"We engineer for everyone, so engineering should be for everyone" Amanda Kalhous says diversity of thought is key for innovation and engineering
Amanda Kalhous says diversity of thought is key for innovation and engineering
By Anne Millar and Mary Wells
January 17, 2018
Amanda Kalhous is the engineering group manager for active safety controls at General Motors of Canada. Courtesy of Amanda Kalhous.
Amanda Kalhous has a background in electrical engineering. She has over twenty years of experience in communications, primarily in wireless networking technologies, and is a recognized expert in Bluetooth low energy (BLE) and smart phone interactions. She is currently the engineering group manager for active safety controls at General Motors of Canada (GM). Amanda is a leading innovator at GM and has an impressive twenty patents to her credit, most of which are in the areas of infotainment and communication.
Amanda was an EcoCAR mentor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and at the University of Victoria from 2008 to 2014. In this role, she helped engineering students design and build advanced vehicles that demonstrate leading-edge automotive technologies, with the goal of minimizing the environmental impact of personal transportation and illustrating pathways to a sustainable transportation future. She is an inspiring role model for engineering professionals and young people interested in pursuing careers in engineering.
Were you good at math and science from a young age? I was very strong in math. I did well in chemistry. Physics was not my strong point, but I liked the abstract, the electrical oddly enough. I didn’t understand trajectory until my second year of university. I’m not sure how I got through to that point, but it probably had something to do with being able to memorize formulas.
What factors influenced your decision to study engineering? All through high school, I had wanted to be a lawyer. In grade twelve, I took law and we went to observe proceedings at a courthouse. My mum reminds me, “You thought it was awful and so boring.” I decided at that point that I wasn’t going to go into law. It was my grade eleven chemistry teacher that first suggested engineering. In grade twelve, I decided I wanted to go into engineering and then that I wanted to go to RMC. My grade thirteen physics teacher was an electrical engineer. When it came time at RMC to decide which engineering course to take — you don’t have to decide until the end of second year — I was trying to choose between chemical and electrical engineering. This was possibly based on the fact that those were the fields I was most interested in but also that my two teachers in high school had directed me and influenced me down that path.
Did your parents support your decision to go into engineering? They did, their concerns were more about me wanting to go to RMC. I was very timid, very quiet. I worked at the library in high school. I was in band. I was on the swim team. I was not outgoing at all. I think they both thought that I would be eaten alive in the military. They were more concerned about that aspect of it than the schooling part.
What obstacles have you encountered in your career and how have you overcome them? I have been very fortunate because I feel like I have always had people who’ve recognized and appreciated the skills that I was bringing. It hasn’t always resulted in the positions or roles that I expected or was looking for at the time, but it has helped to reassure me when things don’t necessarily go the way I had hoped.
How would you describe yourself as a leader? I’m not afraid of change. I look at the organization and try to see how I can make it better. I try to look at it from a people perspective. Do we have the right people in the right jobs? If they’re not performing well, is it because it’s the wrong seat on the bus or is it because they’re not good at it? In the case of my team, nine times out of ten, it’s just the wrong seat on the bus. The right skill set is not being applied to the right problem. I’ve enabled people to move to different parts of the organization where I have already seen them flourishing in that new environment.
I think I’m a respected leader. I have only been a manger here for two years, but I was a manager for five years in the military. In the four years at RMC and the year after graduation, I didn’t just learn the technical aspects of engineering, the military spent seventy per cent of the time teaching me how to be a leader. If we expect people to learn leadership on the job, then we need to have jobs that teach them to be leaders.
How can we increase the participation of women in engineering? Where did we go wrong with women in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]? How did we end up in 2017 at the same place we were in in 1994 when I graduated? The percentage of women in electrical engineering is basically the same. That’s crazy. How have we not made progress? I have two daughters. I don’t want them to have to think about the fact that engineering is male-dominated. When my teacher in grade eleven told me about engineering, he didn’t say, “By the way, there are not that many women that go into it.” I think I was fortunate in not having some preconceived notion that engineering was a “man’s domain.”
There are a few things that I’ve become aware of in the past few years that are heading in the right direction. The biggest thing that I’ve seen (and seen firsthand with my own daughters) is that we have to encourage girls much earlier than previously thought. Grades four to eight seem to be the first point where girls turn away from math and science. Programs that ON WiE [the Ontario Network for Women in Engineering] support through Girl Guides are a great starting point. GM is also an advocate of STEM-focused initiatives and a sponsor of the “A World In Motion (AWIM)” program through SAE International that gets engineers into the classrooms at elementary schools.
