Women in Power: Betty Tobin

After nearly 35 years in the power engineering profession, you might think that Elisabeth A. (Betty) Tobin has seen it all.

She would beg to differ.

“Working in this field presents continuous opportunities for learning new things and applying knowledge to new challenges,” said Tobin, Senior Manager of Planning, Engineering and Technical Services for Snohomish County Public Utility District in Everett, Wash., just north of Seattle. “And, after a few years, it also provides an opportunity to mentor others, which I find very rewarding.”

Those who have been lucky enough to be mentored by Tobin no doubt found it rewarding, too. She has so much to share.

Because she enjoys all aspects of the work, she’s more generalist than specialist. She’s a leader who not only understands the technical facets of power engineering, but also the organizational challenges, from changing working conditions to political considerations to customer service.

Indeed, she has overseen a remarkable amount of change, including but certainly not limited to:

  • the entrance of more women into technical and engineering positions;
  • reorganizations from engineering-only divisions to combined engineering/crew divisions;
  • the implementation of negotiated changes in crew makeup;
  • the evolution of work methods and tools, from hand drafting and hand calculations to AutoCAD/Microstation and engineering analysis programs; and
  • changing priorities due to economic ups and downs – from using more engineering consultants and contractors when the economy is strong to doing more work in-house when it’s not.

Tobin has shared her knowledge not only where she’s worked – at Snohomish since 2006 and before that for more than 25 years at Seattle City Light – she has been active in professional organizations such as IEEE, EPRI and NWPPA, participating regularly in conferences and leading workshops.

In 2013, she was honored by her industry colleagues with a Distinguished Individual Service Award, recognizing her years of service to the IEEE Power & Energy Society. In bestowing the award, the Technical Committee recognized Tobin “for her long-term commitment to the Distribution Subcommittee at all technical and administrative levels. She chaired the Switching and Overcurrent Working Group, responsible for developing IEEE Standard 1216, as well as delivering a Network Tutorial at the 2008 IEEE/PES T&D Conference.”

In 2006, she was honored for her achievements as an “extraordinary woman engineer” in the electric power industry by the Society of Women Engineers.

Tobin attended Northwestern University, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Electrical Engineering, and a doctorate in Biomedical Engineering.

“When I was in high school I was very good in math and science,” she said. “I knew I would be going to college and my practical side told me that I should not pay the tuition and spend the time in college unless I would end up with a good profession upon graduation. I was aware of the engineering field because my older brother was an engineer, so I chose electrical engineering as my major.”

She also holds certificates in Advanced Management and Leadership Development.

Before going to work for Seattle City Light in 1979, Tobin worked as a researcher at Northwestern and at the University of Washington, specializing in neurophysiology. She also spent several months at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

She was hired by City Light into an entry-level electrical engineering position where she designed meter, relay and control circuits for generation, transmission and substation projects. She earned promotions to higher level engineering positions and, in 1987, was promoted to Network Engineering Manager. She later served as Interim Director of Power Systems and Substation Engineering,Interim Director of Power Systems Construction and Maintenance, and Distribution Engineering Director.

For eight years beginning in 1998, she was City Light’s Director of Central Electrical Services, managing a 175-person division and developing and administering a $30 million combined annual budget.  In that position she was responsible for power delivery to the Downtown core and to the major hospital complexes on First Hill.

When she retired from Seattle City Light in 2006, Snohomish hired her as Manager of Distribution Engineering Services. She then served as Manager of System Planning and Protection before taking her current position in 2010.

Lest you think Tobin is all business, rest assured that she has plenty of interests outside of work.

“I like to hike, walk the dogs, spend time with family and friends, go to the gym, ski at Stevens Pass, kayak and travel,” she said.

And she has a decidedly fun side.

“When I visit our family house in Wisconsin, I always like to go to the piano bar one evening and stump the piano player with a song he has never heard. Then he has to buy me a drink!”