“Fascinating:” Anne Ziegler is a software engineer at Sonova’s headquarters in the Swiss town of Stäfa, where she develops innovative hearing solutions in the company’s research department.
Everybody can hear well in Anne Ziegler’s family. None of her friends have any hearing problems, either. “It’s true. Before I started working for Sonova, I had never interacted much with people affected by hearing loss.” It was the technical challenges that drew the 32-year-old to the job. “I have a background in research – this job lets me apply scientific advances and bring products to maturity. Besides, bio-compatibility and the human/machine interface are key issues with hearing aids. I find these questions particularly fascinating.”
As soon as the talk turns to technology, Anne lights up. She is an engineer, through and through. The mother of two has been working as an embedded software engineer in Sonova’s research department since 2018, focusing on hearing instruments software. Anne is responsible for “firmware” – in other words, for the software and its integration into the hearing aid. She is used to others being perplexed by what she does and has an answer ready: “there is a particular set of software in a hearing aid: this is closely connected to the electrical components and cannot be modified. Because the software is so tightly linked to the hardware, we call it an ‘embedded’ system. Only audiologists can make user-specific modifications.” This software activates sensors and microsystems, a subject Anne also knows a thing or two about. “Think about it this way: when you turn on the hearing aid or when you go from a quiet to a loud environment, control programs are running in the background that enable the device to function,” she continues, patiently translating complex concepts into layman’s terms.
Born in the state of Thüringen in Germany, Anne studied microsystems technology, a mix of mechanical engineering and electrical engineering, at university. “At first I was enrolled in chemistry, but I was only really interested in mathematics and physics. Out of curiosity, I sat in on a lecture about microsystems and I was hooked. The best decision I ever made was to change my major.” When she completed her Master’s at the University of Freiburg in Germany, Anne was the only female graduate. “It was only after I was already at university that I realized women are few and far between in engineering. It never occurred to me before.”
Anne grew up in a small town in the district of Südharz. Beginning in elementary school, mathematics had always come easily to her, and she still cannot comprehend how others react to her chosen line of work. “People invariably say: ‘What? But that’s such a tough subject!’ That has not been my experience at all. It just happens to be something I am very good at.” After graduating, Anne worked in Singapore, Sweden and the USA. She then moved to Switzerland to carry out doctoral research in the field of semiconductor physics at ETH Zurich.
In my department, most people wear hearing aids even if they have perfect hearing. Many use them to listen to music while cycling, because a hearing aid is much better than a headphone at eliminating wind noise.
Sonova became aware of Anne while she was still completing her PhD and invited her to a job interview. “I found the firm appealing right away and was struck by how challenging the technical research topics are.” Especially now that it is possible to build all manner of devices on such a tiny scale, Anne is convinced that it will be possible to take big leaps forward in the coming years. “We are just in the starting blocks. In future, development will be at an even faster pace.” The engineer thinks highly of Sonova’s ability to innovate and continually improve its offering of hearing solutions: “there are always new technology platforms being released onto the market.”
She also believes that society’s attitude to hearing aids will change as digitalization progresses. “In my department, most people wear hearing aids even if they have perfect hearing. Many use them to listen to music while cycling, because a hearing aid is much better than a headphone at eliminating wind noise. I also wear them outside of work in order to get a feel for how they function. To me, they look better than the wireless earbuds that a lot of people are using these days.”
Anne’s views on hearing have changed radically since she started working at Sonova. “It has been an eye-opener for me. When I watch a video in which young children hear their parents’ voices for the first time thanks to hearing aids, I am deeply moved. Hearing aids make a lasting positive difference in the lives of people with hearing loss. But we will need to create a new awareness if we are to rid ourselves of persistent taboos. For all of us, wearing a hearing aid should be just natural as wearing a pair of glasses.”
The most satisfying moment in Anne’s job over recent months involved a technical observation: “I’m a big tech enthusiast and when I recently saw binary code running live, it was just incredible. I had been trying for days to transfer the correct data from a sensor to a hearing aid, when I finally managed to confirm the transfer using an oscilloscope.” The blue and grey device is next to the computer on her desk, which is covered with dozens of multi-colored cables. Just next to her desk, there is a friendly-looking little homemade robot with red googly eyes. It was a gift from one of Anne’s colleagues to her children. “The kids were thrilled,” says the engineer, adding that she manages to square the circle of being both a good parent and a good employee just fine. As a family-friendly employer, Sonova actively supports work-life balance. Anne uses flexi-time and works from home as needed.
If you come here from academia, like me, you are used to working with people from all over the world. It’s an enriching experience – and here in Stäfa, we are anchored by the company’s Swiss roots. To me, that is an appealing mix.
“The atmosphere at work is good and people are relaxed.” She also really appreciates Sonova’s multicultural flair. “If you come here from academia, like me, you are used to working with people from all over the world. It’s an enriching experience – and here in Stäfa, we are anchored by the company’s Swiss roots. To me, that is an appealing mix.” Moreover Anne, an erstwhile track and field athlete, is a big fan of the company’s various fitness programs. She goes jogging with a group of colleagues during her lunch break. Sonova supports many types of sports activities for its employees in Stäfa. They are part of the company’s “Body & Mind Initiative,” a preventive healthcare program. What Anne values more than anything else is Sonova’s open corporate culture. “People here work well together.” After yet another invigorating day at work, Anne shuts down her computer and cycles home to her family. The next morning, she is back at her desk surrounded by her sensors, microsystems and software. To most people, all this would be intimidating and mysterious; to Anne it is stimulating and endlessly fascinating.