What’s the Best Way to Start Your Tech Career? This Senior Engineer Shares Her Best Advice and More

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Fairygodboss
April 13, 2024 at 10:3AM UTC

As Senior Director at GLOBALFOUNDRIES, Sarah McGowan is well aware of her status as a role model to other women in tech. In an interview with Fairygodboss, Sarah discussed why she chose to pursue a career in tech, how she manages her team and what she wants other women to know about how to thrive in the industry.

Tell us a bit about your job.

I currently lead the Testchip & Techfile Engineering team. This encompasses two departments that support testchip design automation and Optical Proximity Correction (OPC) techfile development. Both of these areas are critical to creating early design layouts and electrical test structures and then converting the design data into masks that the Fabs can use to develop and validate GLOBALFOUNDRIES’ silicon processes.

What first got you interested in pursuing a career in tech?

I was interested in finding a job that was fast-paced, where engineering has a very direct impact on a business’ success. In the semiconductor industry, we are always trying to make products faster and with more feature rich solutions. To enable this, we often need new equipment and/or new software capabilities to develop the next generation processes, which is great fun for engineers to work within our day-to-day jobs.

What projects or programs are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on the Silicon Photonics (SiPh) platforms we’re developing at GLOBALFOUNDRIES. Learning about devices that manipulate light versus traditional electrical circuits is exciting. Plus, these devices have unique layout configurations with curved shapes instead of the mainly rectangular electrical circuit layouts that are requiring us to develop new techniques for test site design and OPC. 

With my background in photolithography, where we always try to pattern smaller and smaller features, having a focus foremost on variation is an interesting pivot as well since variability is an important factor in the SiPh performance.

What has been the biggest challenge or obstacle you’ve faced working as a woman in tech?

As I’ve advanced as a leader in my field, I’ve become more and more aware of the importance of women role models in our industry. One of my biggest challenges has been seeing myself in the position of a role model and remembering to guide my interactions and engagements when working with more junior engineers. Becoming a leader requires a new set of skills, I continue to be mindful of this area.

Does GLOBALFOUNDRIES provide any resources or programs to support women in your field? 

GLOBALFOUNDRIES has an excellent employee resource group called GLOBALWOMEN. I’ve attended several conferences and executive leadership courses with other women from GLOBALFOUNDRIES, and they’ve been invaluable in expanding my network across all of our global sites. Plus, we have a lot of fun sharing a nice dinner at the end of a long day of seminars and recruiting events.

What’s your favorite aspect of the culture at GLOBALFOUNDRIES?

Everyone is very supportive and engaged in solving problems to make GF successful. Ideas are encouraged and listened to from all levels of the engineering community—and with our global footprint, it’s a lot of fun to hear the perspective from different backgrounds and even learn about different cultures as part of our day-to-day interactions.

What is something you’re especially good at in your work?

I work best when forming partnerships across organizations and then ensuring my teams’ resources are focused on collaborating to find technical innovations or just solve a problem that seems simple on the surface but is embedded deeply in our business processes or automation.

What are you trying to improve on?

I’m working on managing up—providing my vision to our senior leaders on where we need to be focused. I’m also working on building talent in my organization by finding projects for other leaders to hone their skills while engaging in something that’s motivating to them personally.

What is the most memorable piece of career advice you’ve received?

I had a mentor early in my career who told me not to take a position working in the wafer fab because there was a better future in semiconductors outside of the clean room. However, I was most energized by working as a process development engineer in the fab! I struggled with this advice and in the end decided not to take it, I continued to work on photolithography process development and eventually moved from  the fab to work on computational lithography and OPC. I still miss being in the fab, it was a great experience that opened the door to many other opportunities.

What advice do you have for other women who are beginning a career in tech?

Find an area of engineering that excites you. If you’re working on problems that are really interesting, developing your expertise and career comes naturally.  Be willing to try new jobs if you’re not sure you’re in the right place. If you’re in the right place, be willing to try short-term assignments to learn new skills and gain perspective of other engineering teams with which you may collaborate.

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