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Let's Get Physical: How Women Will Be a Part of the Upcoming Hardware Revolution

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Hardware engineer Lisa Mazzocco about why hardware is the Next Big Thing, and why women are uniquely positioned to be leaders in the field of hardware engineering.
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It’s here: the Epoch of Software. In the US, undergraduate computer science enrollment has been on the rise for five straight years.  A growing cast of audacious entrepreneurs and skilled coders seem to turn out products with ever more agility and allure, so much so that collectively, investors put $30 billion into startups last year. And of the ventures with the biggest single funding rounds, the top three US-based firms—Genband, Uber, and Pinterest—all stake their value on code. It’s no secret why: software is nimble, cheap, and limited only by one’s imagination.  

But let’s compile this. We couldn’t make birds angry without pecking madly at our cell phones. That “cloud” couldn’t sound so effortlessly nebulous without armies of servers stacked inside 200,000 square foot data centers.  And the ability to summon the best Kobe beef burger in a two-mile radius is pretty pointless unless someone butchered the cow, air-shipped it on dry ice from Japan, fired up the resistors on a slick commercial grill, and carted it atop an internal-combustion engine to your hungry hands.

There’s a theme here: hardware. Even as code gets more and more elegant, it’s worthless until it has a vessel that brings it to life. Hardware engineering is the next movement—and there’s hard data that suggest women are uniquely positioned to play a big role.

Let’s break these assertions down; first, why is hardware the next big thing? Critics of that statement might point to a non-trivial matter: historically, hardware has been hard. A hardware maker has to assemble an orchestra of engineering skills, commit capital to manufacturing, wait for parts, manage distributors…and risk dealing with a warehouse of worthless inventory if the market rejects it.

But part of that, at least, is changing. As Jon Callaghan of True Ventures summarized nicely in a 2013 blog post, “Cheap processors, cheaper memory, and even cheaper sensors means…the manufacture and design of products and devices has changed forever.  This is a tectonic shift that is going to drive the next wave of industrialization…one that is as much based in software as it is in assembly lines.” That is to say, computing power—in the form of advanced supply chain algorithms, design tools, even better data to inform product development decisions—is helping to reduce hardware’s intimidation factor.

Do investors notice? The truest way to tell is to look at VCs’ portfolios: at Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent firms, 25% of its “recent venture” companies are in the “Greentech” category, which tend to take more patience and capital. Similarly, Khosla Ventures funds 53 start-ups in its “sustainability” portfolio, from battery makers to green building materials. Even Paul Graham, famous for his (mostly software) seed-funding boot camp Y-Combinator, weighed in with his Fall 2012 post “The Hardware Renaissance”: “One of the most conspicuous trends in the last [Y-Combinator] batch was the large number of hardware startups. Out of 84 companies, 7 were making hardware. On the whole they've done better than the companies that weren't.”

So the tools and the capital are coming around; but what about the customers? Well, as any Steve Blank follower knows, a key sign of a promising market is a burning customer need. And it turns out we have some hardware fires—really, really big fires.

To help explain them, the National Academy for Engineering conveniently compiled a to-do list: "Grand Challenges for Engineering."  Scan all 14; at least half explicitly call for hardware. This isn’t a list of new apps that let us avoid human interaction in crowded rooms—these are things humans NEED to sustain a high quality of life. And chances are, where there’s a need that strong, there’s a buyer.

Hardware engineers are the ones who will tackle these problems and crack open the value of those markets.  So now for the next assertion: women can excel in hardware, because there’s something we can differentially bring to that equation.

In fact, I think we have two things. The first is empathy.  Humans tend to develop relationships with inanimate objects - you probably know more people who named their car than who named their Microsoft Word license - and a successful relationship requires empathy. Anecdotally, women tend to be more empathetic than men, but in fact data supports this claim: women show stronger activity in “mirror neurons”, which fire off when we see someone else performing an action. That means, scientifically, women relate better. We’re built to perceive distinct users, recognize their needs, and design objects that make them say, “I understand this…and I can’t get enough of it.” 

The second thing is buying power: women are well suited to design hardware for their customers because in this era, more often than not, they are the customer. According to one report, women account for 85% of all consumer purchases – and don’t think that’s just diapers and frozen waffles. They make 80% of healthcare decisions, 68% of new car purchase decisions, and influence $90B of consumer electronic purchases—categories that just happen to be heavily rooted in hardware.

That this revolution can tap into women’s tendency to relate to their customers, at a time when they’ve never been so empowered as customers themselves, feels like a most serendipitous intersection. Is that enough to make aspiring women step into the hardware realm? I tested that question with an electrical engineer friend who happens to coach two First Robotics teams: one all-boys, the other all-girls. I asked him the biggest difference between his two groups of protégés. “The boys will try it, fail, try, fail, then ask for help. The girls ask for help right away.”

My takeaway? The hardware-engineers-in-training are out there, but they’re looking for role models. Do we have any to show them? Are there women making real waves outside the galaxy of Python and Ruby?

It turns out, there are. Take Stephanie Hsu of Makers East. Stephanie and her teammates, including a female maker out of MIT's Biomimetic Robotics Lab, have formed Taiwan’s first hardware-specific startup incubator. Why hardware? Explains Stephanie, “We’re trying to build connected devices that crunch data into actionable insights, and make people's lives healthier. The ability to optimize the [hardware development] process provides for huge competitive advantage, especially in the supply chain where most startups fail - and that ability is the driving force behind the model our company is trying to build.”

What about examples in the US? Look no further than the software capital of Mountain View, CA. Tucked into a workshop almost exactly halfway between Google and Yahoo, you’ll find Roominate. When it comes to women in hardware, Roominate is lighting the fire from both ends: its female co-founders are both card-carrying hardware engineers, and they’re putting their technical chops to use by designing toys that get young girls engaged in hands-on engineering.

“Most girls’ toys are overly-simplistic,” explains Bettina Chen, who hatched the idea with Alice Brooks while they were graduate students at Stanford. “It’s one and done; there’s no creation. But in our research, we noticed girls loved to make up stories about their toys, and the best stories were the ones with most detail. That’s the crux of what we do – we let them create those details, break it apart, and create them again.”

Alice explained how her own early encounters with engineering served as motivation: “Most girls start to hold back in math and science in elementary school - not because of a difference in ability, but because of societal expectations. Boys are capable until they demonstrate they’re incapable; girls, however, are expected to prove themselves at every step, and that pressure can be defeating. But when I was that age, my dad did something very uncommon: he gave me a mini-saw. It was a pivotal vote of confidence, because he was telling me, ‘I think your ideas are valuable, and I trust you to make them real.’” Today’s market seems to agree: Roominate recently raised $85,000 on Kickstarter, smashing its $25,000 goal.

And signs indicate this is just the beginning of the revolution. The costs are going down, the urgency is rising—and as a woman, you were born with the raw material to seize the moment.  So strap on your safety goggles, and get ready—it’s your time to smash things into greatness.

Resources for Girls and Women Interested in Hardware Engineering


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