Across land, sea and space, communications pros make connections
“Engineering is a great foundation for leadership.” – Dana Wilson, Comcast
From cable companies to the military, opportunities await both entry-level and seasoned communications tech pros
By Dan Margherita
Senior Contributing Editor
Communications technology has seen some major changes in the last thirty years, and Walt Hartman has seen much of that change first hand. Hartman is a senior engineer working in communications system design at the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio), an Air Force organization dedicated to leading the discovery, development and integration of warfighting technologies for U.S. air, space and cyberspace forces.
Hartman has worked in communications at AFRL since 1984, and says his roles there have gotten larger in scope with more emphasis on applications. “We have to make sure that what we do fits on a plane,” he explains. “When I first started, the mission was to make sure that the thing worked and worry about making it fit later. Electronics have gotten a lot smaller, and that’s helped, but now we ask them to do more.”
As an example of the kinds of issues his team addresses, Hartman cites the need to expand bandwidth of an aircraft communication system to handle more data. “It’s just like a cell phone,” he says, “with people wanting to go from 3G to 4G. Everybody says, ‘Give me more, please.’”
Diversity is valued
Tech professionals at all stages of their careers are flourishing in the communications industry. They’ve found work environments that value their expertise and diversity. And many companies are seeking diverse communication techies to join their teams.
“Hughes Network Systems has entry-level opportunities in many technical fields including software, hardware, network and systems engineering,” reports Lynne Rusnak, senior director of human resources. “These development engineers work in project teams to design, develop, test and maintain broadband communication systems and products.”
“Comcast and NBC-Universal are proud to foster a diverse and inclusive workforce,” says Raúl Valentín, vice president of talent acquisition for Comcast Cable. “We make it a top priority to recruit, develop, promote and retain diverse talent throughout our organization.”
Dana S. Wilson directs strategy and operations at Comcast Cable
Dana Wilson knew in high school that she would be an engineer. She attended the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (BPI, Baltimore, MD), a magnet high school for math, science and engineering in her home city.
Today, Wilson is executive director of strategy and operations at video, high-speed Internet and phone provider Comcast Cable (Philadelphia, PA).
She leads important departmental strategic initiatives. “We’re pushing a customer-centric philosophy in product development, and I’m leading the way in that charge,” she says. “Our group is also working on data-driven decision-making.”
One of the fruits of her team’s efforts was last summer’s coverage of the 2012 Olympics, the first games since Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal. “The availability of that coverage on mobile devices, on the web and on TV, including video on demand, was something my team and I were heavily involved in across the two organizations,” says Wilson proudly.
Diversity and fitting in
From high school, Wilson went to Drexel University (Philadelphia, PA) where she earned a BSChE in 2001. “In high school, I knew I wanted to go into engineering, but I also loved science. My tenth-grade chemistry teacher introduced me to chemical engineering.”
She forged ahead, but there were some challenges. In college, she recalls, “there were only five minority women out of forty students in the department of chemical engineering.”
Wilson did co-ops at three Philadelphia-area companies: Johnson & Johnson (Wilmington, DE), Rhône Poulenc (Philadelphia, PA), and Philadelphia Quartz (Conshohocken, PA). “It was when I started my co-ops that I realized I was truly a minority in this field. There just weren’t very many people who looked like me,” she says.
“It really changed my perspective. A lot of the employees were white males with thirty-plus years of tenure. I realized that I had to learn how to be a student in the workforce, and not come in as a know-it-all. I decided to tap their wealth of knowledge to learn more about the workplace and the industry: the stuff you don’t learn in school.”
After college, Wilson took a position with Philadelphia Gas Works (Philadelphia, PA). “I was a process engineer doing a lot of construction management. PGW is a great experience for entry-level engineers,” she says. She eventually became the PGW liaison to the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
She joined chemicals manufacturer Rohm & Haas in 2003 as a scale-up engineer in the adhesives and sealants department, taking what chemists made and scaling it to commercialization. “I learned about product conceptualization and development,” she remembers.
In 2005, Wilson returned to PGW as a liaison between the operations and business sides, and in 2006 she got her Six Sigma black belt certification.
In 2008, she was appointed to serve in the office of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter as the deputy managing director for performance management. “By this time, I had done operations excellence work for PGW and I was tapped to conduct performance reviews across all the city agencies to improve city services.”
From there, she went to Accenture to work as a consultant for Comcast, and joined Comcast full time in 2011 as senior director of product planning and delivery for Comcast Interactive Media. She managed execution of the Xfinity product roadmap for online and mobile entertainment. A year later, she moved into her current position.
