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Why More Women in Tech is Key to Innovation

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Intel engineer Olena Zhu believes mentorship is key to getting more women working in tech.


Tell us a bit about what you do and what a typical day looks like.
I’m a principal engineer working on end-to-end computer system design optimization and automation. I lead teams across organizations to use the Augmented Intelligence approach (machine intelligence + human intelligence) to transform today’s design tools and methodologies for better efficiency, power, and performance. I am responsible for evaluating different design challenges in multiple key areas, architecting and developing an augmented intelligence-based solution from silicon to endpoint device.

Did you always know you wanted to work in technology? How did you decide to go into engineering?
I grew up in a very remote part of Northern China (Inner Mongolia), in a family that did not have the opportunity to pursue advanced education.  My parents, however, made sure that I had access to many books and learning opportunities.  I have always been fascinated by math.  At age ten, I dreamed of the solution to a very challenging puzzle.  I realized that solving puzzles brought me great joy and excitement, which inspired my education and subsequent career path in electrical engineering. 

I went through the challenging national exam process in China and decided to move far from home to a top university in Southern China.  After that, I chose Purdue University to pursue my Ph.D., driven by my dream of exploring the world and continuing to have opportunities to work on the most fun “puzzles” in the world.  From Ph.D. research to my Intel projects, I have been enjoying the journey of solving a series of the most challenging computer technology puzzles.

Many women in the tech industry feel that their gender has affected how they are perceived or treated. Have you also felt this, and how did you handle it?
Yes, I am not an exception and totally agree that my gender has affected how I am perceived and treated. Overall, the tech industry is evolving into a more diversified and supportive environment. As a working mom, I much appreciate today’s work flexibility and good maternity benefits. And it is very important to have supportive management. When I evaluate any career opportunity, management support for women technologists is a significant factor. Another thing I learned is being calm, confident, and persistent can always help conversations and help others better appreciate the value we bring to the table.

What do you think is the best part of being a woman in the tech industry?
We think differently. We look at problems from different angles. We connect dots and bridge different areas, teams, and opportunities. The best part is to have the chance to lead the team, with our strength, to innovate beyond boundaries and change how people live, communicate and work.

Do you notice a lack of women in technology? If so, why do you think that’s the case?
Yes, I do notice a lack of women in technology.

I think our society has certain norms and expectations for women. Although we are constantly fighting to break them, they still impact women’s career choices. We have to give more support and encouragement to girls at school, helping them to pursue STEM careers. We also have to make more progress in shaping the tech industry toward a more friendly environment for women to grow their careers, especially working moms.

Many women in the tech industry consider themselves introverts. Are you an introvert, and if so, what is the most challenging thing about being an introvert in the tech industry? How did you overcome it?
I am an extrovert. But I understand the challenge because I also experience it a lot, more from the angle of coming from a different cultural background.

English is my second language, and I grew up in eastern culture. I often find it difficult to join co-workers’ conversations and make real connections, making me an introvert at the workplace. I think sincerity, patience, and humor are really good ways to connect with others. I try to playback people’s questions to make sure I fully understand; I pay attention to others’ points of view and follow up with them after the meetings. I also use humor to make people feel more relaxed and lower the communication boundaries. Still, a long way to go, but I’m happy that I’m making progress.

Is there a female technologist you admire who has influenced your career journey and choices?
I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with and learn from many female technologists, from my graduate school professors to my co-workers, my mentors at Intel, and other companies. They are great role models to me. They all are very dedicated to their work and make a significant impact on technology.

They give me tremendous support, encouragement, and guidance for my career journey.

What advice would you give to a woman considering a career in the tech industry? What do you wish you had known?
The most important thing is your passion.  If you are passionate about technology, invention, and solving puzzles—don’t be afraid. Follow your heart. And allow yourself to fail and learn from your failures. Pace yourself—your career is a marathon, not a sprint.


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