Our Best Job Ever series focuses on women who do extraordinary things in their fields, as well as in their free time. This week, as we near Women’s Equality Day, we’re inspired to celebrate a fellow female who is killing it at conquering traditionally male-dominated arenas both at work and at play.
Erica is wearing: Keep a Woven Mind Jacket, Renaissance Fair Rally Top, Spokane of Which Pants, Inlay of the Land Bootie, Prague Rock Bracelet, Woven Moments Bracelet, Tex Included Bag. All photos (unless otherwise noted) by Kristin Cofer. Hair and makeup by Fox & Doll.
Erica Muxlow knows how things work. She knows wheels and wires, motors and modems. A computer engineer by trade and a motorcycle and car racer in her spare time, she uses her skills, speed, and savviness from office to off-road. On weekdays, she works as a senior engineer for Rally Health, investigating fraud and strengthening their online security systems. But on weekends, she takes her talents to the track and terrain, racing motorcycles, dirt bikes, and Lemons cars. Being a woman in two very different male-dominated arenas has never slowed her down. We sat down with her to find out where her drive comes from.
Let’s talk work first. Your current job title is Senior Infosec (“information security”) Fraud Engineer. How did you find yourself in that particular focus area?
Early in my career, I started off as a programmer, then moved into systems engineering. After a while, I felt like I needed a new perspective on my work, and cyber security was starting to gain more attention in technical publications, and all that was a whole new world for me. It got me interested in computer forensics. I took a training course, got certified, and set up a lab at home to learn and practice computer forensic techniques. It was enough to get me a job doing credit card fraud investigations. It’s super interesting because you’re learning about how fraud happens, the signs and symptoms, and how to prevent it.
You’re kind of like a private eye! How did you obtain these skills?
Information security is a broad field that requires both depth and breadth of knowledge, and you only get that through sincere curiosity and diving into projects as deep as you can. So, even though you’re often leveraging software to help you do analytics, it’s not just, “Can I get this software to run?” It’s knowing how to interpret what it’s (often cryptically) telling you. And when you really understand how something works, that’s where you have the ability to take it further, and dig even deeper. This is where you can figure out if the bad guys snuck in secret code (which we call “malware”) and hopefully reverse engineer it to figure out exactly what they did. It can feel very cloak-and-dagger!
Sounds like you have to study a lot.
I do study a lot! The more I learn, the more prepared I am to do my job well and help other people.
In technology, women are still significantly outnumbered by men, though the environment is evolving. Have you ever experienced gender bias in the workplace?
Maybe I’ve been lucky, but gender bias has not been a significant focal point in my career. I’ve been focused on always being top of the class in my technical training, and being a strong contributor in my work teams. Also, I have strong mentors who help me perform my best by focusing on projects that will make a strong impact. It’s harder for bias to get in the way when you can confidently demonstrate your skills.
What about within the culture of car or bike racing?
When I decided to race dirt bikes, my friends were concerned that men would be overly aggressive in order to intimidate me on the track. My experience has actually been the exact opposite. In my last motocross race, the guy next to me at the starting gate gave me a thumbs up and said, “Have a good race!” If there are any men at the race who have a bad attitude about me being there, they don’t have my attention.
In car racing, I’ve had people come up to the car and say things like “Oh, and a girl’s doing it!” And that’s upsetting for everyone, because I don’t want to be known just for that. I’m part of a team, and I am definitely not just included as the token female. Sometimes people want to impose that on us, as “well this is good because you’re a woman, and you should be a role model for others.” All of us in life should be role models for others.
You got interested in car racing after modifying your own Mini Cooper to be able to haul your bikes to and from the track. What was it like getting started?
Once I knew I wanted to work on and drive race cars, I was trying to find a way, and it was challenging because a lot of people would look at me and say, “Well, we want someone who can go fast.” Or, “ We need a driver who’s also a mechanic.” Or, “We need somebody with some experience.” And I’d say, “I don’t know that today, but if you give me time…” But they were not willing to give me a chance. But in the meantime, I got professional driving training. I could get around the track pretty good. That’s why it was disheartening to when a few teams that had driver openings wanted to charge me what seemed like a lot just to join, so I passed on that.
