TECH BUZZ || ONE-ON-ONE BY CHITRA SETHI
ME: Was there a project or achievement that you are
particularly proud of?
U.B: I spent the first 15 years of my career in an engineering lab. One of my first projects involved replacing
high-speed rotating aluminum discs with glass to save a
manufacturing step. I worked with my lab partner for almost four years, and we did it. It gave me a big feeling of
accomplishment when Xerox applied it to a product, and
taught me how to stick with one thing for a long time.
Other accomplishments involve solving customer
problems and transforming Xerox’s business to a
service-based model. I am proud of bringing people
together to work on those problems. Bringing together good minds of different types from different
backgrounds to attack a problem is something that
engineers are unbelievably good at.
ME: Were there things you had to learn or unlearn to
go beyond your technical training?
U.B: Many. One of the most interesting was how to deal
with people who are not engineers. Engineers have an
organized, process-based approach to projects. They
believe most problems can be solved with smart people
and hard work. Those attributes are not native to all
disciplines, yet I had to learn how to include those disciplines in the problem-solving and leadership process.
ME: Was the move from engineer to business leader
U.B: We have to stop looking at the transition from
engineering to business as an odd occurrence. If you
are a successful engineer, you can become a successful contributor in business, academia, or anywhere
else. The roads don’t part, they come together more
naturally. I never thought of them as different.
ME: What inspired you to pursue mechanical engineering as a career?
U.B: My mother spent a lot of time and the little money
she had in making sure we had the best education. For
us, that meant the local Catholic school. It didn’t have
a broad education. It was primarily reading, writing,
basic arithmetic, and a lot of discipline. When it came
time for me to go to college, my guidance counselor
told me I could be a teacher, a nun, or a nurse. With my
mother’s pushing, I decided to research what people
who like math could do for a living.
ME: And that was mechanical engineering?
U.B: At that time, the number one career for people
with math training was chemical engineering. I tried it,
but changed to mechanical engineering after my first
semester. It put together a lot of practical things and I
loved it. The long and short of it is that I lucked into mechanical engineering.
ME: So, you “lucked into” your career? Do you think there are better
ways to involve students in STEM?
U.B: I call it celebrating and inspecting what we expect. We should
celebrate the breadth of contributions that engineers make to society.
We celebrate sports people, politicians, actors, and actresses, so why not
engineers? We also have to fundamentally change the educational structure. First, we need better educators, particularly in primary and middle
schools. Second, we need a curriculum that’s more up to speed with
technology and kid’s interests. Third, we absolutely must have parents or
adults who can open up options for kids, show them what engineers do
and put them onto that path.
ME: What advice would you give to women who want to be leaders but
struggle to balance work and personal life?
U.B: I think it’s a fool’s folly to think we can actually balance, in any short
period of time, the many things that are on our plate. I think about balance
not in days or weeks, but over a lifetime. We have to slow down, particularly women who have been taught to overachieve in every single endeavor. They believe they have to be outstanding every single day at being
a parent, spouse, and contributor at work. If you are trying to do that, you
are going to crash and burn, and very likely not be outstanding at any of it.
This is true for men as well. ME
WHEN URSULA BURNS WAS APPOINTED CEO of Xerox
Corp. in 2009, she became the first African-American
woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. And she has
transformed Xerox into a thriving, profitable international services provider. Burns holds a bachelor’s
degree in mechanical engineering from Polytechnic
Institute of New York University and a Master of Science
degree from Columbia University. She received ASME’s
2014 Kate Gleason Award, which recognizes female
entrepreneurs and achievers in the field of engineering.