Nothing Stands in Her Way– Jennifer Wei: from emergency underwater helicopter training to class I explosives certification

It might surprise you to learn that the two images posted above are of the same person, but just a few minutes of talking with current MEM student Jennifer Wei and it wouldn’t surprise you at all. She’s a certified in underwater emergency helicopter safety, worked in Texas and Oklahoma as a field engineer on oil rigs, stayed on ships as the only female, and her favorite color? Well, it’s pink. Now she’s a full-time MEM student and taking Northwestern by storm. 

By Jessica Tackett

Tell us a bit about your background.

My first full-time position was with Schlumberger, and I worked off of Houston in the Gulf Coast. I’ve lived on oil rigs offshore where I could actually see where the Deep Water Horizon, from the BP oil spill, should have been. It was a really interesting experience and I had to get a Louisiana Blaster’s License to be able to use Class I and Class II explosives. I did casing evaluations and ran explosives down wells.

It was a very tomboy job, not something that you imagine a typical female McCormick graduate pursuing.  Helicopter Underwater Survival Training was amusing, to put it lightly, because you are in this simulated helicopter compartment and you’re in your full fire-retardant gear. Then you get dunked underwater, flipped upside down, and you have to unbuckle your seat belt, pop the window with your elbow, and swim your way out. You had to pass to be able to pursue a career offshore. I guess I like to be physically and mentally challenged.

On oil rigs offshore there were literally times where I was with a crew of all men and I was the only female on an oil rig in the middle of the Gulf Coast. Sometimes they didn’t have facilities for women so a guy from my team—I was always with a crew of two-three operators—would have to stand by the bathroom and make sure no one came in while I was showering.

How long would you be on the rig for?

It depended on the specific job I was performing for the customer, and I was out there for as long as the company needed. I’ve been out for two days, six days, it depended on the job and factors such as how deep the well was, but I worked a two weeks on, one week off schedule. Basically, during the two weeks I was on-call and if something was needed, I had to drop everything I was doing, and go into work. This applied even if it was Christmas—I would have to drop everything I was doing, go on a boat or into a helicopter and go offshore.

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Any good stories from your days in the field?

Being in the field, it’s a different world, you’re completely immersed in a sea of blue and there are moments when it’s really beautiful. You wake up on an oil rig and you’re surrounded by nothing but the ocean. You are in a living, perfect 360-degree panoramic. You’re on the world’s most profitable, tiniest island. It’s a completely different lifestyle; the oil and gas industry is a completely different world. People in this industry can live for months at a time offshore and then they go back to their wives and kids. You wake up and you see the sun rise over the ocean. You can see dolphins sometimes. People go ocean fishing sometimes if they are in the Shelf. But it’s also very scary. It’s a very dangerous job. There are a lot of government regulations and safety protocols you have to follow. I like jobs that offer more creativity. There wasn’t much room for creativity in my job with Schlumberger.

How many people pursue this career?

I actually think it’s pretty common in parts of the country that have major oil reservoirs such as in Oklahoma and Texas. Texas A&M offers petroleum engineering as a major, and it’s very well known. It’s not as popular around here. But it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to go on an oil rig or be in a helicopter soaring off into the ocean. It’s exciting but the experience wasn’t for me. The lifestyle was not really for me.

I started getting seasick, which I never had before. I think of myself as pretty healthy and active, and I enjoy working out, but the job was really taking a toll on me physically. Eventually, I took a position with Motorola Solutions. I went to New York and worked for Motorola Solutions in early 2011.

It’s interesting to note that this is in New York which is completely different from Houston, so if you can imagine going from Houston, Texas, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and New Orleans to New York City, Long Island, that was a huge culture shock even though I was only in Texas for one year. At Motorola I started off as a Mechanical Engineer. I ended my career at Motorola Solutions as a Senior Mechanical Engineer and worked as part of the Engineering Customer Response Team.  I was preparing to serve as a liaison between Motorola Solutions New York and Motorola Solutions Taiwan, by taking our best practices and introducing them to our development teams overseas and the respective JDMs.

The core of what I did was to resolve engineering issues post new product release. Some big customers that I worked with were United Airlines, Home Depot, and FedEx. If they had any issues with the product from a mechanical perspective—for example, if they thought the tactility on the keypad felt too soft or simply “didn’t feel right”—then they would bring that to our team and we would either have to redesign that particular component or go out to the customer site and try to investigate what was wrong.

While I was in the position I worked with a lot of different groups. I worked with marketing. I worked with accounting. I worked with supply chain. But I didn’t really understand the big picture because I felt I lacked business knowledge. I really wanted to be able to understand the big picture to really make a difference.

Coming from engineering, we don’t have a lot of say at the end of the day, like which customer should we sell this product to, should we take back inventory, should we scrap this product—we don’t get to make the final call on the business side of things. I wanted that business knowledge to be able to make a bigger impact, so that’s why I started looking into engineering management programs.

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Are you in your first year in the MEM program?

Yes, another interesting thing is that I’m going back full-time, so I quit my job. 90% of the MEM program is part-time and the other 10% are all international students and I’m not international. I quit my job because I wanted to relocate back to Chicago and I really wanted to devote and immerse myself in my studies. One of the reasons why I went back full-time is because when I took classes while working I felt stressed out all the time.  I felt that I wasn’t giving 100% to my work or to my classes. I wanted to really just immerse myself in the program and took the risk of quitting my job.

