Erica Lockheimer almost dropped out of college.
She was the first in her family to attend a university. “I had no idea how to do it,” says Erica. She started out majoring in accounting at West Valley College. “I loved math, and I didn’t have any direction,” she explains. But accounting was a dead end. Instead, Erica found her career, while wandering the halls of San Jose State University. She saw a display advertising the Society of Women Engineers and, she reports, was inspired to study engineering. She laughs. “Really, that’s how I chose my major.” Erica first majored in civil engineering—another dead end—before changing her major to computer engineering.
And then it got hard. Erica was working thirty hours a week to pay for her schooling—this, on top of her increasingly challenging coursework. “I almost gave up,” says Erica. “You’re in a room. You feel like there’s no one like you. There are these dudes. They’ve been coding since they were seven or ten. It was all new to me.” Erica’s grades plummeted. She considered dropping out.
Erica’s father, who passed away last year, insisted that she persist. “He was my big guy, my mentor guy,” Erica says. He was—like Erica—mathematically inclined, but he hadn’t gone to college; his parents’ divorce had left him with the responsibility of caring for his mother, and, according to Erica, he “needed to figure out how to get ahead in life.” So, he worked at a meat company. “He ended up taking over the business at nineteen,” Erica says. “So, that was his path.” But, decades later, he insisted that his three daughters go to college and “be good at math” (he himself took a few electronics courses at San Jose City College). To Erica’s agonies over her computer engineering classes, he said, “Just keep on going.”
And, then, some of the “dudes” in Erica’s classes offered to help her. She joined a study group. “We would stay up until one, two, in the morning, just white-boarding solutions, and making sure we passed our classes,” Erica recalls. She didn’t drop out. She graduated from San Jose State with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering.
Erica is voluble and quick to laugh. “I’ve always been crazy social,” she says. If it didn’t contradict our most cherished stereotypes about engineers, that Erica is a former cheerleader would not be surprising. However, until she got into the tech industry—first, working for Good Technology, now, for LinkedIn—Erica never realized how social tech could be, both because of the relationships that she formed with her colleagues (“Every time I left a job, I cried because I loved the people!”) and because of the ways in which the work she did—at Good Technology, on communication devices; at LinkedIn, in social media—facilitated social interaction.
Erica’s somewhat circuitous path to tech and her reliance on the support of loved ones likely accounts for the emphasis she places on mentoring and supporting other women engineers. “Things are there. They are real,” she says. “You have to be more persistent and find the right people.” Erica now accords a great deal of her time to helping others find “the right people”—twenty percent of her time at LinkedIn is devoted to its Women in Tech initiative. And her openness about her professional trials and triumphs is part of it. “It helps to remove the assumption that people are just better than you and have it all figured out,” Erica explains. “Rather, they are just like [you] and have similar thoughts and struggles.”