'There are complex requirements in the industry today, and the drivers are threats we can't always predict," says Ronald Smith, Six Sigma VP for defense contractor Northrop Grumman Space Technology (Redondo Beach, CA). "We're dealing with adversaries different from any we've dealt with previously. They are more stealthy, hiding in places we hadn't anticipated and armed with skills we were unprepared for."
One conclusion is very clear: extraordinary demands will continue to be made on satellite capabilities for surveillance and communication. It's also clear that techies with satellite-related skills will be valuable to defense contractors and the military. When the Air Force announced last fall that it intended to cut 4,000 jobs, it was quick to add that jobs for satellite specialists would not be cut.
The application crossroads
The industry is grappling with a number of questions, Smith explains. "Are we making satellites too complicated, or should we be training for even more complicated applications? Should we be considering launches with more focused missions?"
The argument for the more focused mission with smaller, simpler satellites is that problems can be solved faster when they occur.
Another urgent need for satellite communication was tragically demonstrated when Hurricane Katrina struck and cell phones proved useless.
"We're at a crossroads," Smith concludes.
Civilian demands for sat phones
"Satellite phones are among the hottest products in the telecom industry," the Wall Street Journal reported recently. Demand for sat phones has expanded beyond longtime users in government and the military to include a wide range of businesses.
Dr Charles Barnett, a VP at Hughes Network Systems (Germantown, MD), predicts a growing market for sat phones, which he expects to become "both more affordable and more accessible."
It's unclear how soon this surging demand will impact the market for satellite designers. There's considerable excess capacity in currently flying civilian satellites available to be used before more launches are necessary.
Advice for techies
"We're going though some interesting times," says Andy Steinem of executive search firm Dahl Morrow International (Leesburg, VA). "There are a lot of changes in the industry.
"Sometimes it helps if you're willing to take a step back in order to progress in the future," Steinem advises. "Engineers need to keep their eyes on the horizon, just like business people, to predict the future and the next new thing.
"More and more companies are moving to position satellite as just one part of a range of complete services," Steinem says. She does see growth among some of the smaller companies, and anticipates that the military will outsource more work to civilian contractors. But mergers such as that of Intelsat and PanAmSat probably indicate downsizing or reassignment, at least in some areas.
To check out the current situation, Diversity/Careers interviewed a number of satellite techies, some with longtime careers in the industry and others relatively new to the field.
At Aerospace, Lamont Cooper designs a satellite in a day
At the Aerospace Corp (El Segundo, CA), Lamont Cooper is involved with the next generation of global positioning system (GPS) satellites. Cooper, a senior member of tech staff, works in the company's concept and design center. He's part of a group of engineers that "designs a satellite in a day," he says.
Instead of doing it the traditional way, one phase following another, these engineers proceed with their various functions simultaneously. It's an interesting way to work, Cooper says, and a process that speeds up cost and capability projections for government customers.
Cooper's work draws on his previous experience and training, of course. He did a lot of testing while earning his 1995 BS in electronic engineering from DeVry Institute of Technology (Pomona, CA). He was a field service engineer for Kokusai Semiconductor (Dallas, TX). And he worked on communication systems, speech coding and digital signal processing at the University of Massachusetts while earning his 1999 MS in EE and computer engineering.
"I love being involved with multiple projects and getting into a high level of detail," Cooper says. Right now he's projecting how Galileo, the proposed European version of GPS, may affect GPS in the U.S. and what can be done to prevent problems.
Previously, satellites just sent information up and down, Cooper explains. Now there's an emphasis on networking across satellites and adding functions. "It's a time of transformational communication," says Cooper.
Rachel Beitz: managing at Raytheon
A combat-tested West Point grad with hands-on familiarity with the Patriot weapons system, Rachel Beitz took a job with Raytheon (Waltham, MA) after six years in the military. Beitz had a 1987 West Point BSCS and was good at adapting to different situations.
Beitz, who now manages classified projects for the company in Aurora, CO, began with Raytheon in 1993. The work involved maintaining communication software for the Patriot system she knew so well. Her first job was converting Unix-based Jovial language into Ada 95, then integrating the new code.
In 1998 she moved to a temporary job in Vancouver, Canada. She worked on Canadian ground-based air traffic control, first as a developer, then a systems verification test engineer and finally team lead. "With ten to fifteen different countries represented on my team, I really learned how much value there is in different approaches to problems," Beitz says.
When the work in Vancouver wound down, Beitz opted for a job in Colorado. She started as a software engineering manager for one of Raytheon's classified programs, overseeing 120 engineers involved with building a satellite ground station. She went on to become the program-wide engineering liaison. Then she led the program's software integrated product teams working on resource models and data tools.
Beitz' ability to adapt has advanced her in her career. It also supported her as she transitioned from being a male to being a female, a three-year process culminating in gender reassignment surgery last November.