What’s been your favorite class so far?

I’ve only completed one, which was Business Process Change Management with Professor Werwath and that was a great class. I really liked it. I was sort of nervous on the first day because I had no idea what it was going to be like and it was a Master’s program class. But I think one of the nice things about Northwestern’s MEM program is that every single person has work experience. I also got accepted at Duke and Dartmouth, and the reason why I didn’t choose those programs is because their class is composed of 70–80% people who don’t have any work experience. I wanted to be with people who were already sort of at that mid-level management so that’s why I chose Northwestern. Also I’m from the Midwest and did my undergrad here so I’m probably extremely biased.

What are you hoping to do once you have finished with the MEM program?

I want to do product management. When I was at Motorola Solutions, I worked directly with the customer and I also worked with our marketing team. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why marketing sold a particular product to a customer. A lot of people in marketing do not come from a technical background, so when I would tell them we simply cannot cut in a design change at this stage in the game, and that making those changes won’t help the customers, there was a lot of confusion. So I want to be that marketing person that understands engineering, or the engineer that can market the product. I really want to bring the customer experience to technology. I want to transcribe a customer’s qualitative thoughts and descriptions to this quantitative technicality that engineering people would understand. Then I can help launch products that people are very happy with and that are innovative!

Do you know what kind of products or field you want to work in?

I think I want to work in a more consumer-based field. I don’t think I’m picky about what the product is. I think any company that’s on the front end of innovation would be excellent. I would love to work with Google, Amazon, Apple—I’m a big Apple user, one of those loyal Apple fanatics—so any company that is more consumer focused. At Motorola Solutions I was more retail.

Jenn Wei

One of the themes we talk about a lot is women in engineering. How do you feel as someone who identifies herself as more of a tomboy in the field?

I described myself as a tomboy, but I think if you ask any of my friends they would say that I’m actually very girly. Pink is one of my favorite colors, and I like fashion. Sometimes I think of myself as a tomboy and as an undergrad I really struggled with identity. A lot of times I felt like I had to dress down for engineering class to blend in. There were times when I was the only girl in a course. Now I’m really embracing the fact that I’m a woman in engineering, because it’s very powerful. It’s great to be able to use complex, technical skills. It’s really empowering. I love it right now.

I did not like the fact that I was an engineer in undergrad, but I think with work experience I’ve really matured from that mindset. I love it now and I really think that engineering is getting redefined. I remember when I was in high school engineering was very nerdy. It was like the overalls and glasses stereotype and everyone thought engineers didn’t socialize. I think engineering has evolved to actually be sort of cool right now. We’re at the point where this new tide is coming in and a lot of women are starting to enter the field.

When I was in New York I did a lot of volunteer work with WISE and you’re seeing a lot more girls being interested in science. When I was in high school, the financial investment banker on Wall Street with a briefcase, patent leather Louboutin’s, and a venti Starbucks coffee was the romanticized career. I really think that image is starting to change due to the changes we saw in the past decade with the economy. Mark Zuckerberg is redefining a laid-back, casual innovator image and I feel this may be the new romanticized career. More and more companies are dismissing a formal dress code. Being a woman in the mist of all this is great. I want women to not be fearful of going into science fields, not just engineering.

What was your professional life like being the only woman? Was it a challenge or did you embrace it?

I think probably both. There were times where it felt great to be the only woman and to have the mindset, “I can do what guys do. I am doing the same job that 20 years ago no guy, no person, would have imagined a female doing.” However, at times it’s nice to have a female coworker. It’s nice to have someone that’s your same gender that you can relate to, so the answer to your question is both. I remember in college going to a hair salon and they would be making small chat and ask, “What do you do?”  I would say I’m an engineer and they would retort “Ew! Why are you doing that?!” Others would ask, “What kind of engineer are you?” And I would say “Mechanical.” They would then, mouth agape, stammer “Mechanical? You’re a girl! You should be doing software or electrical.” There’s just this huge bias within engineering and outside of engineering, but I really think we’re at a time where it’s starting to change.

What types of things do you think need to take place to continue that change?

I think we need to have girls in engineering that are not scared of the fact that they’re women. When I was in college there were a lot of girl who tried to blend in with the guys—they basically tried to act like a guy. I don’t think you want to do that. In college I wore sweatpants to engineering classes and didn’t worry about my hair. Then I would go home after class and change into “pretty clothes,” like a sundress, so that I could fit in with female friends. But you need to be yourself. Now when I go to MEM classes I wear whatever I want. If I want to wear a dress to class and I’m the only girl, it doesn’t matter. I am a girl. If I try to blend in it just makes it more obvious that I’m not confident about my abilities.

Be confident about who you are. For girl engineers, be more out there and embrace the fact that you’re a girl. Embrace the color pink. Embrace that girls can do what guys do. You don’t have to remove your femininity to be an engineer. You can still go shopping and you have the means to do it because you have a decent salary.

Anything else you would like to add or share with our audience?

I’m very excited to be back at Northwestern full-time.  Look out for the Student Advisory’s Board next social event in winter quarter!

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