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Family Ties

Today, millions of girls will tag along to mommy’s or daddy’s office for a 9-to-5 introduction to cubicles and caffeine addiction. But not at Texas Instruments. Find out why every day is Take Our Daughters to Work Day for TI’s Internet Audio Group.

As gaggles of giggling teens invade America’s corporate corridors today, the cafeterias and conference rooms at Texas Instruments will remain silent and child-free — because TI celebrates Take Our Daughters to Work Day not on April 26, with the rest of the country, but after the school year ends in June.

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So why, then, is Allison Frantz at work today with her daddy, Gene Frantz?

For one thing, she’s got a lot of work to do. As a systems engineer in TI’s Internet Audio Group, Allison will spend the day writing code for MP3 players. For another, her father, who founded the same division and who holds a senior position in it, would expect her to be there — not just today, but every day, just like the rest of the team. Plus, if Allison weren’t at work, she and her dad would miss their regular afternoon coffee break, a ritual both Frantzes have come to relish.

“I’m proud to tell you that I work with my daughter every day,” says Gene, 52, the paternal half of the only father-daughter engineering duo at the giant, international technology company.

The Frantz techies are a chatty pair, with a relationship so warm that their near constant proximity is viewed as a plus by both of them. In addition to working in the same division (with Allison a few ranks further down the org chart than Dad), they work down the hall from each other: He’s in a big-boss type office, and she’s in a cubicle farm. (Likewise, he scored the better parking space.)

Perks aside, title doesn’t mean much to either Frantz. It’s all about the work. Gene is a senior fellow at TI, where he’s spent his entire 27-year career. He divides his time between the company’s Imaging and Audio Groups, and is responsible for generating new business for both.

Allison, 24, joined the Internet Audio Group five months ago, after graduating from Texas A&M with a master’s degree in electrical engineering. In separate interviews, Fast Company caught up with the father-daughter act to get their take on work and working — a mere half dozen cubicles away from each other.

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Why do we need a Take Our Daughters to Work Day? In other words, why aren’t there more women engineers in general?

Gene: As a male-dominated industry, engineering is still doing things that make women and minorities uncomfortable. The profession is going to have to learn how to get over that if it wants to continue to recruit and retain top talent. As a white male, I’ve spent the last 20 years being sensitized to the fact that people like me are prejudiced. But in many cases, people are still ignorant. And it’s the things we don’t know that are really scary.

My biggest fear is that I’ll unwittingly offend someone and she won’t call me on it. Maybe she won’t speak up because she figures that she can’t change the ways things are, or she won’t feel comfortable bringing it up, or she won’t even know why a particular comment made her uncomfortable in the first place.

Allison is really good at telling me what’s what. It’s the old, “How well do you have to know someone before you can tell him that he has toilet paper on his shoe?” There’s been huge progress in workplace communication between men and women since I started in this field, but we still have a long way to go.

Allison: I definitely think that there aren’t enough women engineers, but I’m not sure why. Many women are just scared to enter the field. They think that they can’t hack it.

I’ve worked with junior-high-school girls to get them interested in math and science. I’m also in a women’s initiative group at TI. Our goal is simple: to get more women into the company. We’re sending more female employees on recruiting events, and we’re improving our female mentoring programs.

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I’m fortunate that I’ve had such a strong mentoring network. First, my father has been a big supporter. I don’t know if I would have pursued the same career if it weren’t for him. Four years ago, when I started my first internship at the company, he steered me to women who he thought would be good mentors for me. They encouraged me to get my master’s. Over the years, I’ve consulted with them about the work environment in general, asking them questions like, What’s it like to work with a whole bunch of men? I’ve never felt awkward or belittled at TI, but I do feel like I have to work harder to prove that a woman can handle the work, especially because some people think that I only got the job because of my father. But my master’s degree gives me credibility. People think, “Okay, don’t mess with her. She knows what she’s talking about.” It shuts them up pretty quickly.

In the Internet age, there’s a notion that the younger generation of workers is far more tech-savvy than their more senior colleagues. Is that the case with you two?

Allison: As far as computers and the Internet go, I’m more savvy. My dad will probably tell you that he’s better, but when it comes down to it, I’m the one who always fixes the computer if there’s something wrong with it — at work and at home. He’ll tinker with it and then break it even more. (laughing) Then I have to come along and play with it. My mother? (laughing again) She is not tech-savvy. She is particularly skilled, however, at changing the conversation topic whenever Dad and I talk about engineering stuff.

In all fairness, I must admit that Dad always took things apart when he was growing up. I never did that. As I learned more about electrical engineering and various theories at school, I became more interested in taking things apart. Dad also has one more degree than I do — an MBA — but that will change soon. In the end, I want to be Dad’s boss. (laughing) That’s what I told the CEO the first time I met him. The CEO said that I’m probably the only one who can control Dad.

Gene: What did she say? Well, she’s wrong. I’m more tech savvy! Seriously, we try not to compete or think about things in those terms. That’s not the way I fathered my daughters, even though I’m a natural competitor, and I can’t stand to lose. It has been a problem at times. I remember many mistakes that I made raising my children, because I didn’t let them win simple games. My ego got in the way.

Until the dotcom bust, people’s biggest fault was failing to maximize their potential. What’s your take on failure?

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Gene: I’ll put this in sporting terms: You’re never going to hit a baseball unless you swing the bat. Even very good baseball players only hit the ball one out of three times. But good hitters don’t refuse to swing because they might fail. Likewise, I’m not afraid to go after something because of the possibility of failure. I know that I don’t need to be 100% right. When it comes to creating new businesses, the assumed success rate is 1 in 10. I go after things that haven’t been done before, and anytime you push new boundaries, there’s a very real chance of failure. It’s exciting.

Allison: Failure doesn’t terrify me. It can’t — if I want to make it in the engineering field. In school, I would spent a couple of weeks on a project, have to scrap it, and start over. You quickly learn from your mistakes. The same thing has happened at work. I spent two weeks on a project and then realized that I had to kill it. It took me two days to get back on track. I felt like an idiot, but everything was fine. I am hard on myself, but I don’t see the point of internalizing failure. That’s something I definitely learned in college. I screwed up a lot.

How do you relate to authority in general? Ever gang up on your boss?

Gene: I’m not real good with authority. I cut every corner. I break every rule. But I don’t do it secretly; people know what I’m up to. In that sense, I respectfully disobey authority. I’m a loyal employee whose job is to push boundaries — some of them corporate rules. In the past, I’ve gone to my supervisor and told him that I’m violating the rules, why I’m doing it, and how I’m doing it. I don’t create situations that will embarrass my supervisor. And all the rules that I break are ethical.

Even during my early years at the company, I always took more authority than I had, because I realized very quickly that it doesn’t take much to be an authority. You just have to say you are. I was at TI for about four years when my supervisor told me to stop using humor in meetings because it was damaging my reputation. For two weeks, I diligently obeyed him. Then I ignored him. I figured that if people couldn’t handle a little humor, then they could fire me. I chose not to change when change didn’t need to happen. I respect authority; I just don’t necessarily follow it. And that’s true for everything I do. You can’t break through the state of the art with a set of rules set up for the present state.

Allison: I’m young enough in the company to feel like I have to respect authority. I have to build credibility before I can “respectfully disobey” authority. So I can’t really act on my father’s motto: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.” I try to use it on him. It works, but only to a point.