Keep learning, keep pushing: the key to a successful career
Karen Bomba, President of Smiths Interconnect, continues to build on her experience and learn new things every step of the way.
Moving into a management position at the age of 23 may have intimidated most young engineers. But not Karen Bomba, who relished the opportunity and was very soon supervising a team of 140 engineers – no mean feat for a recent college graduate.
Karen’s career is the embodiment of continuous learning, and she has not been afraid to take on new challenges. She says, “the key to a successful career in engineering is being open and collaborative, constantly seeking expertise elsewhere and working with other people.” This principle proved to be vital for the moves she made in her career between industry groups specialising in different technologies.
From starting on the engineering frontline – producing military aircraft for the US government – to leading some of the most high profile names in manufacturing and engineering, Karen is a powerhouse in her field and a shining example to women looking to forge successful careers in engineering.
Why engineering? “I loved working on my motorcycle, boat and car when I was growing up. I was also good at maths and physics at school, so it seemed like a natural progression.”
But the reality is that most young girls often don’t get to see the exciting side of engineering through studying STEM related subjects at school around the world. “Studies show that girls are dropping science and maths between the ages of 11-13 years old, so somehow we need to be getting to them younger to show them just how fun being an engineer is.”
In the early stages of her career, Karen tried her hand in safety and test equipment before going onto a rotational scheme where she worked in procurement, design and then manufacturing engineering. Her advice to young engineers is therefore to “continually try new things”, which is both the only way to ensure continuous learning and find out what you really love doing.
After taking on C-suite roles at manufacturing companies in the aerospace sector, Karen made the move to Morpho Detection (later incorporated into Smiths Detection) before taking on her current role as President of Smiths Interconnect. Despite exposure to developing electrical wiring and systems for aircraft she explained “building aircraft is the not the same as building CT technologies to scan luggage. And it is not necessarily aligned with my mechanical engineering degree. It would have been nice if I had spent more time paying attention to my electrical wiring classes in college!”
Karen believes that sometimes “you have to crack open the books to catch up”, but be guided by experience in order to lead successfully and do a great job. Her engineering mind-set guided her through a crucial set of questions when she became President of Interconnect: “What should be the focus of this business? What does the market need in the future? How does our technology compare to our customers?”
Karen is passionate about encouraging more women into engineering roles. “It is vital for business. A diverse team will design a different solution, and a better solution. When airbags were designed for the automotive industry, they only tested them on men. Only many years later it was realised that women were dying in automobile crashes as a result of airbags being designed exclusively for men.”
It is important that engineers learn from both successes and failures to do the best job possible. Karen says that lessons learnt from her time as a young engineer have stayed with her throughout her career. “The approach to managing production operations is much the same thing as an engineer solving a problem – is it necessary to take a new direction, do we need to bring other people in to help?” Young engineers should be confident that whatever path they eventually pursue, they are developing skills and building their own blueprint for success.