This woman in tech and all that

In 1964, I was a young girl of 14 living in Varanasi, India. My father owned a business in town, across from a movie studio called Prakash Talkies in an area called Lahurabir. The movie place always had gigantic posters of garishly pained actresses with gigantic heaving breasts making coy faces. Occasionally my cousin, Pammi, and I would sneak in without paying. It was hard to do but we did it more than a few times.

 Right outside the theater, was a magazine stand, and here on every 30th of the month, I would approach the seller, whom I knew well, and he me, as this would happen every month. I would ask him if my favorite magazine issue had arrived. He would tell me teasingly, NO, come back tomorrow. But he had the latest issue of the magazine, I could see it in a bundle all tied up sitting there on the floor. But he liked to toy with me, he didn’t want me to have the magazine until the 1st of the month! Disappointment!

I would return the next day to pay my one rupee (or maybe it was two annas) to get my hands on that precious magazine. And that magazine was called Science World for Children or something like that. Hard to believe but I have forgotten the name. At the time, I looked forward each month to the latest issue of this magazine with its color pictures and simple articles about animals, plants, etc.. I so loved that magazine!

How or  why I loved science at that age and in that time (1960’s) in India, I can’t say. Some of us are just born that way. My father’s business was in scientific supplies but that was about the only tenuous connection there was to science in my family. No one was into science in my family. No doctors, no engineers. No role models of any sort.

One day, a young man came to visit a neighbor’s house. I happened to be there and heard him say that he was studying engineering at BHU (Benaras Hindu University). Impressed. I told him that I too would like to be an engineer. He told me, what a silly idea I had. Girls do not become engineers. Being a little bit of a contrarian even at that age, I told him that I would do it, and that he would see me at BHU in the engineering school in a few years. He laughed and ignored me. But making good on my promise, he did see me there just as I had promised. One of only four women engineering students in the whole of BHU in the year of 1966.

In February of 1967, I left BHU after only three months and came to America to join my parents. We came to California where my father was a professor of economics at the Cal State University in Fresno, CA. So I started engineering school in Fresno State University. I applied to UCLA but my parents would not allow me go live away from home. So Fresno it was.

In Fresno, there was a very smart boy in my class who sat next to me in my Physics class. I was then 17 and he just a few years older having just returned from Vietnam. My parents were a very conservative, traditional Sikh family and although perfectly okay with me being the only girl in my all-male classes did not allow me to date or to even talk to boys. Whether rebelliousness or something else, I did see this boy secretively. So at the age of 18, I married Del, age 23. We got married to the great unhappiness of my parents and moved to San Luis Obispo to go to Cal Poly. That only because thats where he wanted to go. I just followed him. Though with the brain of an engineer, I had and, still do have a heart of a woman.

My college years were wonderful. Although I was always the only girl in class, I was treated no differently than anyone else. And remember this was early 1070’s. Of course, I had no idea as to what would happen in the real working world when I graduated, although I was told once or twice that it would be hard for me to find a job. Of course, I did not believe them.

In my senior year, I interviewed with a few companies, most rejected me telling me that their engineers would never accept a woman as a co-worker. This was a shock. I told them that I was in an engineering school for four years and no one had found any problems with me at school. My class-mates seem to have no issues working with me. I had student-assistant jobs with at least three of my engineering professors. But these were politically incorrect times and people said what they thought. So no job prospects despite my new degree in Aeronautical Engineering. I did get one job offer from McDonald Douglas but as a math aide (which is basically doing spreadsheet calculations that an engineer has set up for you to crunch), not as an engineer, so I rejected it.

Then in March of 1972, I got a call again from the McDonald Douglas company for an interview. I entered the Employment Office and sat and waited. They had just gotten a huge new contract. In the waiting room, on the wall was a big blackboard on which was written “Goal for 1972 – Hire five women engineers”.

Affirmative Action had arrived! The doors opened, and I had my first job as a real engineer with the coveted title of MTS I, Member of Technical Staff – Level 1. I was one of the first beneficiaries of Affirmative action. I owe my first job to it.

But those door didn’t just open, they busted wide open.

In 1977, I vividly remember a scene while I worked at Northrop in Hawthorn. I had to inspect a part that was being installed on an F-5 jet being built in the factory. I walked to the area where this particular jet was being worked by a team. The supervisor took a microphone and announced, “Move away from the airplane, the Engineer is here.” Every one stopped working, stood respectfully at a distance while with the supervisor, I inspected the part, and they did what I told them. Me then a mere 26 year year old girl from a foreign land, getting that kind of respect who five years earlier could not find a job, Times had changed and so fast!