Around that time my friend joined a Lemons race team and I asked, “Can I just watch what you guys do? I won’t say anything. I’ll stay out of the way.” So I watched and tried to anticipate what tools they’d need, so that I’d be able to hand them to them in advance. I learned to weld a bit, and two days afterward they happened to need the roll cage repaired in a place where none of the guys could fit. That weld is still there today on that race car.
After a few races, they asked me to run their pit stops during races. That helped me get to know others in the racing series, and I drove a few different Lemons cars. Sometimes, I’d be asked by some racing friends to hop in their car for a short session just to set a pace time to challenge the other drivers of that car! Showing them what the car was capable of! Eventually, the team I started helping out mechanically and in the pits modified the car’s seat mount so that it could accommodate me, since it had been set up only for drivers 5’ 10” and taller. I still drive with them, now!
Photo by Murilee Martin.
Let’s talk about confidence. How do you channel it, whether you’re riding, racing, or working?
Oftentimes, it’s last-minute advice from my coach that provides a boost: “Just go. You know how to do this.” And that gives me enough confidence that I can just put my helmet on and go. But if it’s just me in my own head, I think about the details of how it feels to ride confidently: balanced, smooth, and in the right body position. I smile really big, thinking about clearing the double jump — and then I go!
I used to worry about messing up. Sometimes, at work events I’d find myself thinking “What if I’m presenting in front of that room, but they ask me something I just don’t know? Or worse, what if I answer wrong? They’re going to think I’m an idiot.” You can get so wrapped up in that. It wastes a lot of energy.
People say you have to plan in advance, but what that implies to me is that once I screw up, I’m screwed. That’s not true. It’s good-intentioned advice and it’s true to a certain extent, but it’s just a guideline. The fact is that you will encounter plenty of new challenges in work, sport, and life that you did not anticipate and you will still need to perform your best in those situations.
Planning in advance will make it easier to hit your marks and choose an efficient path. But, if you screw up, deal with the setback and get back on track. And next time, you’ll deal with the setback more efficiently and gracefully, and soon enough that scenario won’t even be a setback for you anymore. Like they say, every mistake is a learning experience.
On a motorcycle, I know the most important thing I need to do is maintain my balance. I know that when I land, I can at least keep myself sorted out enough to not crash. So if I feel things going a little bit wrong, I just go for balance, balance, balance. When you’re in a meeting, you need to maintain your balance, too. When somebody’s talking about a topic you’re not completely familiar with, be confident with what you know. You have base knowledge, you can stay focused and take mental notes. Then you go back and study and draw connections from what you know to the things you’re learning, and you’re ready for everything. That’s what I want. I want to be ready for anything.
Racing photos provided by Erica, by Dito Milian.
So, mess-ups are inevitable, but not the end of the world.
The primary difference between a beginner and professional is that a professional is so much better at fundamentals. You need to be able to strategize and be ready a few corners before. What happens if you mess up in that corner? You have to know that even if you totally botch it, you can still do this. If I’m racing and I blow the previous five corners, who cares? I just want to make the next jump. It’s just about letting go of all those failures and mistakes. When things go wrong, you don’t just stop and call it a day. I just tell myself I’ll do better next lap. And I do, because I learned from those mistakes.
And you need to be prepared for the unexpected.
If you’re riding a motorcycle on the street and a car pulls out, a coyote runs in front of you, someone spills a bucket of paint, anything… Who are you going to be in that moment? Who did you prepare to be for that moment right there? On a motocross track, you can’t stop and ask somebody, “How do I get over this jump?” You’re already in the air! Too late. You better figure out how to land!
Is it all about trusting what you know?
You can get comfortable, then go faster, then get comfortable, then go faster. But in motocross and racing, it’s go faster, then get comfortable. That’s something that I’ve learned and integrated into my own style. It applies back to life, too. You know what? Go a little further than you think you should.
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