She’s a member of the Comcast Women’s Network, the national Women in Cable & Telecommunications (Chantilly, VA) and the National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications (New York, NY).
“Whether it’s a business, technical or organizational problem, the skill sets I’ve learned have allowed me to transition nicely. Engineering teaches people how to be great problem solvers. It’s a wonderful foundation for becoming a leader in any organization.”
Marisa Fahrenfeld is a software lead at L-3 Communications Systems
Marisa Fahrenfeld is a senior member of the engineering staff in the software engineering skills center group at L-3 Communications Systems-East (CSE, Camden, NJ). L-3 CSE designs, develops and produces secure communication systems and products supporting mission-critical space, ground, air and naval operations.
“I work as the software lead of the Common HAIPE Manager (CHM) program,” she says. “HAIPE stands for high-assurance Internet protocol encryptor. It’s a network management application used to configure our Red-Eagle line of network encryptors.”
The CHM team has seven members, including software and systems engineers, a technical director and a program manager. “As the software lead, I’m responsible for the execution of software development and test activities on the program. I try to help the software team work efficiently, and make sure that standards and processes are followed. I’m responsible for collecting and reporting progress status to the program management office. Because the team is small, I can also work as an individual contributor on the program,” Fahrenfeld says.
“The software engineering team has three members, including me. For each version or product release of CHM, new features are added to the product. Each team member is responsible for guiding a feature through the design, implementation and test phase.”
Learning to lead effectively
As a manager, Fahrenfeld believes that she is firm but fair, and that working with an intelligent and effective group of people increases her expectations of them. “When I first became a manager, I applied the same leadership style for each team member in an effort to maintain fairness. I quickly learned every team member is different and might respond better to a style of leadership tailored to their individual needs.
“In a leadership role, I think your ability to self-evaluate and adapt to changing situations is necessary for success,” she adds.
Fahrenfeld was born in New Jersey. Her mother is an ME, and her father is an EE. Her grandfather, aunts and uncles were also in technical fields. “Going into engineering seemed a natural path for me,” she reflects.
“I always admired my father for his intelligence. I marvel at the strength of my mother selecting engineering in the 1970s, when the industry was so male-dominated. In college, she was the only woman in her engineering class to graduate. My father’s intelligence and my mother’s courage and determination continue to inspire me today,” she declares.
Fahrenfeld earned her BS in computer engineering with a minor in business in 2003 from Villanova University (Villanova, PA). In 2007, she earned her masters in software engineering from Pennsylvania State University (State College), and in 2012, she got her MBA from Villanova.
She joined L-3 Communications in 2004 after attending a job fair and open house. “I was drawn to the impressive lineage of leading technologies that L-3 and its processor companies have created, from the Victor Talking Machine Company Victrola phonograph to the STE telephone, the secure telephone that sits on the President’s desk,” she says.
“I’m happy to have spent my career to date at L-3, and I hope to move into a broader leadership role in process improvement. I like identifying process improvements in product releases, which often result in more efficient software development.”
She adds, “I enjoy the work and the camaraderie of working with other engineers. It’s rewarding to know the products that I work on are being used by the government and military to secure their communications in support of our national security.”
“L-3 Communications operates in a global environment, and we strive for a diverse workforce that reflects those we serve,” says LaTonia Pouncey, L-3’s corporate manager of diversity and inclusion. “Diversity and inclusion are key elements of L-3’s strategy for ongoing success. We partner with organizations, universities and media organizations focused on STEM to build a diverse pipeline of top engineers and IT professionals.”
Ashish Bhan manages a network development team at Sprint
At Sprint Nextel (Overland Park, KS), Ashish Bhan is a senior manager in the network development organization. “My team develops strategy, implementation partnerships and deployment pro-cesses for small cell networks, which have a smaller coverage area than traditional cellular networks,” Bhan says. “Small cells can be used to provide in-building and outdoor wireless service to extend service coverage and increase network capacity in dense areas.”
Sprint’s network development organization creates the future software and hardware release plans for network elements. The organization works closely with major network infrastructure vendors to develop new radio and core network elements and to do lab and field testing. The small cell organization has just over 100 people.
Seventeen people on Bhan’s growing team include four direct reports. “Our team does deployment planning strategy development and establishment of field trial plans, including selection of trial vendors and execution of field trials, engineering analysis, and development of engineering, deployment and installation guidelines.”
