How Rebel Heart, Erin Bournival, Became a Top Engineer

Erin Bournival, Distinguished Engineer, Office of the Corporate CTO at Dell Technologies, discusses persistence, passion, and following her heart.

By Kelly Kearsley

When Erin Bournival makes a call on her ham radio, she’s never sure whom she’ll reach. But her goal is always the same: to connect with another ham operator far away from her Boston, Massachusetts, home. So far, she’s communicated with someone as distant Perth, Australia, and as remote as Antarctica—and she’s still trying to reach Japan.

“It’s a challenge to make the furthest contacts,” Erin says. “It’s a personal goal for many ham radio operators because it relies on a lot of persistence, physics, and a dab of luck.”

Erin is no stranger to persistence. She’s now a distinguished engineer in the Office of the Corporate CTO, where she works with international teams to develop new standards. Her accomplished career is a testament to following her curiosity and passion, to push herself to try new things—even when they’re out of her comfort zone.

Early Sparks

Erin had an early introduction to computers and engineering concepts. Her father was a master electrician, and from a very young age, she would help him with electrical projects. “I have a fair working background in electronics and electrical work,” she says. “I still enjoy breaking out my soldering iron and assembling a board when I have time”.

That her neighbor in New Hampshire was a computer salesman was a happy coincidence. He worked for Apple and had one of their first models of home computers. He let Erin use it occasionally, and by the age of 11, she had saved all her money for a computer to call her own.

Looking back, Erin isn’t entirely certain what drew her to computers. As an introverted kid, she liked thinking and expressing herself in ways the computer could understand. Broader use of computers was still emerging at that point. “Learning to write code was one of the first things I did with my machine, and I really enjoyed it” she says.

Her self-taught skills led her to her first engineering job in the pre-press industry. She helped build some of the first commercial systems that connected page design software running on Macintosh computers to newspaper and magazine printing presses, obviating the need for manual page assembly. “In our spare time, we enjoyed creating huge, gorgeous, high-resolution posters,” Erin says. “Prepress was a great entry point into the field of technology.”

Sending Out Signals

Erin broke into the emerging field of engineering before she finished college. “To embark upon your chosen career, with or without a degree, requires audacity and grit. You mustn’t be afraid to show people that you have the qualities they’re looking for,” Erin says.

“As a society, we’re sometimes too hung up on a piece of paper to show skill and capability.”

While Erin’s diligence and tenacity paid off, she still advocates the importance of building a collaborative network. To Erin, that means connecting with people who can help you, and looking for ways to help others. “Think about the world we live in. Everyone out there is facing some sort of challenge, and you will always find opportunities to help others. If I could send out a clarion call to the next generation, it’s to be there for one another, regardless of sex, gender, creed, or color,” she says.

As her career began to take off, she leaned heavily on a tight-knit group of engineers, mostly men. They all happened to be hockey players, and their first policy was brutal honesty. The group, which followed each other through three or four software companies, offered Erin blunt personal and professional feedback, and significantly helped her grow. She acclimated to their candor and appreciated it. “We all had each other’s backs,” she says. “I am fortunate to be part of that group.”

Erin landed at Dell Technologies in 2003. While software engineering and its many evolutions continued to capture her attention, she began to thrive once she got the chance to lead. Though she hadn’t initially pictured herself in leadership roles, her supporters in the company saw her potential. “It can be difficult to define your own path when many options exist. I’ve benefitted from leveraging my network for critical insights—and opening my eyes to new possibilities.”

Erin adds, “Certain experiences in my life have trained me to be mindful of every decision that I make. Though, I don’t think it’s ever too late to pursue what makes you happy. It starts with being truly cognizant of who you are, understanding what makes you tick, and then doggedly pursuing a role or identity that fills you with pride and a sense of accomplishment.”

“I’ve found that there are more and better opportunities for you when you find people that are interested in your success and who will actively support you as you work to achieve it. They do exist, you just need to seek them out.”

The Right POV

Erin’s technical expertise is the foundation of her current job. But it’s her ability to wrangle the perspectives, experiences, and occasional arguments of other brilliant engineers from different companies and across different countries that have contributed to her success. “You have to approach your role with the right point of view,” she says. “You’re one part of a team that is working together to build something noteworthy. We rarely work on projects solo.”

Becoming comfortable in a leadership role took time, and it wasn’t without some experiences that made Erin question herself. She recalls how she initially accepted a position working in low-level protocol standards, an area where she had less experience. It wasn’t the best fit, but it led her to a different role involving systems architecture standards. There, her previous work in systems engineering turned out to be quite helpful. “The experience taught me that something that may look like a failure at first, can actually be a valuable learning opportunity,” she says. “Stick with it and adapt—and try again. You may succeed the next time.”

Women remain rare in the world of engineering—and they’re rarer still at the heights of which Erin works. To that end, there’s no doubt that she’s a rebel, though Erin notes that she doesn’t identify with the stereotypical rebel who is always fighting against the grain.

Erin explains, “I believe strength doesn’t mean being bull-headed. There is great wisdom and fortitude in knowing when to adapt and compromise. Of course, we should always be true to our principles, but in all else, there is often scope for flexibility.

Erin’s malleability hasn’t diluted her drive or efficacy. She’s been a persistent force in pursuing her passions, from pushing herself to excel at one of the world’s most renowned technology companies to sending out radio signals thousands of miles away in the hope of finding a connection.

“Life presents numerous challenges,” she says.

“To be a rebel, follow your heart and believe in yourself, even if the world has a different narrative. They’ll catch up in time.”

Erin Bournival is Dell Technologies Distinguished Engineer, a distinction given to the most accomplished technology leaders in the company.

This article is part of the “Rebel Women” series that features female trailblazers in technology as they share the stories of their careers and advice for women interested in STEM.

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