Throughout the emotional and physical stresses of her transformation, Beitz has found her work completely absorbing. She also appreciates the great support she's received from her managers and co-workers at Raytheon.
When interviewed prior to her surgery, Beitz was looking forward to getting back to work and continuing to advance at Raytheon. She's interested in Six Sigma and ready for another change.
"I enjoy new challenges," she says. "I was a good developer and integrator but now I'm firmly in management. I think it's important for people who are good at it to take on leadership roles."
Teleport director George Williams helps PanAmSat clients go global
George Williams is teleport director for PanAmSat (Napa, CA), a leading bandwidth provider. Williams has spent his whole career in satellites, going from bench work to his own company (Video Audio Systems, Los Angeles, CA), then working on consumer satellite receivers.
One of the best parts of his job today is the chance to work with his colleagues on the front lines of a high-stress environment. "I enjoy coordinating signal follow-out to customers, where we have a high percentage of success," he says.
Born in Ghana, Williams accompanied his mother to the U.S. when she came for medical treatment. He decided to stay, earning a 1984 diploma in electronic technology and microcomputers at United Electronic Institute (Van Nuys, CA) and a 1991 AA in electronic technology at Technical Career Institute (New York, NY).
Williams continued his education on the job. From 1985 to 1987 he worked as an electronic technician at Satellite Technology Services (Los Angeles, CA), repairing the company's satellite receivers and IRDs, managing a call center and supporting dealers.
He moved to Standard Communications (Los Angeles, CA), providing tech support for major TV networks and other clients. In his spare time he ran his own satellite receiver company, providing equipment and service to commercial establishments and residences.
He gave up the company in 1990 when he started as a satellite transmission earth station operator for STARS (Los Angeles, CA). Now he was into international and domestic transmission and C and KU Band uplink and downlink transmission, a change from his previous work with receivers.
STARS went out of business in 1991 and Williams switched to Keystone Communications (Los Angeles, CA). He handled all the company's international feeds: in and out of North and South America and the Atlantic and Pacific rims. The job involved rescheduling, routing and coordinating all transmissions and overseeing daily operation of the earth station.
After the 1994 California earthquake, PanAmSat approached Keystone to lease space. They were also looking for someone who could handle transmissions. Williams took the job, moving to Napa in 1996 as an operator engineer. "The rest is history," he says with a laugh.
He was quickly promoted to video-ops supervisor and later ops manager, implementing policies and procedures and training ops engineers. In 1999 he moved into his current job, directing the teleport ops engineering staff for video, data Internet and facility operations. "We're a customer driven industry so we need the best customer service thinking," he says.
The Napa Valley is a beautiful place to work. Both PanAmSat and Williams are proud of their wine-country location. Williams makes it his business to present departing visitors with a bottle of wine complete with the PanAmSat label. "I knew nothing about wine before moving here," he says with a chuckle.
Di Yao works on GPS at Thales Navigation
Di Yao, who was born in China, began work as a firmware engineer in the satellite sector last summer. She's working on consumer-related satellite apps with electronics manufacturer Thales Navigation (San Dimas, CA).
A high school trip to an engineering lab at Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN) and a college prep program at Georgia Tech got Yao interested in engineering. Her 2003 BSEE is from Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and her MSEE from Vanderbilt. Her thesis on using models for effective design of autonomic fault mitigation behaviors in safety-critical real-time systems made her a sought-after job candidate.
At Thales, Yao is working on "cool products" based on state-of-the-art GPS technology in a fast-paced consumer environment. She loves her work, drawing on analytical skills to analyze, design and develop firmware components used in Thales products.
All Thales engineers, she notes, are given GPS systems for their cars so they can appreciate the design challenges from an end-user perspective.
"I'm in a learning mode every day," Yao says. "I knew nothing about the product life cycle used here, and I'm becoming familiar with all the different phases.
"I'm finding my team members very helpful and the employees very diverse. They're all ages and all ethnicities, which really enriches the workplace."
Nicole Allen works on security issues at Rockwell Collins
Nicole Allen is a happy engineer. "I'm an over-analyzer," she says. "I love the engineering mindset."
Collins took her 2005 BSEE from North Carolina A&T; to work as a government systems engineer with defense contractor Rockwell Collins (Cedar Rapids, IA). Her job puts her on the front lines of improving security for the U.S.
"It means working on security issues you see raised in the news, and moving not only toward success but toward the highest technology," she says. She recalls watching a film about a crew on a nuclear submarine and thinking, "This is the kind of situation we're preparing for."
At the end of each day, she says, she writes down her questions about how and why things are done. "My only frustration is not knowing everything right away, but I understand it's a continual learning process."
Intent on a career path that will take her into program management, Allen plans to go for an MBA. "No matter what I do, my technical knowledge will be useful," she says.
