I Risked My Career and Lived to Tell the Tale

By Ellen Lapham

Ellen Lapham

Ellen Lapham


This is my story of a long ago time, before rapid prototyping and 3D printing were ubiquitous. I’ll let you know up front that my life and career have centered on taking risks – though I had to build up to them.

I watched rapt as man first landed on the moon about 3am that glorious July morning, yet my first job was with a company whose technology was perfected in 1905 or so. We were the first US firm with modern dry-process copiers, but my division also made mechanical typewriters (ever used one?), then the firm’s core revenue and profits producer.

Our industrial design group – run by a man who somehow was able to hire mavericks and artists – was an inventive, creative place to work, though we were oddiities in that old line company. In our lab we experimented with fluidic logic and I learned about wall attachment and turbulence – phenomena we manipulated to create control lines. We were in charge of designing the finished products and also the molds needed to manufacture high volume plastic parts. I loved my work.

But. The real world was going digital. I’d learned to program in APL and at home we had one of the first home computers (a DEC terminal with a modem connected by phone to Dartmouth). My home entertainment was lasers and Eliza, the first ‘human-computer’ interface. The company’s top management was stymied, stuck in a fading business model. Even our manufacturing and design processes were from the ‘green eye shade’ era (think 5mm mechanical pencils and vellum – stuff that today you can only get in an art shop). I saw the trends clearly as legacy iron was being replaced by circuits and electronic components. We had to change.

I spent my teenage years touring manufacturing plants and hydro generating units where I loved the noise, smells and tangible outcomes. In fact I pestered my father to take me to Society of Automotive Engineers meetings and outings. I was always the only female in the room and that helped me get comfortable in that culture of men. From those experiences I saw that process control was critical. So the day I got a terrific opportunity, to design a totally new typewriter, I got a spark of inspiration! I stuck my neck out and forcefully argued that it was not sufficient to just design a great product, we had to re-think our whole concept-to-customer process.

My vision was to use mathematical shapes and equations to design, prototype and manufacture. Fortunately our division VP Engineering was on the same wavelength and had the budget and courage to agree that we would be the first in the consumer products industry – outside of Detroit – to use Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) techniques. If it worked, we would be pioneers.

We made quite a team – me, a very junior designer and the only technical woman in the division; the VP engineering; our toolmaker on Long island; and a brilliant mathematician who moonlighted from a large aircraft firm nearby that had the only computers powerful enough to do the shape calculations we needed. We worked under the radar of the top brass. Our goal was to write the tool control path equations for 3D components that would let us, or rather a milling machine, precision-cut metal for our molds in just hours rather than the months it typically took skilled toolmakers to do by hand. Our ‘product’ would be many yards of shiny purple mylar tape with 8 rows of punched holes – this was our control language – that we fed into the 5 axis “NC” (Numerically Controlled) milling machine. Our 6 months of writing code would work or it would not.

A crash landing – a programming error – meant that we had to start over with the old-fashioned methods. We would lose 6 months of critical time to market and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most important, we and our new ideas would lose credibility. I expected I’d lose at least the next plum assignment, if not my job. Was I worried? Yes.

A few days ago – as I write this it is August 2012 – we got the signals from the planet Mars that Curiosity, a big BIG bet (the “seven minutes of terror”), was safely on the ground, transmitting its first images. Mission Control folks down in Pasadena were ecstatic! Way back when, I felt the same high emotions when we cut our first metal prototypes, holding our breath as the parts emerged. The complex shapes we imagined were perfect. The risk we took had paid off.

I think the reward for me was when some of the staff engineers saw what we were accomplishing with this new “CAD” and “CAM” and said, “Hey, we have other parts we can build in the same way!” There was an avalanche of design ideas and over lunch one day we wrote a number of simple equations and cut metal that afternoon – reducing the time it took to make some tools down by 99%.

The new typewriter was a great success, though short lived. It was being sold into a market that would morph into digital devices: a world that would soon go from desktop computers to iPads. The mechanical typewriter is dead. And that is another tale.

The point here is not a story of manufacturing – it is one of my taking a risky leap forward, forcefully pushing for ideas and changes that I was certain could work.

I also have to add that as the only technical woman I had no women colleagues or mentors to advise me on how to be heard or the best way to present new and risky ideas. Many times I felt very alone yet my confidence (bullheadedness?) that my vision was right gave me the courage to stick my neck out.

This is not the only ‘bet your career’ leap I have taken but it was the first and I learned a lot, for though I was in the right place at the right time, I also needed both technology and the right team to succeed. I ask you who is reading my story: Do you think there is a risk worth taking in your career and what do you think it will take?

PS: My good friend Anita Borg and I met late in life, long after she was recognized as an innovative computer scientist. Anita took many risks – she would agonize with her friends and ask us “ Do you think this will really work?” Then she’d take action.

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