I also want to continue to travel and go on adventures outside of work.

What are some of your future career aspirations?

For now, I'd like to graduate and crush it at my new job (which I will start in September). Ask me again once I've settled in there and I'll have something more concrete :).

What are some of your future personal goals?

In the near-term I'd like to do a half ironman triathlon and get a dog. (Is getting a dog a goal? I'm not sure. But I'm going to get a dog.) Long term, and maybe more of a stretch goal, I'd like to surf inside of a barrel.

Lisa after completing the swim of her first Olympic distance triathlon in Vancouver.

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