Ronald Smith is Six Sigma VP at Northrop Grumman
Northrop Grumman Space Technology (Redondo Beach, CA) does contract work for both military and civilian customers. Six Sigma VP Ronald Smith came to space technology directly from his 1982 BS in electronic engineering at California Polytechnic Institute. He sharpened his skills over the years with post-grad studies at Long Beach State University (Long Beach, CA). "I knew I wanted to live a life of learning, and engineering provides that," he says.
His hands-on work in early engineering jobs has given way to an executive focus on "improving the way we do business," Smith says. He's delighted to be in the forefront of an industry grappling with rapid change and increased demands from customers.
He especially enjoys making a business case for new technology and seeing it embraced by those who will execute it. He knows it's partly his technical skills that enable him to make a compelling case.
Smith started with TRW, later acquired by Northrop Grumman. His first job was as a hardware designer on TRW's tech staff, and in a couple of years he moved to a satellite payload group and worked up to section leader.
About four years into his job he was advising a hiring manager on the qualifications for a department head in communications hardware design. The manager went on to offer him the position, and Smith found himself overseeing seventy or eighty techies working on demodulators and frequency synthesizers.
"It was a big step," Smith recalls. "It was a little scary but I felt I was ready." In that position, Smith led development of fiber-optic technology that greatly increased the capacity of military satcoms.
Smith's approach to his career has been "to learn as much as I could in each role and develop a reputation of being an effective leader," he says. "I've learned how to focus and plan ahead, and how to do last-minute juggling. I've learned a lot about finding the right people and putting them in the right places in order to plan for the future."
In the mid 90s Smith became a program manager working on TRW's fiber-optic data bus, which would bring various functions together to enable a satellite to operate. After four years he moved into the digital products center with responsibility for 300 people.
In 2001 Smith oversaw a reorganization of roughly 800 EEs. The task required organizing by processes, and exposed him to Six Sigma. Shortly after that he moved into his current, highly visible Six Sigma role.
"There's never a shortage of challenges and opportunities at Northrop Grumman," Smith says. "It's all about flexibility, being adaptive and making performance a priority."
He appreciates the company's commitment to diversity. It has shaped a workplace where decisions are based on a wide range of views and opinions. "Everyone is heard," he says.
Dr Charles Barnett is a VP of engineering at HNS
Charles Barnett had done well as a communications software developer. At first he turned down the recruiter who wanted him to apply for a job at Hughes Network Systems (HNS).
"I didn't want to do satellite network systems," he recalls. "Fiber was making big technical strides and I thought it would eventually supplant satellite. I didn't have the perspective of someone who had been working in the industry."
But in 1989 Barnett did go to work at HNS, and found that while the product was different, the technology was similar. Since then he's moved up to a VP position in engineering, and has seen the satellite industry survive and grow.
"We'll soon see handheld sat phones no larger than cell phones were a few years ago," he predicts.
Barnett came to the U.S. from Jamaica. His education includes work at the University of Michigan and a 2003 PhD in communications from the University of Maryland.
At HNS, Barnett began by working on a satellite base-band switching system for the satellite communication group. Then he worked in digital cellular design and development for eight years. He moved up from principal engineer to assistant VP while working on the GMH 2000, a digital mobile wireless system developed primarily for Bell South.
Leading the project required technical and project management skills. Completing each phase of the project on time and within budget was always a huge thrill, Barnett says. "There were a lot of times, though, when the workload and stress made me think I should give up on my PhD." But he always stuck it out.
In 2000 he joined the HNS mobile satellite system group, leading the design and development of a global satellite IP data system for Inmarsat in the UK. With the successful completion of the global satellite IP data system in 2002, Barnett was promoted to his current job as a VP of engineering.
Now Barnett is working on several multi-functional wireless platforms for a broadband mobile satellite service company, and for his company's own broadband IP product line. He sees himself bringing both technical and managerial expertise to his design work at HNS.
Basic engineering skills are a job requirement, he reflects, but more than that is needed to get ahead. "To make it in the satellite industry takes dedication, hard work and creativity to solve the problems that come up in leading-edge programs.
"The science has always been there," Barnett says. "What's changing is the technology that makes it practical."
OPPORTUNITIES IN SATELLITE TECHNOLOGY
Check the latest openings at these diversity-minded companies.
|Company and location
(Los Angeles, CA)
|Independent technical assessments of aerospace programs
|Boeing Satellite Systems
(El Segundo, CA)
|Space and communications systems for military, commercial and scientific use
(El Segundo, CA)
|Multichannel television service
|Communications equipment for commercial and government customers
|Hughes Network Systems
|Broadband satellite solutions for businesses, government and consumers
|Defense-focused government communications and infrastructure
|Northrop Grumman Space Technology
(Los Angeles, CA)
|Civil and military space systems, high-energy lasers, advanced microelectronics
|Orbital Sciences Corp
|Small space and rocket systems
|Satellite-based video, broadcasting and network distribution and delivery services
|Defense and aerospace systems
(Cedar Rapids, IA)
|Communications and navigation systems for commercial and military aircraft; in-flight entertainment systems
(Santa Clara, CA)
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