Society of Women Engineers Member Charlandra Watson shares her journey into engineering and how she ultimately found the perfect role with Schneider Electric, a company that embraces diversity, encourages innovative thinking and challenges her to learn and grow.
It’s hard to say whether I found my career in engineering or it actually found me. I have always loved math and science and the opportunity they provide to look at things in new and different ways. Math allows you to take problem-solving skills and leverage creativity to find different solutions to the same problem. What I love about science is that it’s ever evolving, yet there’s still a structured method and approach to exploring and testing. I love the process of seeking knowledge and understanding its application. In high school, I was so determined to help others find this same passion for math and problem solving that I started my own tutoring program featuring games and songs I created to help students look at math differently to solve math problems.
Find where your heart is, then pursue the way to get there.
My parents worked so hard when I was young. My father often worked multiple jobs with at least one always involving something entrepreneurial. His industrious, risk-taking spirit inspired me and pushed me towards my own goals. He instilled in me that “what the mind can perceive, you can achieve.” When my father asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I knew I wanted to do something different and significant, as well as be in a position to help take care of my family.
So, I took what I loved to do in secondary school and combined it with my desire to be creative and think differently. After ruling out other career paths, I came to the realization that engineering was the best direction for me. But I needed to decide what kind of engineering degree I should pursue. Possessing a strong interest in art and creativity, I sought to find an engineering program that included elements of design. So, I enrolled in a summer program at the local university that allowed me to learn the fundamentals of aerodynamic materials and design cars using AutoCAD. I was blown away by being able to see and do FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) 3D printing. I just knew I had to do this full time as an engineer!
Don’t be afraid to try different paths along the way.
So, I packed up my passion for creativity, a knack for problem solving and all my courage and moved across the country to start my college education and earn my engineering degree. Though there were many times when I wanted to give up and return home, I focused on why I was there and what it took for me to get there in the first place. After changing engineering degrees several times, being mentored by a biomedical engineer and taking a digital logic and robotics class (design and circuit analysis), I ended up pursuing an electrical engineering degree.
“Though there were many times when I wanted to give up and return home, I focused on why I was there and what it took for me to get there in the first place.”
In learning about the day-to-day of a biomedical engineer and getting to design robotics, I discovered that I was actually intrigued by the foundational methodology, approach and analysis behind solving problems and making engineering decisions. My interest peaked especially after taking an engineering economics and technical writing course. I also discovered I was drawn to leadership roles where I could collaborate with others, tap into my problem-solving and creativity skills and implement change. I embraced these leadership roles and served as Vice President of IEEE and Treasurer of NSBE while in college and was responsible for merging IEEE and ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) and increasing membership for NSBE.
Believe in yourself and be the change you want to see.
My first engineering job as a product development engineer at a manufacturing plant was anything but typical. I focused a lot on expanding my knowledge and experience in material sciences as it related to ink, plastics and woven substrates while leveraging my electrical engineering training to develop machine failure preventive maintenance plans. I was able to tap into my college education and experiences to problem solve and provide customers with what they needed.
In order to gain respect and trust in that male-dominated environment, it was necessary to develop my social and persuasive communication skills to gain my coworkers’ respect, trust and help in managing challenges, solving problems, implementing change and ultimately exceeding at my job. I spent considerable time learning all the roles in the production process, including the not-so-glamorous ones.
I also learned how important it was to listen to, observe and put myself in the customer’s shoes to gain a better understanding of their needs in order to make more effective decisions that would solve their problems. This gave me insights into production challenges that needed addressing and the improvements that needed to be made on new product technical specifications.
Perseverance and bolder thinking pay off.
Those early experiences and lessons learned have gone on to serve me well. Throughout my engineering career, I’ve been able to build upon my early love of math and data analytics, which has become a foundation for helping me make smarter, more informed decisions. And all of that has led me to where I am today as Director of Customer Satisfaction and Quality at Schneider Electric, a leading global energy management and automation company.
In my current role, I’m empowered to think differently and look at new ways to solve problems that can make a difference to our customers and to the company. For me, that most often means thinking outside the norm and not being afraid to sometimes rock the boat. In fact, we’re encouraged to take risks, make waves and present ideas that may at first seem a little out there and different. And that fits my natural talents and tendencies like a glove.
“In fact, [at Schneider Electric,] we’re encouraged to take risks, make waves and present ideas that may at first seem a little out there and different.”
Diverse environments lead to new and bigger ideas.
More importantly, the company believes diversity is the key to generating new, bolder ways of thinking and consistently strives to hire diverse employees. Employees here, though, aren’t just ethnically diverse, but also diverse in their experiences and perspectives, which translates into more creative ideas and solutions produced for our customers.
Not long ago I was looking for an opportunity that would put me closer to improving the customer’s experience and give me more responsibility. As I said before, I’m a problem solver who needs a challenge. And now, I work on process improvements that support customer response times and lead time reduction. I’m involved with projects that focus on innovation and on developing new products and solutions for our customers that are really cutting edge. The kinds of things that haven’t been seen before. We want to better understand the customer’s journey and how they use our products and solutions and essentially make it easier for them. We explore how we can improve that journey for our customers by coming up with even better ways to meet their needs and challenges. So again, I’ve been able to incorporate my previous experiences into this challenging leadership role.
Find your perfect fit.
No doubt, it’s an exciting time to be a woman in engineering, particularly with so much evolving in the energy industry. But it’s important to work for a company that believes in you and is willing to invest in your professional development, as well as one that prioritizes work/life balance and provides benefits that support it. I’ve come to realize that what makes a great workplace for women engineers actually makes a great workplace for anyone: responsive managers, growth potential, professional and personal relationships with fellow coworkers, a culture of mentorship, an empowering corporate environment, a strong supportive commitment to diversity, a welcoming diverse working climate, development and learning opportunities, values that align with my own, and of course—challenging, rewarding work.
And when you find that, you can safely say you’re home.