Engineering speed: A Q&A with Zipp engineer Tess Denning

by Jen Agen


 

Our Movers and Shakers series features Q&As with women trail blazers in the sport and industry of cycling. These are women who often go unnoticed but make the world of (women’s) cycling go round.

The women we write about in this series include team owners, key industry players, race organisers, cycling advocates, journalists, inventors, designers, business owners and the professional athletes that often play a huge role in advancing their sport. Is there someone you want to hear form? We happily accept your nominations for Movers and Shakers in the comment sections of these articles.

 


When you land on something good, you can really turn it into success by sharing it with others.

– Tess Denning, Design Engineering Manager with Zipp

 

 

The reason we run feature series is to not only recognize female trail blazers in the sport and industry of cycling, but to show other women the variety of career opportunities our industry offers in the hopes it may inspire more women to enter our industry.

We’re all well aware that there is a serious gender gap, and from what I have seen, I do believe that our industry is raising its awareness and standards to address this gap.

Take Camber Outdoors’s Pledge for instance. The pledge calls on CEOs to “commit to promote the participation of and leadership opportunities for women at my company,” and to make  gender-diversity part is a company’s strategic plan and visible priority.

To date, over 60 companies have committed to attracting, retaining, and advancing women in their workplaces including bike industry companies like SRAM, ASI, Bell, CamelBak, Giant, Giro, IMBA, Osprey, PeopleForBikes, QBP, Specialized, Thule, W.L. Gore and Yakima.

And while seeing more women on the salesfloor, in the bike shop and in leadership has been most welcoming, I decided to look behind the scenes and see what’s happening in engineering.

According to the US Department of Commerce, less than a quarter of all Science, Technology, Engineering and Math jobs in the US are held by women. While I don’t know the exact statistics, I’d venture a guess that the bicycle industry is no better, if not, worse when it comes to a gender gap among its engineers.

But diversity is crucial in the process of innovation, and research shows that including more women in decision making positions drives inspired design and faster, more proactive innovation. Luckily, it wasn’t hard for me to find a female innovator as I enjoyed a chance to catch up and talk with Tess Denning, a design engineering manager with carbon wheel manufacturer Zipp.

Since obtaining her Chemical Engineering degree from Purdue University in 1998, Denning has enjoyed a varied and successful career in the engineering field ranging from the oil industry to sealing technology to cycling.

What drew her to engineering is simple: a love for learning and for solving puzzles.

“I think a lot of engineers inherently love learning whatever has been eluding them or solving a problem or to just keep finding the next best way of doing something,” Denning told CyclingTips. “An unsolved problem is something that nags at me. I love it when I can start figuring it out.”

Meet Tess Denning:

Tess Denning2

Jen Agen for Ella CyclingTips: As a Design Engineering Manager, what is a typical day for you?

Tess Denning: Our work focuses on designing carbon rims and the overall wheel system.  We design aluminum rims as well, but there is a much higher number of new carbon wheels per year. My day-to-day varies a lot. I provide technical oversight for our design projects, figure out how and when we’re going to staff projects to develop new products or improve existing ones, and work with other departments to figure out how to change how we do things in order to interact most effectively.  I also develop tools and methods to help us do our work more efficiently.  I usually have two or three small projects running on the side to investigate some aspect of our designs or to fix problems that aren’t worth the cost of distracting any of my team members from their larger projects.

Ella: What drew you to ZIPP?

Denning: I’ve been with SRAM for 8 years and Zipp the two years prior to that. I like environments where you have the opportunity to make decisions on a lot of different fronts and can see the impact of what you’re doing.  We collaborate heavily with manufacturing and testing, so you can get involved in all of those areas and see things from cradle to grave.  I also really enjoy working with composites, and the really nice side benefit is that the products are meaningful to me, and our customers.

Ella: Had you always wanted to be a design engineer?

Denning: No.  I got my degree in chemical engineering, but I’ve found that I really enjoy this work.

Ella: What did you want to be growing up?

Denning: I only knew that I wanted to do something involving science.  In high school I learned more about engineering and how it enables you to apply math and science and implement ideas, which I love.  So that’s why I chose the engineering route.  It gives you the flexibility to do a lot of different things too, and that was really appealing as well.

Ella: After you graduated from high school, what was college like for you? Where did you study?