Bhan observes that “my team would describe me as a highly energetic person who loves life and enjoys being challenged by the work I do. I constantly pursue opportunities to learn and develop myself and my team, and help others achieve their goals. I believe they would also say that I am a reliable team player who keeps my commitments, and that I’m a caring, honest and supportive leader.”
Gaining insight and knowledge
Bhan was born, raised and educated in Jammu and Kashmir, India. “In my formative years, I was fascinated with aviation and technology,” he remembers. “When I was in an engineering undergraduate program, my inspirations were Bill Gates and Michael Dell. In my early days as an engineer, I read their books to gain insight.”
Bhan attended the merit-based, government-subsidized National Institute of Technology, Jalandhar, India and received his bachelors in engineering in 1995 in electronics and telecommunications.
After graduation he went to work in the R&D; department of wireless communication company PunWire (Punjab Wireless Systems Ltd) in India. After a few years, he got an offer from U.S. wireless consulting company Wireless Facilities Inc (WFI, Chantilly, VA).
“I came to the United States in 1998 on a work visa. WFI was later bought by LCC International, a telecommunications consulting and network services company. I worked there until I joined Sprint in 2004.”
Bhan earned an MBA in 2010 from the University of Kansas (Lawrence, KS). “My emphasis was in international business, strategic planning and finance,” he says. “I was able to get some of my tuition reimbursed through Sprint.”
Bhan has spent almost twenty years in the wireless communication industry, and has designed, deployed, optimized, monitored and managed wireless networks for many different access technologies. He was just awarded his twenty-ninth patent, and has fifty more pending.
“The sense of achievement I get by delivering meaningful results and contributing toward a goal adds value to my life,” Bhan reports.
He wants to learn more in the business domain, to help position him to lead specific business units for the company in the future. “I want to be someone Sprint’s senior leadership team relies on to drive new initiatives for the corporation,” he says, “and be a change agent to help other areas of the business think in new and innovative ways.”
“At Sprint, we pursue diversity in all its forms, including ethnicity, gender, generational, geographical and thought,” emphasizes Marce Baxley, director of diversity and HR planning. “Inclusion helps us win in the marketplace, because when we’re representative of our fifty-five million customers, we’re better at serving them.”
Dharini Saravanan is principal engineer at Hughes Network Systems
“I wanted to go into IT because every day is a challenge,” says Dharini Saravanan, principal engineer and technical lead in the software and networking area at Hughes Network Systems LLC (Germantown, MD). Hughes is a global provider of satellite broadband products, network technologies and managed services and solutions.
Saravanan is working on Project Jupiter, a technology platform for the company’s Ka-band satellite services. This satellite, launched in July 2012, will provide significant additional capacity to help grow the HughesNet high-speed satellite Internet services to consumers and small businesses in North America.
“Our area is the eye into the whole network,” Saravanan explains. “Our team develops web-based applications, screens and more to manage the network. As technical lead, I do design and development. You need an extensive background in network management, and I have that.”
The team has seven members: three in Maryland and the other four in India. “I introduced Agile software development methodology to the team, which brings a new paradigm to the field. You have a tool to track everybody’s work and to measure progress.” Agile relies on close collaboration among cross-functional teams to offer insight into the project. Saravanan’s Maryland team meets regularly and schedules conference calls with members in India, working to keep the teams together and ensure clarity of their respective responsibilities.
Says Saravanan, “About half my time is spent doing technical work and the other half is spent managing. I enjoy the tech side because I like design. When you see a feature deployed and working, it gives you a feeling that you’ve done something substantial.”
Saravanan was born in Chennai, India and attended the University of Madras (Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India). She earned a 1991 undergraduate degree in mathematics and a 1994 masters in computer applications. “In the 1990s, computers were becoming more popular in India, and they were being used in more areas of our lives. I wanted to be a part of that,” she recalls.
After she finished her graduate degree, she worked for a few years as an IT consultant to an Australian bank with offices in India. “I was working on the front end of their customer database.”
In 1996, Saravanan got married and had a son. The family moved to Portland, OR, where she took a four-year break to be a fulltime mother. In 2000, her husband joined Lockheed Martin, and they moved to New Orleans, LA.
Returning to the workforce
“In IT, everything moves so fast that every day you learn something new but can barely catch up to it. I might be using a certain technology on a project today but before it’s finished something new will come up.
“After four years, I felt I had to get back into the field,” she says. “The technology had moved on quite a bit and I knew I would have to do something drastic. So I worked to earn my Java certification, which was the hot thing back then.”
After she received her certification, Lockheed Martin transferred its Louisiana facility to Maryland, and Saravanan’s family moved with it. She joined Hughes in 2001 as a software developer.
