Computer science alumnus advancing business technology and breaking gender barriers
Note: This is the third in a three-part series of feature stories highlighting the achievements of the Wayne State University College of Engineering Hall of Fame class of 2016.
Kathy Kay, BSCS ’83, is passionate about leveraging technology to develop business strategies and deliver results. It’s why she is so well suited for her role as vice president of business technology at the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). She is also passionate about diversity and inclusion, particularly when it comes to bolstering an information technology workforce only 25 percent occupied by women.
When Kay made the move to San Francisco and joined PG&E a little over a year ago, she was attracted to its commitment to diversity. It was outwardly evident in the number of women holding leadership roles, including Chief Information Officer Karen Austin and Vice President of IT Operations Valerie Bell.
Kay also has three women on her leadership team of technology professionals focused on developing strategic solutions for gas and electric operations, corporate services solutions, and energy supply.
“I feel as though my best teams have been the most diverse,” said Kay, who will be inducted into the Wayne State University College of Engineering Hall of Fame on Nov. 3. “I like the unique viewpoints and the different dynamic a diverse team offers.”
She has been a voice for the underrepresented everywhere she has been during a 30-year career that has intersected the automotive, finance and energy industries.
Kay has led diversity programs and initiatives nearly every step of the way to try and combat “worrisome” gender trends in engineering. She was active with the Michigan Council of Women in Technology, and this summer gave a keynote address at the IEEE Women in Engineering conference. Kay also serves on the board of directors of the San Francisco YMCA, looking to infuse some new STEM youth outreach programs.
“It’s incredibly important to have role models for girls who are interested (in technology),” said Kay. “I spend a lot of time mentoring girls to get them interested. I think it’s part of my responsibility as a female in IT and engineering.”
Kay’s development as a role model was set in motion long ago as she grew up in northeast Detroit and attended Osborn High School. In her junior year, she went on a Focus: HOPE retreat with other hand-picked students, who were told that they were viewed as leaders among their peers, that their teachers and community believed in them, and that someday they would also need to give back to their community.
Earning a full merit scholarship to Wayne State, she set out to make good on the faith people had in her. Kay’s initial plan was to become a doctor. That changed after her first semester, when she discovered she loathed biology; however, it didn’t take long to make a new plan.
“I took a programming class because I liked math and science, but also people coming out of computer science were getting jobs that paid well,” said Kay. “I loved it immediately, and I have stayed in it my whole career.”
Kay recalls that the computer science curriculum at Wayne State was one of the most technical in the country, and it helped her get a jump on her career. She was connected to a paid internship opportunity her junior year at Burroughs Corporation, once a major business equipment manufacturer that produced adding machines in its infancy and grew to be a major player in computers.
She built a parts inventory system, which Burroughs wound up installing in its facilities across the country. Kay’s influence even at an intern level was remarkable, as she gained valuable experience building and deploying software and found a niche as a fixer and problem solver.
Following graduation, two decades at General Motors, and another three years at OnStar, Kay left the automotive space and moved into the banking profession as a technology officer, first at Comerica and then at SunTrust Bank in Atlanta. She attributes her versatility to a love for helping people and adapting her skills to new industries.
“One thing I’ve learned is that you have to make sure the technology you’re providing is aligned to what the company or users want,” said Kay. “You end up spending a lot of time with the people who are going to use the systems you’re developing, and you must make sure you understand their business and what they need so you can deploy something that is of value to them.
“When you do that, you learn the business,” she continued. “You can’t be a good technologist and not know the industry you’re trying to build technology for.”
Since joining PG&E, Kay quickly realized how much of the utility industry hinges on technology – everything from smart grids, to sensors, to storage. She echoes her company’s commitments to safety and to providing reliable and affordable energy to more than 15 million customers over a 70,000-square-mile territory.
Besides being aligned philosophically, Kay likes the fact that there are a few Michigan ties at PG&E, including Chief Executive Officer Anthony Earley — the former CEO of DTE Energy — and Austin, who was once CIO of Kmart.
“There’s this little Detroit community there, so it’s made it very easy to feel like there’s a little bit of home,” said Kay.
Kay is pleased with her accomplishments — including her upcoming Hall of Fame induction — but she notes her greatest achievement is having raised two children who have gone on to their own success.
She is also a proud alumna, having rekindled her school spirit when she attended an alumni event last year in San Francisco. Kay heard President Wilson speak about the university’s growth, and also had an opportunity to see it it firsthand when she visited WSU in September. She believes there is a sincerity to Wayne State’s approach to making sure its graduates go on to professional and personal success.
“I think Wayne State has a much more personal focus with its students, which is great,” said Kay. “Seeing where Wayne State is today, I’m really proud to be part of it.”
Kay and fellow inductees Olga Alavanou, BSEE ’88, and Jeff Yanssens, BSME ’83, will be enshrined in the Wayne State University College of Engineering Hall of Fame at the college’s annual awards dinner on Thursday, Nov. 3, at 6 p.m. at the Detroit Institute of Arts. To make a reservation, visit specialevents.wayne.edu/hof2016.
The Wayne State University College of Engineering Hall of Fame was founded in 1983 to recognize and honor distinguished alumni who, through their leadership, entrepreneurship and innovation, have made significant industrial, educational and societal contributions to the engineering and computer science professions. The Hall of Fame celebrates the rich history of the College of Engineering and provides exceptional standards by which Wayne State University engineering students can measure success.