It’s National Engineering Week in Ontario to celebrate here is another profie.
Rebecca Lantz is a Computer Scientist who is a team lead in the wireless group at Alcatel-Lucent in Ottawa. We talked about her path to working in a technical job and started back in the high school years. Like most young people in high school she had no idea what to do after she graduated. Rebecca liked English, Math and Accounting and seemed to focus mostly on business courses. She never took any drama or arts courses. She liked school and when she graduated she followed in her parentsâ€™ path and attended Queens University. She took applied science and picked physics as her major. To her dismay she did not like physics and quit university. It turns out that this was the most empowering thing in her life.
“I was in charge of my life. I found an apartment, got a job at a drug store and supported myself. This empowered me to do whatever I wanted. I helped with the bookkeeping, ran the post office, helped at the pharmacy, cash, photo lab and computer system.”
She was there for 8 months and although it was a lot of fun initially, it lost itâ€™s appeal once she learnt everything. In search for a bigger challenge she decided to go back to school. Since she helped out with the accounting and enjoyed it she decided to take business courses at college.
“I went to Sir Sanford Fleming College in Peterborough and took business administration. I was enrolled in the accelerated program which took two years. My highest marks were in accounting but the classes that I enjoyed the most were computer related, like information systems.”
Although Rebecca found the courses related to computers very interesting she almost quit the program because the business courses did not interest her. She had a discussion with the administrator of the program and expressed her interest in doing something more technical. She stuck it out and graduated from the business program at the top of her class. She was approached by one of her instructors to work on a research project programming in C++. He was a master C++ author. So her first programming job was after college.
“I worked on a research project for Trent and Peterborough paper converters. I worked on a statistical process controller (SPC) with an integrated expert system. An SPC has a sensor server hooked to an optomux. This optomux had sensors on it for temperature, speed, counter, measuring paper going through the machine etc. All this information went through the optmux and then the optomux went through the sensor server. The inputs were normalized into meaningful numbers. These normalized numbers are fed through a cable to another computer. I worked on the graphics in C++ on dos.”
She worked on this research project for 2 semesters and it was the most amazing work experience.
Prior to graduating from college, Rebecca applied to various universities. She eventually went into the Computer Science Program at McMaster University, as they transferred the most credits. Since she liked the technical courses I asked Rebecca why she chose computer science and not engineering.
“I did not have grade 13 chemistry therefore could not do first year engineering unless I took the chemistry courses. I was also more interested in programming than internal hardware at that time. The low level computer stuff.”
We talked about the transition from college to a technical program. There seemed to be advantages to working, supporting herself and attending college. However it had been a few years since she took any math courses.
“It was scary at this point as I had not done any serious math or science in three years. On the other hand I was a step ahead of everyone else as I learnt how to study and learn in that environment. How to form study groups, memorize the important stuff, how to sit down and read a text book and stay awake and process it.”
She had a reduced work load a lot of the time due to the transfer of credits from the college program. This gave her some breathing room.
Between second and third year Rebecca started a sixteen month internship at Nortel in Ottawa. This was possible due to her prior programming experience.
“I programmed in C++ for eight months and was somewhat of an expert in the group. C++ was new and most of the full time employees had not used it before. I was in for a shock as I had always worked in a small environment where there were two to five people on the project. At Nortel I was one of two hundred and had no idea of how the overall system worked. This was a hard adjustment.
Itâ€™s very distressing from going from a half cup of water to a drop in an ocean. I did not understand what the product did. People had a bunch of documents with pictures on it which I had to read. The good thing about the internship is that itâ€™s for sixteen monthsâ€™ therefore people were interested in investing time in training me.
They partitioned a piece of design work for me and I was interfacing with people in California and Ottawa. During that time I learnt a lot and became more interested in the hardware. One of the managers had taken his Masters at McMasters in Computer Engineering and got in touch with the professor there and suggested letting me take some Computer Engineering courses, low level with assembly programming.”
Rebecca continued to study computer science however all her electives were in computer engineering. She read a book in the summer that helped her catch up to the second year Computer Engineering courses. After completion of here third year she was back at Nortel, this time in the ATM port management group. This job was closer to the hardware and had to do the testing of the SONET SDH. This was done using a protocol analyzer. The second half of the summer was spent programming flash devices.
She continued to work part time, remotely, from McMaster. The summer after graduation she again worked at Nortel and was back in the same group as her internship doing C++ programming.
In the fall of that year she was at the University of Victoria, on an NSERC grant, working on her Masters in Computer Science. She was for only two months before she realized that she was burnt out from school.
“I was living two blocks from the ocean and living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world however she was spending most of her time indoors.”
She quit the program and traveled around for a while after which she moved to Ottawa to settle down and get married.
“I never had to write a resume and only did this once for the internship. The jobs that I had after were all through word of mouth. I went back to the OAM switch and worked here full time. I got married, bought a house and started a family.”
Rebecca is very fortunate to have used everything that she worked on in all her jobs that she has had.
“The initial product that I worked on at Nortel became the platform for the wireless program I am in now. I have had the advantage of always having to grow on top of everything that I learnt before. Nothing has been wasted and comes in handy all the time. I have used every thing that I learnt in school on the job.”
Rebecca has turned down management positions many times as the business side does not appeal to her.
“I donâ€™t want to fill out schedule points and be responsible for peoples careers; this is not interesting to me. I want to be part of the technology, fix problems, participate in the architecture, and work on designs. I want to pull together the complicated pieces of the puzzle in designing new or fixing something that is broken.”
Shortly after moving into wireless and became team lead went to work part-time. She works hard for 4 days a week and the other three days are devoted to her family or herself. In her spare time Rebecca attends yoga classes and dance classes. She has done belly dance, tap dance and African dance.