Refusing Limits with Liz Ruetsch

2021-06-22  |  18 min read 

Two years into the electrical engineering program at Rutgers University, Elizabeth (Liz) Ruetsch called her father in tears. She told him that she wanted to quit the program. The problem was, as her father pointed out pragmatically, she didn't have a plan B.

Liz shared this story with me when I invited her to participate in our Refusing Limits interview series to celebrate International Women in Engineering Day. Despite her initial feelings that the electrical engineering program was too challenging and she could not see herself working in research and development, Liz would go on to graduate as one of six women in a class of 160 engineers. She has since become an inspiration to many engineers – especially women. 

On her way to the finish line, Liz saw many of her female peers come to a similar crossroads and drop out. That’s when she realized how important it is for women in engineering to have beacons. Liz explained that beacons are people in the industry who inspire you and give you a reason to stick with the engineering journey when things get tough. Once she found her own beacons, Liz wanted to help other women do the same, so they would be inspired to complete the engineering program.

When I spoke with Liz, I was eager to learn how she went from almost dropping out of engineering school to forging a fascinating career in the test and measurement industry - spanning twenty-seven years of sales, marketing, and leadership. She has worked in the US and internationally during her career, including a two-year assignment living and working in China. She was also recognized by the Society of Women Engineers with a Global Leadership Award and the North Bay Business Journal with a Women in Business Award. She now leads the quantum engineering team at Keysight.

 

Watch Liz break down how a quantum computer works and why it is an important market to microwave companies for the Microwave Journal.

 

Liz, how much of your ability to stick with the engineering program came down to sheer determination? And do you think women with grit are more likely to succeed as engineers?

The women in my engineering program were brilliant and had plenty of grit. So, I think it's more likely that they didn't have good enough reasons to keep going. The program is very demanding, and if you can't picture yourself coming out of it and entering a career that excites you, changing course makes a lot of sense. That's especially true at a university like Rutgers, where you can pursue degrees outside of engineering.

During the program, I found myself looking for inspiration. When I was introduced to a broader range of engineering careers, I became more excited about being an engineer. I wanted to inspire that same kind of excitement in my peers, so I got involved with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). As co-president of our local section, I introduced a weekly speaker series where people from different engineering disciplines and roles (sales, marketing, operations) would talk about their work. Those speakers became beacons who showed the women in our section that even if mechanical or electrical engineering wasn't for them, they might enjoy industrial, packaging, or environmental engineering. I'm proud to say that the program made a difference in retaining women in the overall engineering program.

We also started a program where girls in high school spent a weekend at the university getting a feel for studying engineering by working on some projects and meeting women studying in various engineering fields. When I received my leadership award at the SWE conference, I sought out the current president of the Rutgers SWE section. I was thrilled to hear from her that this weekend program is still going today - almost 30 years later.

In hindsight, do you think working through the most challenging parts of the engineering program helped prepare you for the real world?

I learned a lot about myself between the time I called my father - ready to quit - and graduation. Sticking with the program taught me how to navigate a hard situation, that I knew would last at least another two years until completion. Along the way, I realized that I don’t have to have all of the answers on day one to keep moving forward. Once I could break the unknown down into smaller, solvable problems, the challenge suddenly became exciting and ultimately rewarding. And I’m glad I learned that lesson early on because the most pivotal points in my career came down to taking on big challenges that I did not have a clear path to solving on day one.

 

"I’m glad I learned that lesson early on because the most pivotal points in my career came down to taking on big challenges that I did not have a clear path to solving on day one."

 

Can you describe some of those pivotal points in your career?

When I started my career as a sales representative for Hewlett Packard (HP), my customer was a big defense contractor. At that time, I was twenty-something years old and trying to sell to a bunch of guys who were radar, missile, and satellite engineers. The first time I walked into a meeting, they said, "you know nothing about radar, right?" They said, "sure; maybe you have an engineering degree. And maybe you understand circuits and electromagnetics or digital signal processing from your textbooks. But what do you really know about radar?  How can you possibly help me?" That was an intimidating situation. Luckily, I was learning at that time how to be comfortable with not having all the answers. So, I said, "You know what? I know absolutely nothing about radar, but I'd love to hear about it." And thankfully, people love to talk about what they are working on. And the more they talked, the more I listened to their challenges and learned what solutions we could bring to bear. Many of these customers became close friends, and here it is twenty years later, and I'm still in contact with them even though they are well into retirement.

Another significant challenge in my career was living and working in China. I had traveled to China frequently and managed people there and in 14 other countries. But living and working in China is far different than staying at the Marriott there for a few days. During my first three months, I struggled with learning the most effective way to lead the local team. But once I solicited some excellent mentors and did some deep reflecting, it turned into a tremendous experience. I learned more in my two years there than in other roles I had held for over five years.

