JoAnn Thompson

Electrical and Electronics Engineering, B.S. (1990)

Vice President Asset Management - Otter Tail Power Company

Hometown: Underwood, MN

Now lives in: Fergus Falls, MN

Career path: I have worked at Otter Tail Power Company for about 22 years. I became Vice President Asset Management in June 2014. I am accountable for the company’s electrical transmission and distribution lines, substations, planning, transmission and substation maintenance, system operations, land rights and permitting, project management, FERC/RTO policy, metering, CAD/GIS and facilities and construction/building services. My earlier years at OTP  were split mostly between System Operations and FERC/RTO Policy, in various capacities.

What or who inspired you to pursue a career in engineering?

I am very grateful for having been raised to believe that I could do/be anything that I wanted to be with the right attitude and some hard work! Back in the 80s, I actually was unaware that I was going into a non-typical field. I received an Air Force ROTC scholarship to be an electrical engineer, so that’s why I chose engineering and I’ve never regretted choosing this path. 

What’s it like being a woman in a male dominated field?

The power industry is especially male dominated. Up until the last 5-10 years, I’ve generally always been the only female in the room and that’s still often the case as a sole female engineer in the room! I have heard some disappointing stories from other women in this field, but I have to say that I have been fortunate to have generally found the men that I have interacted with (especially fellow engineers) to be quite accepting of me as a peer and a respected professional. I attribute some of this acceptance to being genuine, to actively engaging in a thoughtful and respectful manner (not trying to aggressively prove myself) and to my good ol’ hard-working midwestern work ethic! In fact, as I look back on my career, several male engineers come to mind who were instrumental in offering me encouragement and bolstering my confidence to reach my goal to be the first woman engineer to become a Vice president at Otter Tail Power Company. 

What advice would you give to young girls interested in engineering?

Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it because you’re a girl! (I hope that we are beyond that bad point of view in the 21st Century). If you have a curious mind and you think engineering might interest you, please check it out and give it a try. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t be afraid of asking questions. Lean in! 

Most, if not all, engineering-related companies welcome and invite young students to visit and explore what the business does. Visit any of us at a career fair or stop by our offices. I encourage young girls interested in engineering to explore some of the career opportunities available to them and just give it a try. Don’t close the door before you’ve tried! 

What’s your best memory from NDSU?

When I was at NDSU, we were Division II and the rivalry with UND for bragging rights for the traveling “wooden nickel” was still in play. I also was very active in Air Force ROTC, which provided me with great memories and experiences. 

How did your NDSU education prepare you for your career?

Even back then, NDSU was a highly respected engineering college. Between my engineering degree and my Air Force ROTC experience, I was well prepared to tackle my career and the future! 

What first got you interested in engineering?

I have always had an inquisitive mind that gravitated to logic and problem solving. The aptitude tests guided me to consider engineering and as I mentioned earlier, I was very fortunate to receive an electrical engineering scholarship that solidified my decision to pursue engineering. 

Does your gender give you a different perspective and experience from your male counterparts?

Irrespective of gender, we are all uniquely talented to bring value and make a difference. Numerous studies have shown the value of integrating women’s experiences, perspectives, and voices into the fabric of the organization. While perhaps being in a non-typical career field offers an even different perspective, the real power comes from women and men working together and using their unique and diverse experiences to solve complex problems and accelerate innovation. When you are in a supportive environment and embrace diversity, that is inspiring and it ignites passion for the job, a focus on continuous improvement, and integrating talents and treating all with respect.

What’s one of the biggest challenges faced being a woman in engineering? How did you overcome it?

Experience has taught me that most women engineers (at least the ones that I’ve known) are perfectionists and we hold back on taking a risk for advancement. We feel like we aren’t qualified and we’d be an “impostor” because of that. Don’t let the impostor syndrome keep you from having the courage to lean in. Don’t let that little voice of self-doubt defeat you - Lean In! Be fearless and seek out opportunities! Be prepared so that you can raise your hand and say “pick me!” 

What’s the biggest misconception about your job?

Historically, electric utilities were generally viewed as static businesses, slow to change. I’m here to tell you that is not true! I am passionate about my job and the industry that I work. We are in an era of transformation and technology and it’s exciting and challenging. I have never had a day of boredom and it’s been a very fulfilling career with lots of opportunities to leverage my strengths and continuously grow and develop. 

What advice would you give to female college students just getting started in the NDSU engineering program?

I’m going to answer this in two parts: an actionable step is internships and the second part of my response is attitude.  

Internships: Be sure to seek out a summer engineering internship or coop position. These are great ways to get some hands on experience and they help to connect the dots between academia and business. The majority of the electrical engineering roles at Otter Tail Power Company are within the Asset Management area that I lead. We enjoy hiring summer engineering interns and the students seem to enjoy the many engineering related opportunities that we seek to expose them to during their internship. It’s a fantastic career. It’s dynamic, challenging, rewarding and the relationships built are fulfilling. “Try it! You’ll like it!” 

Attitude: Invoke a curious mind. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek out help. Be thick-skinned - there will be bumps in the road and challenges and you have to be resilient and bounce back and keep a positive attitude. Engage in a few of the many rich and rewarding opportunities for networking and community involvement (SWE is a good one for female - and male - engineers). 

Finally, advice that’s key to anyone’s success is best voiced by Tim McGraw, “Always be Humble and Kind.”

Top of page