Next year, I remember being sent to Palmdale Air Force base to supervise the spintest of the F-5 fighter. Me, a young Indian girl making decisions about the airworthiness of a jet fighter airplane! I still remember the test pilot, He was shocked to see me checking his plane. Me too, as well. He was a short black guy (I think his name was Cpt. Charles Manly!) I watched him take the plane up, put it in a few spins, and land. When the test flight was over I checked the plane and, then we both laughed about being such an untypical pair.

I then started on a 45 year career, where I never looked back, never had to fight for titles or positions. What I earned or did not earn, it was because of my own efforts or lack there-off. I suffered no discernible discrimination, no harassment of any significant sort that held me back. Despite the fact that I am not white, it seemed to have little effect. You are judged by your knowledge and acumen.

If there had been men who hindered me, there were four men who stood to mentor me, help me, and to even offer me choice assignments preferentially over my male peers. This is an advantage that most women in STEM fields do not publicly talk about.  

Now I hear about how hard the tech world is for women, but this has not been my experience in the last 45 years in America. And I have worked in real engineering, of jet, rockets, space shuttle and satellites and mathematical science. The hardware kind. (Yes, I don’t think software engineering, is engineering!)

I like to think that I always made as much money as my peers if not more, and never less. And not because I was a great negotiator or such a world-class scientist, (Although my FFT book is absolutely without a doubt world-class) but because that is the kind country America is. Merit is recognized and rewarded.

I chose not to pursue the management path although I could have. I did not want to supervise people nor travel or stay away from home for extended periods of time. I chose to stay in engineering, in the so-called technical path. This choice made it possible for me to have time and energy for a balanced home life.

This is a fine and wonderful country where fairness is the norm. Be careful what you dream here, as in America dreams usually come true. 

My son followed my footsteps and is also an engineer at Apple. He and I wrote the FFT book. We are now working on our next book.

I ended my engineering career with the title of Distinguished Engineer from Loral Space Systems.

I am now concentrating on my endeavor to bring superior educational methods of teaching early reading and math skills based on my education in India, as well as what my husband (who was born in Russia) saw during his schooling. 

We both hope that you will choose to use our books to help your child get a true head-start in life.

Charan Langton

PS: Please do not hack or edit this writeup. I thank you.

7 Comments on “This woman in tech and all that

  1. What a great and wonderful story! How wonderful of you to share too! I really wish I worked with more engineers like you, not just because of your gender and diversity, but because of your attitude, love of the field and your willingness as well as ability to teach and understand complex technical subjects. Your penetrating story and career example is exemplary for women as well as anybody else thinking of or pursuing an engineering career. Furthermore, you’re making a difference in childhood learning too!

    • Scott,
      What a wonderful moment for me when I read your comment. You are extremely generous to say so.

      As I said somewhere, we are at the pinnacle of human achievement and should be proud of our accomplishment at making life better for the world. I am sorry to see our field get so slammed lately.

      Best, Charan

  2. Hi Charan. (I enjoyed reading your blog.)

    You wrote: “How or why I loved science at that age and in that time (60’s) in India, I can’t say. Some of us are just born that way.” Your words are meaningful. I believe there’s “something” different about the brains of engineers compared to the brains of people not interested in engineering. I’m not smart enough to define what that “something” is, but I believe it exists.

    For example, think of the question: “Why are raindrops in the shape of little spheres instead of little cubes or little pyramids?” Engineers enjoy learning the answer to that question whereas most people have no interest at all in the answer.

    • Rick,

      I think one of the most important things scientific education teaches us is the relationship between cause and effect. In science these relationships are easier to see and feel, even when dealing with mostly random systems, we can think in probabilistic sense. In real life, very hard. Multi-variate systems are just so complex and we will forever argue about what comes first. Human mind is not a machine that can do probabilistic estimation, it has to be taught through formal schooling. That is why the general level of understanding of base rates and probabilities is so deficient. Without this education, we can not think analytically and have no objective way to understand reality, but by sort of a faith-based thinking instead. Not that I am all objective all the time. I too use faith-based thinking when I don’t understand some thing. But I like to think that our education provides us some tools that are useful in our personal lives.

      Great hearing from you. Hope you are well and enjoying life. Are you still teaching?

  3. charan ji,
    great to hear your story. your tutorials are simple and elegant. you are doing a great job as a teacher on the net!
    Tussi truly great ho !!