A Conversation with Karen McConnell—An Emerging Engineer Program Mentor


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IPC’s Emerging Engineer program, launched in 2016, provides early career professionals an opportunity to learn from dedicated industry volunteers who participate in IPC standards development. IPC’s editorial staff had the opportunity to talk with one of those dedicated volunteers, mentor Karen McConnell, Senior Staff Engineer CAD CAM, Northrop Grumman, about why she participates as a mentor in IPC’s Emerging Engineer program.

EB: Do you think it’s important for companies to mentor new engineers? Why?

KM: When you’re a new college graduate, you have an ideal version of what design really is. You typically do not have manufacturing experience—how we build, what is needed to build it, how to navigate the requirements of manufacturing—including government requirements, EPA, foreign trade requirements—all the things that can get a less experienced engineer in trouble. These concerns can be minimized when you have a mentor. When you have a problem and need a reference, you can go to your mentor for resources and connections within your corporation. The same goes with IPC standards, information about committees—who is the right person to talk to? Without a mentor, it can take at least 5 years to figure out just how IPC works and have the connections to resolve your issue.

EB: Why did you become a mentor?

KM: Very easy—when I started my career, I was looking at IPC specs and told to design boards to them. There was nobody to talk to about what the specs meant, or what IPC was. Fast forward to my job at Lockheed Martin, where I got involved in the IPC Task Group where IPC standards were explained to me.

This task group provided guidance with navigating the IPC committee and standards. This Lockheed Martin corporate-wide group shared what was going on at IPC meetings, which standards were being discussed, and made sure that all the pertinent groups were covered. As a part of this group, I covered standard meetings on topics that I was a novice in. I was fortunate to be mentored by Don Dupriest and Linda Woody on what to look for during committee discussions. To really understand the committee meetings, you need someone to instruct you, to introduce you to people, and to show you how things work. I wanted to do that for someone else.

So, when the opportunity for mentorship through the IPC Emerging Engineer program became available, I was able to mentor Kevin Kusiak at Lockheed Martin, even though I’m a Northrop Grumman employee. I was able to do this because of my long involvement with IPC and history with the Defense & Aerospace industry.

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I was excited about the IPC Emerging Engineer program because I like to discover new things and meet new people. When attending the networking lunches. I don’t sit with my group of friends. I learn more through osmosis at lunchtime, just listening to the conversations around me. The first year I was a mentor, I would grab Kevin to sit with me at IPC lunches, and he got involved in the discussions and met new people, which helped him tremendously in enabling new leadership roles.

EB: How was the mentoring experience? (pros and cons) What would you change about the program?

KM: Pros: I was able to create a leadership role for Kevin with the IPC-2581 User Group. The first meeting I served as Kevin’s co-chair with Gary Carter so he could have a path into leadership. My mentee assumed the leadership role of the committee his second year.

Cons: The busyness of our jobs (two different companies) didn’t allow for us to coordinate our time together. But Lockheed had two emerging engineers—Kevin and Jimmy Baccam—and they helped each other. They understood one other and they connected at IPC. I could see it happening. Unfortunately, my committee meetings were almost always scheduled when mentors and mentees were supposed to be on the show floor.

EB: Where do IPC standards fit into the mentoring process?

KM: IPC standards are the body of knowledge for printed boards. It is where you can find the information: “How do I do this? What are the rules?” All of that is contained in the IPC standards. Do I read them cover to cover? No. I understand how they link together and how they provide information on best practices. I know how to migrate through the standards to find a solution to a problem or an answer to a question. Standards provide the path to success. I am a data-driven individual and standards provide me with the data and guidance I need. When you are involved in IPC committees, you get hands-on experience in understanding and changing standards, and an emerging engineer can become an innovator earlier in their career.

EB: Can you provide some insight into what is was like to be a woman in a male-dominated field?

KM: Looking back at my history, too many women were told “you can’t do that” too early. Too often women are still told “no” today. When I graduated high school, I wanted to study Electrical Engineering at Villanova. I was told that companies do not hire women engineers. So I decided to study Math, and I was told, “Schools don’t want women math teachers.” So I didn’t go to college after high school. I married and was raising my son when I enrolled in the local community college to study engineering. Nineteen years after graduating high school, I graduated from Villanova with an BSEE.

As an Electrical Engineer, I would go to conferences with attendance dominated by men. At IPC, I was able to meet women that helped me by sharing their stories and experiences—fantastic, unsung women who have paved the path. I was fortunate in my career to work for three companies that valued women employees. My advice to a new engineer is to find a place that encourages women; Northrop Grumman certainly does. Get to know engineers from other companies.

IPC encourages women, recognizing that women work as well, if not better, then men. I had a great mentor in Linda Woody, who told me not to worry about training an engineer who might replace me but to embrace the person who wants my job, since helping them do well will help my company in the long run and will ensure my retirement. She told me to train the young engineers to take your job. This allows you to branch out to other adventures in technology. This way we all help each other. I am so encouraged by all the young ladies participating in STEM programs.

IPC’s Women in Electronics event is a great opportunity for networking with other women. I still remember my first event. It was a breakfast and the topic was how far women have come from 1943. See 1943 Guide to Hiring Women. This annual event at IPC APEX EXPO has been moved to the evening. The number of women attending IPC meetings has increased exponentially since I first attended, and I want to encourage all women to join us at the conference and committee meetings.

EB: What advice do you have for engineers starting their careers?

KM: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. IPC Members love to share their experiences. Attend a standard meeting on a topic that you have little knowledge about. It might open the door to a future opportunity or spark an interest for a new career path. Don’t be afraid to try something different—you might like it.

For more information on how to become and IPC Emerging Engineer or Mentor, visit ipc.org/emerging-engineer.

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