The Pipeline: The Snapchat Spectacles Engineer Who Embraces Failure

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Andrea Ashwood is used to receiving — and usually passing on — messages from recruiters seeking mechanical engineers on LinkedIn. It is, after all, an in-demand job, especially within the tech industry, that's expected to grow significantly in coming years. But when she got a note from a recruiter at Snap, Snapchat’s parent company, she felt more confused and intrigued than dismissive.
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“I didn’t know anything about Snapchat except that it was what the kids were using, and by the kids I mean all of my little cousins,” she says. “It was more of a curiosity that brought me down to do the interview because I couldn’t figure out why on earth they would want to talk to me.”
Now, Ashwood, 36, attributes her inability to guess the purpose of her interview to bad Googling. Had she searched more vigorously, she might have quickly figured out that Snap was looking for engineers to help the company build its first rumored piece of camera-embedded hardware, Spectacles.
Ashwood has a skill that many companies in and out of tech industry find valuable: She can identify and fix problems, and she isn’t afraid to fail as she strives to do so. For her, failure is just part of the process of gaining more knowledge in the path to making something work. This is thinking she has applied to the products she has worked on, including Spectacles, as well as her own career trajectory, which has been anything but smooth and linear.
Although Ashwood has always been interested in science, she did not picture herself ending up in tech or even engineering. From first to twelfth grade, the Milwaukee native was part of Chapter 220, a program the state started in the 1970s to better integrate public schools. Kids, primarily black kids, were bussed from the inner-city to attend schools, which had a largely white population, in the suburbs. During Ashwood’s junior year of high school, a guidance counselor applied for an engineering summer program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on her behalf. Her mom told her she needed to attend or get a job. Choosing camp was an easy decision, Ashwood says.
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In Ashwood’s mind, the program had a focus on diversification that echoes some of the goals of Chapter 220: “Basically [the University of Wisconsin-Madison] was trying to do what a lot of people are doing right now, which is increase the number of women and minorities in STEM fields,” she says.
There was a major perk: Those who completed the eight-week camp and were accepted to the University of Wisconsin-Madison were eligible for a scholarship. Ashwood did just that and earned the funding, but she wasn’t immediately sold on majoring in engineering. She only decided to focus on mechanical engineering during her junior year, because “it had the lowest GPA requirement, and I was pretty sure I would get in.”
She initially hated the discipline and considered switching out of the sciences to something else entirely, like business, because she felt she “wasn’t smart enough” for engineering. But an internship at Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle giant headquartered in Milwaukee, changed her mind: “Having that internship and doing really well at it made me feel like, Okay, well maybe I’m stupid but at least I can do the work.”
When she returned for her senior year of college, the encouragement from her internship continued: She took two mechanical engineering classes she enjoyed, thermodynamics and fluid dynamics. She also found a mentor in one of her professors, who urged her to apply to grad school, which she did. It usually takes someone at least four or five years to earn the advanced degree in mechanical engineering. Ashwood did it in three. She describes the process as nonchalantly as someone ordering take-out and having it quickly delivered to their doorstep: “Next thing you know, I had a PhD.”
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After graduating, she followed her passion for renewable energy to a postdoc at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado. But she quickly became frustrated by the slow pace and levels of bureaucracy at the federal institution. She felt suddenly lost and unmoored, in a way many recent graduates and even mid-career professionals can relate to: “It was like going through an existential crisis of this is my dream job, I’m here, but it’s not what I expected it to be. Why on earth did I spend so much time in school if this is what I wanted, and now I have it, and it’s not actually what I want?
She left, and at the suggestion of her former advisor, applied for a job at Caitin, a start-up in Fremont, California, that was working to build a new kind of air conditioning technology. But two months into the job, Ashwood realized that the numbers were not adding up. “I didn't understand how the science made sense,” she says. “That was actually my first lesson in speaking up. I had sort of been asking questions throughout the process, but I think the feeling on my end was that everyone else had been there longer and had some understanding that would come to me the more I worked on it.”
