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Smart Networking: Interview with Phyllis Caputo

Smart Networking: Interview with Phyllis Caputo

People don’t tend to talk to women about technical issues because they assume there’s no interest or that they wouldn’t be good at it.

Phyllis Caputo is the Smart Grid Program Manager at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). In an interview for Women in Power Systems, Phyllis talks about what led her onto the path to power systems, her career, the importance of support, mentorship, and leadership.

Rachel Linke We are honored to talk with Phyllis Caputo, the IEEE Smart Grid
Program Manager, where she spends a lot of time managing the needs and
activities of volunteers, and we’re going to talk a lot about that today. Phyllis,
welcome and thank you for talking to us.

Phyllis Caputo Thank you for having me.

RL Phyllis, I have to know: What inspired you to get a master’s degree in
electrical engineering and get into the power industry? That’s something that
generally we don’t see many women do. But you did, and I am curious how
that happened for you, and what first inspired you.

PC It started in high school. I was really into math and science, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor. My teachers were really supportive and they took me to Engineering Day at Rutgers where I learned that if I headed into electrical engineering, I could select a biomedical option. That was both good and bad because once you enroll, you only have engineering and physiology classes, but no business or other type of classes. I then went on to Siemens Medical Systems to work in catherization labs.

I really liked the imaging side of it, and I liked everything to do with the heart. So, I decided to go back and get a Master’s Degree in Biomedical Engineering, which is kind of an option of electrical engineering at Rutgers. I really wanted to do medical imaging, so I began working in a start-up that developed supercomputer, but it turned out they were doing video applications instead of imaging. Eventually, I got involved with IEEE, and at some point, there was an opening in power, which is part of electrical engineering. And here I am.

Alan Ross Phyllis, we both knew and worked with Pat Ryan, former executive director of the IEEE Power and Energy Society (PES), but before we get to the IEEE part of your career, I would first like to say this: As a man, I always just assume “Oh, no, everything is equal. You can do whatever you want.” And in truth, it’s not. Women have challenges that men don’t have. So, what are the challenges that you think most women see as it relates to any kind of technical career, whether it’s a medical or an engineering career?

PC I think the issue is twofold. When you’re not encouraged, and people don’t think that you would be good at something, they don’t tend to talk to you about it. So, most of the brains that like math and science are assumed to be men’s brains. So, there are a lot of men getting together, and they’re not always including the women. I wanted to be involved, so I kind of pushed my way in there. And I think that if you’ve got a personality where you don’t feel comfortable doing that, it’s very hard. So that’s one aspect of it.

The other aspect of it is that typically this kind of job is demanding, and women in general have two jobs, especially if they have kids and a family. Today it has become very obvious that the lack of childcare and the lack of support for women in technology fields these kinds of demanding careers even harder to maintain.

RL I’d like to go back to IEEE now and Pat Ryan. I know he was a great friend and mentor to you, so could you please talk a little bit about what that mentorship and support meant to you?

PC There were two reasons that I really appreciated Pat. The first reason was this: I had worked at IEEE before, in the Publications Department where I worked mainly with staff. But coming to IEEE Smart Grid, I started working with volunteers, and it is very different to work with them because they don’t work for you. They have other, full-time jobs. So, you need to find a way to motivate somebody to do what you think they need to do but help them see how it helps them. Pat taught me that if it’s not coming from a volunteer, then why bother doing it? But, my attitude was “Let me start it off first, and everybody will see how great it is, and they’ll want to join in.” And that rarely works because what happens is that the staff ends up doing all the work because the volunteer doesn’t own it.

So, what Pat taught me to do was to find people’s passions and build them up. Then they could decide what they wanted to do and I would say “Hey, how can I support you?” So, it was a very subtle difference working with volunteers and then working with somebody who works for you. He really taught me how to handle that. And he would joke around that he was trying to pull me out of the weeds, because I would always want to dive down and try and do something. This was our joke and we would laugh about it. But he helped me a lot with that because I would take it personally when someone didn’t do what I thought they should do, instead of thinking that they merely thought that it wasn’t as important as I did.

AR He was very effective because I can tell how you manage a really disparate group of volunteers with IEEE Smart Grid, very smart people, men and women, and how I always have the opinion that peer leadership is the most important kind of leadership, because if you can lead people without the title, if you can be Andy Griffith and lead people without the bullet, then you’re a real leader and you do it incredibly well. So, thank you for that, because I’m one of the people.

Working with volunteers is very different from working with employees, because they don’t work for you. My mentor taught me how to inspire and motivate people to do what’s best for the program, and consequently it’s good for them too.