“It’s been a journey for me to come back into the industry,” Saravanan says. “I’ve grabbed every opportunity I could get at Hughes to prove myself and move to where I am now.”
Looking ahead, she would like to fulfill a childhood ambition to open her own IT consultancy. “It always fascinates me to see businesses owned and run by women. Even today, women have challenges trying to strike a balance between home and work, and still succeed on the job. It’s an art,” she says.
“I want to achieve something of my own. In this country, everybody can pursue their dreams. With dedication and hard work, I’ll succeed.”
HR director Lynne Rusnak says, “We seek to create a diverse workforce because it is beneficial to individual people, the organization and the community. Our intent is to foster employee engagement, work-life balance, commitment to the organization, innovative thinking, trust, and a true sense of community here at Hughes.”
Florence Tela manages network broadband at Intelsat
At global satellite services provider Intelsat (Washington, DC), Florence Tela is the manager of network broadband and works at the company’s Ellenwood, GA location. She oversees a team of engineers that ensures the availability of the company’s managed services networks. She interfaces with several departments in an advisor-level support role, and works with technical and business project teams in the United States and Japan. Her team of four engineers is in Ellenwood, and gets additional support from a contractor in Tokyo.
Tela is an EE with more than twenty years’ experience in the telecommunications industry. She joined Intelsat in 1999.
“Intelsat has teleports around the world that support connectivity for customers who might not otherwise have access to video, telephony or Internet services. Our satellite fleet and ground structure provide reliable communications that help our customers grow their businesses and meet their own customers’ needs. We also have customers who use our platform as a backup for their regular networks,” she explains.
“Once a system has been put in place, my team works to be sure it’s delivering reliable service. We also provide preventive maintenance on some systems by working with the engineering department that designs the equipment,” she says. “This allows us to plan ahead, because what is designed is what we end up maintaining.”
Globehopping for college and career
The oldest of four siblings, Tela was born in Kenya and lived there until she married and moved to Zimbabwe. She earned her bachelor of technology degree in electrical engineering and communications in 1991 at Moi University of Science & Technology in Kenya, and her masters in telecommunications and management at the University of Maryland-College Park. She is pursuing a PhD in information assurance and security with the Capella University School of Business and Technology.
Tela’s first job was with Zimbabwe Posts and Telecommunications (ZPTC, now known as Tel One) as a senior engineer in the international data and telegraphy maintenance support unit. She moved into marketing, and ZPTC sent her to the United States in 1999 to attend a global traffic meeting where providers negotiate rates based on communications traffic sent among countries.
At the meeting, she met an Intelsat representative. “At the time, Intelsat was an intergovernmental organization. It had a program called Young Professionals, in which they provided opportunities to people from developing countries. It was a one-year internship where I could work in their technical lab in Washington, DC on new, upcoming disciplines. Even though I was at a different place in my career, I decided to take it.”
She eventually moved into the field, doing planning and installation of Intelsat’s ground network around the world. She is particularly proud to have been part of the team that built and provided emergency telecommunication services to Indonesia following the devastating 2004 tsunami.
She moved to Ellenwood in 2007 as an operations engineer, and moved into a managerial role in 2010. “A lot of my responsibility now is making sure that processes are in place for an efficient technical team. When there’s a technical challenge, I get pulled in to provide leadership and expertise to help resolve it quickly,” she says.
“I enjoy being in a managerial role,” she says. “Some people tell me that’s surprising for someone in technology. When you deal with technology, it’s all straightforward and logical. Once you get into management, you deal more with people and processes, and that’s very dynamic and less predictable. But I like it.”
Tela is a member of the Global VSAT Forum (London, UK), the Society of Satellite Professionals International (New York, NY), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (New York, NY), and Women in Learning & Leadership (Ewing, NJ). She is also a member of Engineer Girl (www.EngineerGirl.org), a program of the National Academy of Engineering that attracts middle and high school girls to technology.
Tela considers herself a lifelong learner, and believes that constant scientific and technological innovation have had a profound effect on learning needs and styles. “I want to continue learning and networking so when the next opportunity comes, I’ll be ready.”
Major Fernando Carreon steps outside the technical to lead advertising for the Air Force
“I was working in a restaurant making $3.35 an hour. I knew that wasn’t going to cut it,” remembers Fernando Carreon. Today, he is Major Fernando Carreon, chief of national advertising for the Air Force Recruiting Service (AFRS) headquarters, stationed at Joint Base San Antonio in Randolph, TX. It is a new position for someone who has spent almost twenty-five years on the technical side of the Air Force, working with aerospace ground equipment and satellite GPS systems.
