Engineering with Imagination

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Kathy de Paolo, vice president of engineering at Disney’s Parks, Experiences, and Consumer Products segment, is a technologist who started her career in aerospace engineering, fueled by a passion for aviation and problem solving. She developed an expertise in embedded software and wireless communications engineering, which she applied while directing teams at a Fortune 500 company specialized in systems and software developed for the mobile platform space. Kathy holds a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace and Ocean Engineering from Virginia Tech University. In her current role, she oversees all machine learning and artificial intelligence efforts to deliver innovative guest experiences. Kathy was a keynote speaker and panelist at E-Fest West 2018 held in Pomona, California.

Q: Who influenced you to pursue a career in engineering?
K.P: I am grateful to my excellent high school math and science teachers, who fostered my interest in engineering. Both of my grandfathers were also engineers, so my parents were very supportive when I decided I wanted to pursue engineering as a career.

Q: You started out as an aeronautics engineer and then led teams at Qualcomm in delivering systems and software. Why did you go from there to Disney?
K.P: At the time, the consumer products segment at Disney was focused on developing connected toy experiences, which was a really interesting and entertaining application of the wireless systems engineering I’d been doing for years at Qualcomm. So I jumped at the opportunity to work on those innovative projects, and was extremely excited to take on a role at Disney where I could do some really creative work.

Q: When you think about technology and your team’s mission, what are your goals?
K.P: My overriding goal is to use technology to bring the magic of Disney to our guests in new and delightful ways. In pursuing this goal, it is also very important that we create and foster an internal culture of innovation and enthusiasm around technology that enables our engineers and creative team members to do their best work.

Q. What is your opinion on the intersection of engineering and entertainment? What advice would you give to mechanical engineers interested in careers in entertainment engineering?
K.P: Rather than doing tech for tech’s sake, engineering in entertainment has a very focused purpose. Everything is guided by a creative vision. My advice to engineers who are interested in this type of work is to be willing to work closely with people who think differently from you. You need to be able to communicate about tech in accessible ways, help other people see what’s possible, and work hard to understand and realize your team members’ creative vision.

Q. The demands of the engineering workforce are changing with new technologies such as IoT, AI, wearables, and more. How can students better prepare for the future workforce?
K.P: Be curious. Never stop learning. Focus on the fundamentals, not just the specifics of a particular tool set or programming language. Try to understand how and why things work the way they do, and you will always be able to apply your skills to the next big thing.

Q. Do you believe there is a gender gap in STEM? What will it take for women and girls to have a greater role in STEM?
K.P: My major in college was about 10 percent female, and I definitely know what it means to be one of the few females on a team. While the gender gap is not a simple problem to solve, I think we can start by engaging girls in STEM from a very young age. We also need to build inclusive programs throughout the education process—and then as companies, we need to recruit and build a culture that nurtures and retains top female talent. I am proud to work at Disney, where many of my fellow tech leaders and team members are women, and the environment is incredibly inclusive.

Chitra Sethi is managing editor at Mechanical Engineering magazine.

Reprinted from Mechanical Engineering magazine.