When a career counselor came to one of Sandy McDonald's classes in junior high, "he told us the boys could be engineers, doctors, lawyers -- whatever they wanted to be," she recalled. "Then he said, 'Now, you girls, you can be secretaries and nurses and schoolteachers.'"

Decades later, McDonald still remembers "I was depressed. I didn't have aspirations to be a scientist or engineer, but it showed me the options were limited."

She became a stay-at-home mom. "I home-schooled all three of my kids, for 15 years. I always say I graduated from high school three more times -- once with each of my kids. I gained confidence in my ability to learn and understand the world."

By the time her youngest child was graduating, McDonald's marriage was ending, and she realized she would need to make a living. "I didn't think I had skills, even though I was tutoring college math and writing résumés for people."

She got a job in a metal-stamping shop. "I was already pretty mechanical. I had learned to fix cars as a teenager," she said. Recognizing her computer, math and geometry skills, the company moved her into quality assurance. "My skills were perfectly suited. I learned to read prints more technically, I learned how to use the coordinate measuring machine" (CMM).

After several years at that company, McDonald heard about another company that had an opening to learn a more complex CMM. "I didn't know if they'd want me. I sent my résumé and got an interview. During the interview, he offered me the manager position. I laughed."

While McDonald insisted she wasn't qualified for the management position, she did get a job with the company. After she obtained her Quality Engineer Certificate, she moved into the management role. "So now I'm running around all day, answering questions, programming the CMM, dealing with customer concerns and talking to machinists about how to interpret blueprints."

In spite of what she was told back in junior high school, McDonald said, "I've come a long way, I've learned a lot."

What do quality assurance people do?

Quality is the degree to which the product or service meets the customer ideal. We are measuring down to the ten-thousandths of an inch. We are performing a lot of geometric measurement: fit, form and function. You can measure that three-dimensionally using the CMM or using handheld instruments. The people under me are doing that all day long -- every single dimension on the print -- sometimes hundreds of dimensions. I'm making sure they're using the best methods to get the best results.

Are there any issues for a woman in quality assurance?

When I started, it was me and a bunch of men. As quality technician, I had to earn their respect so the men knew they could ask questions and I would give them the right information. Some of them expressed their disapproval of a woman quality manager. But they learned to respect me. The men have earned respect, and I had to do the same. We don't do praise. You have to know you're doing a good job.

Do you need experience in manufacturing operations before you go into QA?

It's helpful to start in a shop and then get into quality. At first I missed my toolbox -- I missed being out where the action was. I soon learned how much fun I could have in quality doing the technical side.