The Unstoppable nature of ABB engineer, Vanessa Cintra

The Unstoppable nature of ABB engineer, Vanessa Cintra

Working in industrial environments across the Americas, engineer Vanessa Cintra has blown the lid off male-centric thinking and tackles technical challenges with the mantra, “You just have to find a way."

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Once Vanessa Cintra makes a commitment, she delivers. Whether it’s a commitment to design and commission a process automation project or to be on time for one of her children’s school plays, her dedication powers her through:  through discrimination, through technical challenges, through city traffic. As a native of São Paulo in Brazil, she’s across the lanes of traffic in Mexico City where she recently returned to ABB after a break, to head up the Business Line Pulp & Paper for the country.

Back in the pivotal year 2000, Vanessa was a third-year student of Electrical Engineering at FAAP, one of Brazil’s most prestigious universities, and was already getting practical experience with another company when ABB held a workshop at her campus demonstrating the company’s robotics capabilities. She immediately applied for ABB’s engineer trainee program, and by January 2001 was working on automation projects for the Pulp & Paper division.

“I never got to robotics! Once I started the interviews for process automation, which is the area I'm in today, I was captivated,” she says, adding, “I’m in love with math and challenges.”

She needed that inner flame. Going out to sites that were often in distant industrial cities and learning how to assess customer needs, Vanessa says people often looked down on her and did not expect that such a young person, let alone a woman — “I was a girl, really” — would be able to help. Then as now, it was often the case that women had to work twice as hard to prove their capability. Having faith in her own skills and knowing that customers were almost always under duress when they came looking for new solutions, Vanessa set her sights beyond their doubts to the problems at hand.

“The industrial world was new to me and it was fascinating,” she says. “Discrimination never stopped me, but it did make things harder.”

Designing bespoke solutions to transform industrial performance

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Vanessa dedicated herself to identifying how ABB could help Brazil’s pulp and paper manufacturers with solutions based around the ABB AbilityTM 800xA system — which integrates distributed process control, electrical control, safety, asset management and workforce collaboration. 

The combined software and hardware system is uniquely implemented at each industrial site. Vanessa explains, “It's like tailor-made clothes: the fabric is the same, but the design, how you cut it and how you sew it, are totally different. The engineering team has to adjust to the needs of the customer.” 

She says she encountered some very big technical conundrums in those early years; times when she thought, “I don’t know how to do it!” But she says, “You just have to chase down the answers.” 

She felt supported by ABB, and there was generally someone she could refer to who had had the same experience before, although in some cases, as software was being developed it hadn’t reached that stage of maturity within the company itself… “Then you have to go to the manuals, to the software support team, and to the project manager. If you don’t overcome problems the first time, you overcome them the second time, or the third. You can’t give up. I believe the greater the challenge, the more you learn."

You can’t give up. I believe the greater the challenge, the more you learn."

“And there's a lot of pressure to understand,” she adds, “because when you're on site and the customer has hit the stop button on production, they're losing millions — whether it’s a paper machine or a mine site, every minute means money. But customers are people, and you learn to deal with different personalities, to analyze situations and connect problems with solutions.”

The cut-throat world of tendering

After just four years as a project engineer, Vanessa was promoted to tendering for projects, which added cost and time analyses; and commercial, legal, tax and risk considerations to her underlying technical expertise.

She would come to revel in the multi-faceted world where she knew overestimating the tender or proposal would leave the field open to competitors; underestimating would leave ABB exposed to costs that had been unaccounted for. “It’s a totally absorbing puzzle,” she says.

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Her bridge between the two roles was a short-term assignment in the US, preparing for the then annual expo known as ABB Automation World, which demonstrated the latest ABB AbilityTM 800xA capabilities across all industries. “As technical support to the marketing team, I worked for almost a year on this showcase and also gave some technical presentations. I lived near ABB´s office at that time, in Wickliffe, Ohio; it’s close to Cleveland and very, very cold — lots of snow — I loved it!”

Vanessa returned to Brazil to work on process automation tenders for the mining industry. “I fell in love with mining, too,” she enthuses. “Everything is on a vast scale, and it can take six months to design and propose a project. It was great to enter the mining world and to put myself in the shoes of the customer” — they were steel-capped boots.

In 2011, when on maternity leave with her first child Bianca, now 12, Vanessa was offered a new role within ABB. “The mining industry was exploding with investment in huge projects, it was a very high-potential area for ABB and I was invited to become the manager of automation tenders.” For the first time in her working life, she was apprehensive, about being able to meet her responsibilities to her baby girl and deliver on the company’s faith in her. There probably was never any question that she’d take the role, and Vanessa’s mum helped in looking after Bianca.

Pioneering the need for women’s amenities in industrial environments

If being female in the pulp and paper industry was such a rarity that some sites did not have a women’s bathroom, process automation certainly did not know what to make of a lactating mother who had to find time and places to breastfeed throughout her demanding working day.

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Vanessa recalls, “If you can imagine being in a meeting with 20 men and I'd say, ‘Excuse me, I have to take milk.’” “I just had to. My kid at home needed to eat. It was something new for me, and for everyone!”

Time out for a family adventure

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Vanessa was Application Manager for Process Industries embracing Automation, Electrical and Ehouse team  when she hit her 20-year milestone with ABB, and her husband was offered an incredible career opportunity in Mexico. The family had many discussions about what such a move would mean, and ultimately decided in favor of adventure. Vanessa resigned from ABB because she knew she couldn’t run support ops for husband and children in a new environment as well as deliver on her work responsibilities.

“It was a leap of faith for all of us,” says Vanessa, who put her LinkedIn on hold and threw herself into adapting and helping her family through the often thrilling, sometimes bewildering change.  For two-and-a-half years, Vanessa’s role was that of “emotional pillar for my family”. She says, “It was good in many ways, but it was painful. I desperately missed the work I’d been dedicated to since college,” she says. 

“Yes, this is Vanessa Cintra.”

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A few months ago, ABB came calling. It needed a manager for the Pulp & Paper Business Line in Mexico, an experienced leader for its 60-strong country team.  

At Vanessa’s place, the mother of all family conferences ensued. Her parents phoned their willingness to travel from Brazil and help out as needed. Her husband, Bianca and Guilherme were all in agreement that she should grasp this opportunity.  

 “Sometimes,” she says of her new role, “I feel panicked, but her overwhelming emotion is one of excitement. As she gets to know her new team via informal discussions, she says, “I want people to understand that I’m here to support them and to add whatever I can, but we have to figure things out together. I don’t bring the solutions in a box, but they can count on me.”  

Once she embraces an opportunity Vanessa throws heart and soul into it and involves everyone. “I think this is what makes me Unstoppable.”

Experience tells her that discrimination towards women at work still exists, but Vanessa says young women entering industry must take heart that, “other people can’t define you. There is no limit for you as a person. It does not depend if you're a woman, if you're young, if you're old or whatever — go after what you believe and what you want.” 

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