PC Thank you. The other reason I appreciated Pat’s mentorship was that he was a visionary in terms of what he thought needed to happen. IEEE consists of 40 different societies in different disciplines and Pat was the executive director of the Power and Energy Society. And when it comes to Smart Grid, there’s a lot more societies that are involved with Smart Grid than just the Power and Engineering Society, because it involves communication between utilities and home and electric vehicles, and anything else on the grid which involved many different societies. And there are a lot of different societies.

So, it was his vision to have this group of societies work together and really bring them all in. And he was the leader in that. It was very exciting for me to be part of his vision. He came up with all the activities we could do. I wasn’t the first program manager of Smart Grid, there was another program manager before me. So, I came in in about two years after the program had moved to the Power and Engineering Society.

RL One of the things that you’re doing is trying to reach out to the other societies and keep them linked in, making them feel they’re part of it, which is very important. Where do you see Smart Grid going as the Program Manager? Where do you see Smart Grid headed in the next year and beyond?

PC What I would like to happen, and hopefully everybody will agree with me, is that IEEE Smart grid should be the place where people go for practical information on what they need to do to solve the problems that come up when they are trying to create a smart grid. Obviously, IEEE has a lot of papers and a lot of very smart people. But how do we help the average person in the utility who is trying to solve a problem? So, we are creating content that can help somebody quickly and easily. Either it will help them directly or they will read it, and that will lead them to somebody who can help them solve the problem. So, we’re constantly thinking about new ways to do that.

One of the new ways we’re implementing are live discussions – getting experts together and listening to the questions and having a discussion. While we do have a webinar series that I think is very effective, it is more speaking at you. I would want to create more of a discussion and from those discussions understand where people are coming from, what problems they are encountering, what questions they have and maybe that way we will be able to fill in some gaps. So, where I see IEEE Smart Grid going is becoming the place where people get the information they need to do their jobs, and also to implement the Smart Grid everywhere.

RL You also took on the role of Program Manager of Smart Cities. Talk about why that makes sense and what the difference is so that we just don’t lose one or the other. Because there’s a big difference between Smart Grid and Smart Cities. But you have to program manage both of them.

PC The biggest difference between Smart Grid and Smart Cities is the fact that Smart Cities, in my head, is a little bit more all-encompassing. The Smart City has a lot of different aspects of Smart Things. Smart Energy or the Smart Grid is one part of a Smart City, and I don’t even know if it’s the biggest part. So, you have Smart Health, Smart Transportation, etc. I joke around that we should have a garbage can that says, “I’m really smart. I’m going to pick up your garbage.” It’s a much broader concept. It needs reaching out to more people and a better understanding of how things fit together, whereas Smart Grid is about two-way power and communication and cybersecurity. So it’s a little bit different, but it seems to be working well. I try to use some of the things that are implemented in Smart Grid and Smart Cities and back and forth.

My advice to other women who are starting their career in the electric power industry would be not to pigeonhole yourself in only technology, but to be well-rounded in order to be effective.

RL I’m sure that between Smart Cities and Smart Grid you get to work with the other committees and other areas. Can you talk a little bit about what has been the highlight of your IEEE career? What have you learned and what has been something that you really valued in working for IEEE?

PC I thought about this and the highlight of my current IEEE career – because I had another one in Publications before that – was being selected by the Learning Ad Hoc Committee that was set up at the President’s level. This group aimed to set up education for engineers who wanted to learn something other than their discipline. So, they chose Smart Grid in addition to Artificial Intelligence & Internet of Things. And that was based on the fact that we do have a lot of content they can pick from. We have structured committees so that means that we have the potential and the many volunteers to provide support. And we’re organized in a way that allows us to get done whatever they want to do in these learning paths. So, when Smart Grid was selected as one of those learning paths, that was a real testament to how well the community and the program is working.

RL Phyllis, what is some insider advice that you would give to or share with other women who are starting their career in the electric power industry?

PC I think the most important thing is to not only look at the technical aspects of what you want to learn. Obviously, I love technology. That was my thing and what I didn’t do was focus on maybe some business classes or things that would make me a little bit more well-rounded. So, if you want to stay in a technical career forever, that’s perfectly fine. But when you don’t have any other background, you might get pigeon-holed in that area. I believe my strength right now is to be able to link groups together, the businesspeople, the end users, and the technology people. I can understand what their issues are from both sides. I didn’t really have that kind of background and I had to rely on mentors to get that to me. That was a hard hill to climb. I had no real training in anything except engineering so I had to find people who were willing to help me. So, my advice would be not to pigeonhole yourself in only technology, but to be well-rounded in order to be effective.

RL That’s good advice. Phyllis, thank you for joining us on this interview.
Thank you!

PC Thank you! It’s been a pleasure.