Posted on August 02 2017
Today, we sit down with Erin Summers, Software Engineer at Oculus / Facebook and co-founder of wogrammer - a platform highlighting female engineers and their stories. Erin studied Electrical and Computer Engineering before getting her PhD in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Berkeley. Since graduating, Erin has worked at NASA, and then Facebook and Oculus.
Newnham: Can you tell us about your background – growing up, how would your friends and family have described you?
Summers: I was a very curious kid. I loved math and science. I remember learning about fractions and being very satisfied with canceling numerators and denominators. My parents said I always asked a lot of questions about how things worked.
Newnham: And when did you first get interested in tech and engineering?
Summers: My senior year of high school I wanted to learn how to make a robot. This was in the late 90s and these self-contained kits for kids didn't exist. I scoured a Jameco catalog for motors, photoresistors, circuit boards and other parts. I “borrowed” wheels from the kid who lived next door that I babysat. My dad and I worked on this together, first on a breadboard and then soldered all the pieces on to a circuit board. It was so rewarding to watch my robot come to life!
It was a hardware driven line following robot. All the little kids in the neighborhood that I babysat came over to see. This motivated me to go study Electrical & Computer Engineering at North Carolina State University.
Newnham: Can you give us a roundup of your career and how you have found working in the tech industry for companies such as NASA? What have been some of the highs and lows?
Summers: After I earned my BS at North Carolina State, I went to UC Berkeley to get my PhD in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science. I studied Control Theory, specifically stability of large-scale nonlinear dynamic systems.
Lots of things can be described by nonlinear systems - chemical reactions, airplanes, rockets, predator-prey communities. Once you model a system using a set of differential equations, you can study the region in which the system is stable. Stability has different meanings in real life. For example, instability in a plane could mean that the pilot loses control and cannot recover the systems to steer the plane. I wrote theorems and developed software to prove the safe operating region for these systems.
I worked for a summer at NASA studying pilot-induced oscillation, which is an unstable mode that planes can get into when they land. Example here:
I built software to carve out a safe operating region. You could use this information to warn a pilot if she was steering a plane into an unsafe region.
The best moment of my PhD was when I uncovered the exact solution to a particular system I had been studying for over a year. I had an “aha” moment late at night. I was looking at a dimension of the system and had parameterized one of the values. They were all converging at this one point. I plugged this value into my equation and the entire thing collapsed beautifully into a necessary and sufficient condition - just like how those fractions collapsed when I was learning algebra as a kid. I literally yelled “Eureka!” It was very corny but exciting.
Near the end of my PhD I realized that I didn't really want to work in the aerospace or defense field. I loved the math, but wanted to work on a product with a faster time to market and a shorter feedback loop for impact. This was unsettling but also exciting. I taught myself how to code Android and also did the Insight Data Science Fellowship. I then landed a job at Facebook and have been there for the last four and a half years.
Initially, I worked on Pages & Ads; I worked on the first native Android version of the Pages app. If you've ever replied to a comment on Android, then you've used something I built! I also built tools for Page owners to buy ads on mobile.
Also Facebook engineers have the option to switch teams every two-ish years, and I wanted to change things up, and was really excited about virtual reality so I then joined Oculus. I worked on the platform building a scalable infrastructure for the mobile Gear VR product. Now I'm working on the Facebook Social VR (Virtual Reality) team, leading analytics. We just launched Facebook Spaces last April, and it's so exciting to see the beginning of the output of a lot of amazing work that is being doing at Facebook on VR.
I'm Head Analyst Engineer for Social VR. This means I make sure that we are keeping track of product health, we know where we stand in the market, we are aware when there are errors or bugs and can quickly respond, I help with strategy and goals, if something is broken I jump in and fix it. I look for trends and ways to improve our products. VR is still very early days. It's exciting to be a part of something so early to shape it and grow it into the next computing platform. The dream is that one day in the not so distant future, you'll rely on augmented and virtual reality technology the same way as you use your phone. It will be second nature and enhance the world around you.
Newnham: Throughout your life, you appear to be a self-starter, teaching yourself various programming languages – what’s the key to such discipline? What are some good resources you recommend to other women looking to up-skill?
Summers: When I learn a new language, it's a means to an end to build something. For example, I had never used C# or Unity until I joined Facebook Social VR. I learned it because I needed to in order to build Facebook Spaces. When I write personal productivity scripts at home for organizing my photos, I use Python. My advice is to dream up something you want to build first and then pick a language that makes sense.
Newnham: And what led to you starting wogrammer - what is its mission?
Summers: My friend Zainab (Ghadiyali) and I started wogrammer 3 years ago because we wanted to highlight the accomplishments of women engineers. We wanted to put more positive stories out there that didn't focus on ridiculous unattainable archetypes of women or about horror stories working in tech, but rather showcase the woman's accomplishments and the amazing things she's built. We've interviewed over 200 women on every continent! I'm so excited because we just awarded our first two journalism fellowships too. We'll be posting stories from these women very soon!
Newnham: If you could go back to the start of your career, what one piece of advice would you give a younger Erin?
Summers: Gosh, it's so hard when you are starting out in tech. I would reassure young Erin that she belongs and she deserves the success that she has earned. I definitely felt imposter syndrome from college to grad school. I didn't learn that it was called “imposter syndrome” until I went to this talk at Berkeley my first year in grad school. I was in a room with 300 other people raising their hands saying they also felt like they didn't belong and it was an accident they were there, even though everyone was so accomplished and deserved it. Giving it a name was really empowering because I could compartmentalize it. I'm proud of myself for sticking with this career because I love what I do.