Carreon is from New Braunfels, TX, just north of San Antonio. “My great-grandfather had a lot of tools in his garage and I jumped into that,” he says. “I loved things that ticked or could be manipulated,” he smiles. “I used to take things apart and put them back together again. I completely rebuilt a 350 Chevrolet engine when I was fifteen years old.”
By his junior year in high school, he felt the pressure of making a decision about what to do after graduation. “I was working in a restaurant where the manager was a retired Air Force master sergeant. I also had an uncle who was in the Air Force, and they made the Air Force stand out for me.”
Carreon enlisted in 1988 and scored well on the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test, which qualified him to work as an Air Force jet engine mechanic. “My mind was made up. I knew that this was what I was going to do,” he says.
He was asked to enlist early and train to be a flightline equipment mechanic, maintaining not only jet engines, but hydraulic systems, a variety of electronics, and other kinds of equipment. He attended Aerospace Ground Equipment Tech School at Chanute AFB, IL, and a few months later became a flightline maintainer at Yokota Air Base, Japan, followed by two tours of duty in the same job in Okinawa. “In flightline maintenance, you do whatever is required to maintain and launch aircraft,” Carreon explains. “I worked on C-130s, F-15s and AWACS, among others.”
In 2000, he earned a BS in occupational education with an emphasis on corporate training from Wayland Baptist University (Plainview, TX), then attended officer training school at Maxwell AFB, AL in 2001. He moved into space and missile operations, went through officer space professional training and GPS satellite training at Vandenberg AFB, CA, and was assigned as a satellite vehicle operator at Schriever AFB in Colorado.
Carreon earned a masters degree in space systems operations management with an emphasis in engineering in 2004 from Webster University (St. Louis, MO). In 2005, he returned to Vandenberg as a GPS instructor and flight commander, training upcoming officers and enlisted personnel to command the satellites of the GPS constellations. He went back to Maxwell for squadron officer school in 2007, and in 2009, he became a space and missile major command functional manager at Air Force Space Command headquarters at Peterson AFB in Colorado.
In 2011, he volunteered as a space liaison officer for an air support ops squadron at Camp Red Cloud in the Republic of Korea. “It was a remote tour, joining with the U.S. and South Korean armies to teach them Air Force capabilities for space operations.”
Stepping outside the comfort zone
Carreon took on his current role last November and acknowledges it’s very different from his past experience. His days are spent overseeing the national advertising and strategic marketing process. He works with an advertising agency to raise awareness of the many career opportunities for Air Force recruits.
“This is part of the Air Force’s plan,” he says, “and I see it as career broadening. We have to step out of our comfort zones and learn about other things that the Air Force does. I’m supposed to bring my technical background to this area and, in turn, when I return to the space community, I can take back some of the things I’ve done here. As we get older in the ranks, we become more influential leaders and use the things we’ve learned.
“I’ll be in this role for the next two or three years,” predicts Carreon, “and then I’m hoping to get into space and intelligence or cyberspace operations, back on the technical side.
“I’ve always worked hard to try to improve processes,” says Carreon. “It’s all about trying to make things better and more efficient for the next guy. For me, doors kept opening that gave me a lot of options to pursue. I always had good leadership ahead of me who said, ‘Yes, you seem like the right guy, this is what we need you to do.’”
DIVERSITY-MINDED ORGANIZATIONS IN COMMUNICATIONS
See websites for current openings.
|Company and location
|Air Force Research Laboratory
(Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH)
|Discovery, development and integration of warfighting technologies for U.S. air, space and cyberspace forces
|Comcast Corporation (Philadelphia, PA)
|Media, technology, entertainment and
|Harris Corporation (Melbourne, FL)
|Communications and information technology serving government and commercial markets
|Hughes Network Systems LLC
|Satellite broadband for home and office
|Intelsat (Washington, DC)
|Global satellite services
|L-3 Communications (New York, NY)
|C3ISR and national security systems, platforms and logistics solutions; electronic systems
|National Radio Astronomy Observatory
(Charlottesville, VA) www.nrao.edu
|State-of-the-art radio telescope facilities for use by the international scientific community
|Sprint Nextel (Overland Park, KS)
|Voice, data and Internet services
|U.S. Air Force Recruiting Service
(Joint Base San Antonio, Randolph, TX)
|National air and space defense
|ViaSat Inc (Carlsbad, CA)
|Network systems and services for fixed and
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