How can we increase the number of women engineers in leadership positions? We have a CEO who is an electrical engineer and a woman. If that doesn’t encourage other women to aim higher, nothing will. She’s inspired me to aim higher. That being said, ambition is only one part of the equation — we need to have organizations that value the added diversity that female leaders bring to the table.
What advice would you give to a young woman or young person considering pursuing a career in engineering? Go for it. Don’t hesitate. Engineering is for everyone. We engineer for everyone; it should be engineered by everyone.
How do you define innovation? It’s bringing forward new ideas, whether that’s a new invention or a new business process. I think that we innovate when we look for change.
What qualities does an innovator possess? They are always asking questions. They get other people to think differently. Innovation comes from seeing problems and identifying problems that other people don’t know exist.
Do women innovate differently than men? I don’t know that it is necessarily that the way they innovate is different, but it’s how we think about problems and solutions. I carry a purse; most men don’t carry a purse. How does that impact the way we operate in our daily lives? You also have a different set of experiences that you’re drawing from as you’re solving problems or coming up with new solutions. I think it’s like anything, diversity of thought is what is key. When you have people from diverse backgrounds, whether its gender or culture, they’ve learned different ways of doing things.
How do you view yourself as an innovator? I see myself as a collaborator. Many of the inventions that I have worked on have stemmed from the ideas of others, but I have been able to look at it in a different way and add to it. I’m in a very male-dominated environment. My first question to a lot of my teams is, “Is that what your wife or your sister would do? Is that really the best way to do that? You’re thinking of it as a programmer, think of it as a user and think of it from a non-technical users’ perspective.” There is this book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. It was required reading for everyone on my innovation team. It really was about when computer programmers are in charge of graphical user interface, we end up with Windows 3.1, because they look at it and ask, “What’s the easiest way to code this?” instead of “What’s the easiest way to use this?”
A manager that I used to work for is extremely innovative and is always coming up with new ideas. I asked him, “How do you do that?” He said, “I keep a stupid list; things that I see that I think are stupid. Eventually, you can put two things together from your list.” I started doing that. I think I only had three items on my list before it became a thing in my head where I didn’t have to write it down. I’ve built on this and put ideas together, “I saw this over there but I saw that over here, what if we put them together?” It comes down to being aware, paying attention to things that you see, and then you are able to spot the problems. You have to be, in some sense, the observer. If you’re constantly going and you’re not observing, you might miss many of these things. You need to look for problems. I think that observation is something that is developed over time. I would honestly say it is not that I had an innate ability to come up with these new ideas. I really did believe that I didn’t necessarily have the tool set to be able to innovate earlier in my career because I wasn’t aware of what that tool set was. I had the capacity to do it, but it is a matter of having some training or learning that allows you to actually do it. Mine was on-the-job training.
How have you been innovative in your work? On a numbers scale, I am one of the top innovators at GM Canada. My former manager, Norman Weigert, continues to provide me with a moving target. My twenty patents are public records. They are primarily in the areas of infotainment and communication. A big chunk of them are related to BLE and that was, in my opinion, just being in the right place at the right time and putting those different pieces of information together. BLE was new at the time and applying it to different applications resulted in half of my patent applications.
We were looking for a way to communicate with the vehicle. Classic Bluetooth is a way you can communicate, but it takes a lot of power. We were looking for a lower-power solution so we were evaluating a few different technologies, near field communication (NFC) and BLE being sort of the primary ones. There are a lot of benefits to NFC. At the time, I was participating in the Bluetooth special interest group (SIG) — it’s the standards body. I saw that Apple Inc. had just taken a seat on the board of directors. Apple had never had NFC in any of their devices. All of the android phones had NFC at this point in time, but Apple wasn’t going in that direction and they were now taking a seat at the Bluetooth SIG. You put two and two together, you get four. In my opinion, there was no other answer. They were putting all of their eggs in this basket.
What has encouraged you to patent? As one of the most innovative automotive companies out there, GM is very encouraging of patents. I think they have the most patent applications for an automotive company. I also think good mentorship is key to all of this. When we first started doing this, my manager had a couple of patents already. He said, “While it’s not necessary to do a proof of concept, if you do as much as can until you get to a roadblock where you need more input, then you have more than just an idea. Then the patent review board can understand what it is you’re trying to achieve and to patent.”
Do innovators need to be willing to take risks? Yes, you have to. It’s a question of how do you work within the boundaries but still pursue something. I need to be able to see the big picture and help point it out to people, “This is what I’m seeing. I realize there’s going to be short-term pain, but look at the bigger picture, the long-term horizon.” That’s not something that everyone is able to do. As we grow into a global economy, you need to be able to see the worldwide impact of your decisions.
To read more about Amanda and the other Women of Innovation, purchase the book here.