Kate Cummings – Electrical Program Lead

How did you get into engineering and when did you start?
I wasn’t planning to go into engineering, but when I was looking at colleges in 2002 I found Olin College, which was then accepting students for their first class. I was interested in education and Olin’s mission was to create a better engineering education and produce engineers who wouldn’t just be good at math and physics, but would also have communication, innovation, and entrepreneurial skills to make them successful at real-world engineering challenges.

I was accepted into Olin’s inaugural class with a full scholarship and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help create a new college, even though I was doubtful that I wanted to be an engineer. I wound up liking engineering more than I expected, and I was lucky enough to get a job with Synapse straight out of school. It wasn’t a typical entry-level engineering job. In my first couple years at Synapse I worked on at least 10 different products and did everything from creating 6 prototype devices in 6 weeks for a trade show, to developing products that were going into high volume manufacturing in Asia.

What are your favorite hardware tools that you use?
I work on a lot of small, battery powered devices, so having good tools to monitor power consumption is essential. We use a USB connected multimeter and a Labview program to pull current consumption measurements off a device at up to 50k samples per second. From that data, we can differentiate things like when our processor is waking up and when it is asleep.

What is the hardest/trickiest bug you have ever fixed?
I think the most difficult problems to solve are the ones that are hard to reproduce and can’t easily be isolated as a hardware or a software problem. A couple years ago, a device I was working on had an issue where it stopped logging accelerometer data. Everyone working on the project, including the firmware team, assumed that it was a software bug. Eventually we figured out that the problem was actually mechanical in nature—there was a spring contact to the battery that was intermittently losing contact. This caused a small droop on the power supply rail and was setting off the accelerometer’s power on reset circuit. This caused the accelerometer to lose its configuration, which caused our firmware to stop accumulating accelerometer data.

What is on your bookshelf?
I don’t have many engineering books on my bookshelf. I use The Art of Electronics as a laptop stand and consult it occasionally, but I find most of the technical information I need on the internet. Recently, I’ve been reading about innovation—The Idea Factory, which is a book about the history of Bell Labs, and another book called Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.

What has been your favorite project?
One of the best products I’ve worked on was the Nike+ SportWatch GPS. It was fun to work on something that I can now go into a store and buy. Plus, as a runner, its something that I can use. Fitting GPS capability into a small, low power watch was a good challenge. I also had the chance to be involved in ramping up the production line and making sure the product could be manufactured in high volume.

Do you have an experiential story you would like to share?
We recently asked one of our interns to do some ESD testing but neglected to give him any advice on the proper procedure. He assumed that since the product was wrist-worn, he should have it on his arm while doing the testing and repeatedly shocked himself.

What are the non-technical skills that engineers need to learn?
In my experience a lot of engineers aren’t good at big-picture thinking—you can come up with the world’s best technical solution to a problem, but that doesn’t get you anywhere if you’re not working on the right problem. Communication is also incredibly important. Being able to write a clear email or presentation that explains an issue can keep a project on the rails, particularly when it involves multiple partners located all over the world.

What are you currently working on?
That’s top secret!

What challenges do you foresee in our industry?
I’d like to see us increase the number of women in electrical engineering. In 2010, only 12% of electrical engineer graduates were women.

What do you enjoy outside of electrical engineering?
I enjoy any activity that gets me outdoors and active—trail running, skiing, and rock climbing are a few of my favorites. On a recent project, I had to spend some time onsite at a contract manufacturer in China for prototype builds and I was able to add a long weekend of rock climbing on the beach in Thailand to the trip.