Artificial Intelligence is a total game-changer - it makes us change how we think
Celebrating International Women’s Week, read our interview on engineering, AI and machine learning with Tammy Carter
Q: How did your career start?
T: It was pretty much trial by fire. I was a software engineer by training and during my first job out of school, the hardware engineer that I was working with quit and I inherited his responsibilities as well as mine. I was fresh out of school when it happened, but I’m not one to back away from a challenge, so I said, sure, let me take a shot at it.
Q: You had studied software programming at school?
T: I studied software engineering, and the closest we got to hardware during my courses was programming in assembly language.
Q: Did you start out studying computer science?
T: I actually went to school with the intent of becoming a lawyer. I was working on a history and political science degree, but after taking some mathematics courses I found out that I really loved that field. That led me to computer science and software. I decided to switch over because I really enjoyed the challenge and the fact that much of the work is like solving a big puzzle. By the way, I double-majored with a degree in history as well.
Q: What do you love most about software engineering?
T: The combination of logic, fact and creativity. You start with a problem to solve, that consists of many moving parts with complex interactions working correctly for the solution to be successful. The software also must meet stringent timing deadlines. For example, a drone can’t circle a target waiting for the software to make a decision. You may be trained in how to think logically, trained in classical thinking, but the solution also requires creativity, because there’s rarely a single way to solve a software problem.
Q: What did you discover when you also started working with hardware?
T: While I’d never been involved directly in designing a hardware module from scratch, I have numerous times been involved in bringing up the boards after they were designed. When there is a problem with the board not work properly, similar to software engineering, the puzzle solving begins. You have to look at the schematics, probe signals, and instrument with test software to figure out what’s not working. That led me to discover my true love, which is system level engineering and integration. Putting a couple of different boards and software together creates a complex interaction. If a problem arises, the process of elimination begins, since the cause might be in the hardware, or it could be in the software, or it could reside in the interaction between the hardware and the software. I also discovered my husband, an RF engineer who I met while integrating radar systems.
Q: So you’re like a cross between a detective and a doctor
T: That’s probably a good way to put it! It’s a search for the truth, to find all of the bugs, and get the system working. I remember doing a major rewrite to the multi-mode controller for a radar system. We were in a SIL (System Integration LAB) on the West Coast in the middle of the night. It involved untangling a large number of code strings, and then reattaching them in another order. While I was doing this a young engineer provided running commentary, “She has the patient up on the table with chest open…She began to take the organs outs...The patient is on life support... Will the patient live?…She is closing the patient”. For that night at least, I played a doctor and I’m happy to report that the “patient” survived and was much better and healthier after.
Q: What is it that excites you most about what you do?
T: What I like most about my job is always being on the cutting edge. I’m always getting to see the latest, greatest next technology. With my past experience, I’m able to see how and where emerging new technologies and solutions can help us solve problems in the embedded aerospace and defense market that we serve. I also love interacting with our customers, especially since I was on the customer side of the table for many years. I really enjoy talking with customers about what they need, what they’d like to see and what they’re working on. There are few things as satisfying as white-boarding a solution with a customer, helping them design their system to solve their unique requirements.
A good example of cutting edge technology is Artificial Intelligence. AI is a total game-changer, because it makes us change how we think. Before, when you designed a board or wrote assembly code, you had control over every single wire, every little socket and every line of code. Later, moving up to higher levels, such as FPGAs, you started to lose the ability to touch and control all of the hardware. Now, with Deep Learning and AI, you have even less control. Especially, with unsupervised machine learning. The machine starts to learn on it’s own, perhaps even making connections that were never even considered. You still provide the initial programming, but it’s very different. There is an “invisible hand”, inside, helping to fine tune the solution along with you.
Q: Looking backwards, from where you are today in your career and profession, what advice would you have given to your younger self just starting out after college?
T: I’d advise all female engineers to believe in themselves. The road ahead can be hard. In numerous jobs and at numerous companies, I was the only female on the team. Right out of school, that can be a little intimidating. But, and this goes for both men and women, if you’re going to make it in the engineering world, you have to believe in yourself and stand up for yourself. It may take a while, and there are no guarantees, but aim high! You never know how far you can go.
Senior Product Manager
Tammy Carter is the Senior Product Manager for GPGPUs and software products, featuring OpenHPEC for Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions. In addition to an M.S. in Computer Science, she has over 20 years of experience designing, developing, and integrating real-time embedded systems in the defense, communications, and medical arenas.