She followed her intuition, and ran an experiment testing her hypothesis that the product couldn’t deliver the magical cooling effects it promised. She turned in the data supporting her thinking on a Monday. By that Wednesday, the company had shut down. Ashwood had fixed the problem, and, in doing so, proved herself out of a job.
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But her candor earned her a supporter: A venture capitalist who funded Caitin was happy to learn early on that the product wasn’t ever going to work, without needlessly pumping more money into it. He helped her land a job at an energy storage company. She went there for a couple of years before leaving to join a former coworker at Dropcam, the wireless home security camera company that was later acquired by Nest. The switch was a welcome break: “It was the first time I was at a company where we weren't putting all of our thought and energy into figuring out how to make something work. Something already worked, and I was just trying to figure out how to make it work as efficiently as possible.”
There, she worked to determine how to effectively move heat that is generated in the process of running a device. She enjoyed the job’s cross-functional nature and the chance to work with different teams of designers, but, a little over a year in, began to grow tired of the 30 mile-plus commute from Oakland to Palo Alto. The message from the Snap recruiter hit her LinkedIn inbox at an opportune time.
During her interview at Snap, Ashwood was asked to critique the design of a wearable that had been broken down into its component parts. The questions engaged her in an exciting way, and by the time she left the interview she knew she would take the job if and when it was offered to her — even though she still didn’t have any clue what she would be working on.
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Ashwood didn’t find out about Spectacles until her first day on the job in September 2015. Her background in energy made her a perfect candidate to tackle a challenge the company was facing: The corner of the glasses, where you push the button that takes a 10-second video, was getting too hot to touch. Ashwood needed to figure out how to distribute the heat, without making the glasses overly bulky: “You basically have everything that you have in a cell phone in your Spectacles, but it's obviously a much, much smaller size to work with.”
Her eureka moment came when she figured out an effective combination and placement of what’s called thermal interface material, a “squishy, silly putty kind of thing” that is more conductive than air and lets you move heat from one component into a heat sink, which then transfers that heat. The result is a pair of shades that can be put to work, filming the sights around you, without becoming uncomfortably warm.
When it came to working on the second version of Spectacles, a sleeker pair released this April that received more positive feedback than the originals (hundreds of thousands of which reportedly went unsold), Ashwood faced a different kind of challenge. The glasses needed to be even slimmer, and transfer more data more quickly, a process that is much more power intensive. Then, there’s the fact that the glasses have water-tight sealing, something that prevents air from creeping in, making it even harder for them to cool down. But she was up for the task and, once again, executed it successfully, finding ways to keep the glasses from overheating both in and out of the water.
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Although Ashwood declined to elaborate on what she is working on now that the latest version of Spectacles is out in the market, there are rumors that a third generation pair is in the works. However, with the recent news that the head of Snap’s Spectacles division, Mark Randall, has left the company, there’s no telling what’s next for the company’s hardware line.
Still, Ashwood is undeterred. At some point, she thinks she’ll end up back in renewable energy — “you see things like climate change and feel like you should be trying to help” — but says that’s not today or even next year. What she does know for sure is that every step in her career has boosted her confidence in her skill set, and helped her realize which qualities are really important to getting ahead.
“Smartness is not really the point. Are you curious? Are you hard working? Are you willing to work even in the face of not really knowing what the heck you're working toward? I think those are the things that are much more important than smartness.”
Ashwood’s Advice For Finding The Confidence To Speak Up & Make Your Voice Heard In The Tech Industry
Find A Mentor
“The professor of my favorite class became my first professional mentor. Over the years, he pushed me to go for opportunities, like grad school and then start-up companies, which step-by-step helped me find the confidence in myself and my work.”
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Acknowledge When Something Isn’t Making Sense
“Don't be afraid to say ‘I don't understand’ and look for additional explanations or ways of thinking. Engineering, like so many fields, is really, really hard, and everyone is going to learn differently. You will learn your stuff — you might just need to approach the problem in a different way. You'll be better off for this and it will show in your work.”
Always Look For New Opportunities To Learn
“Stay curious to stay on top of your game — at work and outside of work. You'll learn more and approach problems differently and more creatively if you stay curious.”
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