Twenty-seven years later, I'm still doing work that stretches me as a leader. Because as I like to tell my teams - it's good to feel scared every few years. That’s how you know you are pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Before taking on my latest role, I had expressed interest to my management about getting involved with mergers and acquisitions. In late 2019, an opportunity came about where we planned to acquire a company in Boston and set up a research and development team there. My leaders were looking for a general manager to integrate the acquired company with Keysight. It was one of those opportunities that's equal parts thrilling and terrifying. On the one hand, I had an excellent background in many of the areas that touch quantum, including aerospace and defense, markets like China, business models for selling software and services, and providing complete test solutions. On the other hand, I was not a quantum physicist. Since Keysight is a results-oriented company, and I've delivered results consistently in multiple business units, the management team supported me to stretch myself into this new GM role. When they offered me the role, I took on the challenge enthusiastically and started to navigate this new territory.

And you’ve been in that role for over a year now. Would you make the same decision again?

It was a massive leap for me with a lot of unknowns. But I knew that I would be able to figure things out along the way. Part of the reason I was confident was because of the caliber of the team that I had the opportunity to work with and learn from. And we have since added to that team with some exceptional industry and university talent. Having the opportunity to lead the team that is enabling our customers to advance quantum computing has been one of the most exhilarating adventures of my career. And we’re just getting started!

 

"Having the opportunity to lead the team that is enabling our customers to advance quantum computing has been one of the most exhilarating adventures of my career."

 

Immediately after we founded our quantum research lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the world went into quarantine due to the pandemic. Like many people, we had to learn how to interview, hire, onboard, and manage a new team remotely. Hiring both quantum physicists and software engineers for research and development was entirely new to me, so we formed a group of managers with experience in this area to assist.

In parallel with this work, we also started the process to acquire another company, Quantum Benchmark. Quantum Benchmark was the first acquisition that I led from beginning to end, which was an even more complex challenge. It takes a lot of preparation to identify and promote an acquisition target to your CEO and board of directors. Once again, I called on a team of people with experience in this area to coach and guide us. And it worked out as Quantum Benchmark became part of Keysight in April.

You’ve talked a lot about the importance of taking on challenges that push you out of your comfort zone. How does that belief manifest in your leadership style?

For the first time in my management career, there are more people on my team with Ph.D.'s than not. These individuals are at the leading edge of quantum, and they are very comfortable pushing the boundaries of technology. But I did encourage our team to be intentional about cultivating a diversity of thought across the ecosystem as they hired new team members. 

Right now, the physics part of quantum is reasonably known. But the engineering part of actually building a computer is a big challenge. To progress this technology forward, you need very cross-disciplinary teams. You need physicists, software engineers, and FPGA [field programmable gate array] engineers. You also need to balance university experience with start-up experience and corporate experience to ensure that the solutions are innovative, scalable, and supportable.

And it's exciting to see this unique combination of talent working together to challenge what's possible. The most rewarding part about leading this team is seeing them engaging with customers and partners, being excited about their work, and having opportunities to stretch themselves.

And now that you’ve helped launch the Women in Quantum mentoring program, you’re empowering people inside and out of the company to grow. Can you give an update on how that’s going?

Sure. We introduced the Women in Quantum mentoring program earlier this year. The idea behind creating a network of women in quantum goes back to our conversation earlier about setting up beacons to illuminate paths forward when people are feeling stuck or just needing some inspiration. When I learned about the Women in Quantum organization led by Denise Ruffner, I saw an opportunity to leverage Keysight's internal mentoring platform to connect mentors and mentees across the industry. I then sought out support from our Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Leslie Camino-Markowitz, and she made it happen. We have had over 400 people sign up for the program to date. It is also exciting that it keeps coming up on my calls with customers who've told me how glad they are that Keysight is sponsoring this effort to help with the talent pipeline in the quantum ecosystem. 

 

"I'm always amazed when I'm speaking with mentees that sharing the simplest things can help somebody get unstuck and make them feel empowered to move forward."

 

The program is open to people of all gender identities who want to be a mentee or mentor. And it's not just mentoring on technical topics. A lot of people have called me out of the blue about career navigation. Or they have great ideas but can't get any buy-in, and they want coaching on how to improve their influencing skills. I'm always amazed when I'm speaking with mentees that sharing the simplest things can help somebody get unstuck and make them feel empowered to move forward. 

You’ve touched a lot of lives over the years. How do you feel when people call you inspirational?

I was surprised by how many people came up to me and said something along those lines after I received the Global Leadership Award during the Society of Women Engineers conference in Austin, TX. I have never intentionally set out to challenge the status quo or to inspire anyone. I like to challenge myself and try new things and somehow that inspires other women in the process.  When that happens—when I hear their success stories—it is special.