Denning: Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.  It definitely feels like an engineering and science school.  College was a lot of long nights studying but with some fun things on the side to blow off steam.

Ella: What is the biggest overall lesson you’ve learned as a design engineer:

Denning: My toughest challenge has been learning how to switch from being a good individual contributor to a good manager.  They are very different.

Ella: Has learning from a mistake, ever led you to success in this line of work?

Denning: It happens frequently.  There are a lot of areas where we have freedom to figure out how to accomplish things.  You try a certain way and adjust when you fail.  When you land on something good, you can really turn it into success by sharing it with others.

Ella: What motivates you to design and or think outside of box?

Denning: Looking at how other industries or people do things is something that helps me re-evaluate my initial ideas on how to tackle something.

Ella: How do you measure success as a design engineer?

Denning: Have I made things better and am I at least giving it all I can.

Ella: What’s something you’re most proud of in your line of work as a design engineer for Zipp?

Denning: Probably learning how to shift gears in how I approach the manager role.  It’s been a really tough process and completely different than taking on a big technical problem/project.  It’s made me dig inside more.   It’s a process that I don’t think will ever stop.  I don’t think it should.

Ella: What was the greatest piece of advice you were given when you first started out as a design engineer?

Denning: My first manager was dealing with a difficult peer, and after a tough day dealing with that, he told me something along the lines of never let one person influence your decision to stay with a project or company because you will find that person, just with another face, wherever you go.  Engineering-wise, it wasn’t any single piece of advice but rather all the little things that rubbed off from the engineers ahead of me in experience and/or position.

Ella: Do you have a favorite wheel right now?

Denning: I don’t have a disc brake frame, but I really like our 303 Firecrest Carbon Clincher Tubeless Disc Brake.  Just because I know how much work it took by the team, and I’m proud of their accomplishment.  Plus, it’s a really great wheel set.

For my personal bike, I use our 404 Firecrest Carbon Clincher.

Ella: Tell us the story of the 454 NSW Carbon Clincher; in the very beginning what were you after, and how long in the making was this?

Denning: Our Advanced Development team came up with the idea.  That group develops the geometry of the wheel that determines the drag and side forces on it.  They are always looking to improve those two aspects.  They were inspired by what was going on in some other fields and then started running from there.  Down the path, they reached a hurdle and looked outward again for answers.  That’s when they found that nature had already found solutions to those same problems, and after some studying they started running again.  From the time they first started chasing the idea to production was about four years.  Once the geometry is set, there is a ton of work that goes into making it structurally sound, beautiful, and able to be produced in volume, and many new people jump in at that point.

Ella: Are there any past engineers you have admired and why?
Denning: I don’t get into the famous engineers!  I am however inspired by ones I meet or work with! I really admire the ones that are fantastic engineers but do it with humility and respect.

Ella: Any woman (or women), past or present, who you admire?

Denning: I have a cousin who is ten years older than me.  She was successful in her career and very hard working and driven.  She was a great role model for me, and I loved the fact that she was athletic and adventurous.

My mom is a very sharp and disciplined person.  She regretted not following her dream to get a college degree, and she influenced me a ton to get a good education and use it.

 Ella: Have bikes always been part of your life? Or did you pick it up at a certain time in your life?

Denning: I biked quite a bit to pass the time in the summers starting around age 10.  It gave me freedom to start exploring on my own.  I started biking again in my late 20s for fitness, fun, and adventure, and that increased a lot after joining Zipp – as you can imagine!

Ella: What’s the first thing you do every morning to start your day on the right foot?

Denning: Taking a couple seconds to think about the people I’m thankful for or things that give me energy or hope.

Ella: What’s your favorite thing to come home to after a long day of work?

Denning: The honest answer is my beloved cat welcoming me at the door.  Followed closely by a substantial dinner.  A good bourbon would be a much cooler answer, but that would be a lie!

Ella: What does the world need more of? Less of?
Denning: At the given moment, I’ll say willingness to help tackle problems rather than criticize from the sidelines.

 

Who would you like to learn about next? Let us know in the comments below!

About the author: Jen Agan is a Chicago native and a long-time member of the cycling industry, most recently as an events coordinator. Her true passion is story telling, and she’s always in search of roads to ride, communities to be discovered and people to meet.

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