Systems engineers: needed in more industries than ever
“In systems engineering, you essentially have an inch of knowledge a mile wide so you rely on team members with a mile of depth to support you.”
– Briana Lucero, Ball Aerospace
One industry expert cites a need for systems engineers in new sectors such as ground transportation, automotive, energy and healthcare
By Dan Margherita
Senior Contributing Editor
'These are exciting times to be a systems engineer. A lot of transformation is under way,” says Anne O’Neil. O’Neil is a member of the board of the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE, San Diego, CA).
Although systems engineers are well engaged in the traditional defense, aerospace and aviation industries, O’Neil sees increasing demand from new sectors like mass transportation, automotive, energy and healthcare. “These industries don’t have the legacy of applying systems practices, but now they are experiencing levels of complexity that require systems expertise,” she explains.
Transportation: a growing field for systems engineers
“The transportation industry, for example, has historically consisted of heavy civil infrastructure with very few interfaces, and those were usually physical, things you could touch,” like the interface between station platforms and rail cars, says O’Neil. “But in the last few decades, we have deployed technology that is very software and communications-intensive: customer information systems, security systems, remote monitoring and control systems operations and maintenance,” she continues. “Even the buses and rail cars themselves have all kinds of onboard diagnostics.”
O’Neil believes that many large organizations need to improve the way they anticipate, design and evolve technology integration. That, she says, is where systems engineers should focus their efforts.
Systems engineers can help improve outcomes
Healthcare also needs people who understand its business context and the unique systems challenges it faces. O’Neil notes that in May, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology delivered a report, “Better Health Care and Lower Costs: Accelerating Improvement through Systems Engineering.” Systems tools and methods, the report asserts, “can be used to ensure that care is reliably safe, to eliminate inefficient processes… and to ensure that health care is centered on patients and their families.”
“Our healthcare system emerged out of separate, uncoordinated efforts of many organizations,” O’Neil explains. “Most agree that we aren’t getting the desired patient outcomes, even though costs are rising.” Applying a systems approach, she says, can help realign the healthcare system and improve outcomes.
O’Neil warns that the demand in these new areas may put pressure on the supply of experienced systems engineers. “There are going to be many opportunities for systems engineering practitioners as these new industries look to leverage their expertise.”
Miguel Torres combines rail systems engineering with people skills at HNTB
Miguel Torres is a rail systems engineer working for architectural and engineering design firm HNTB (Kansas City, MO). He works out of the firm’s Miami, FL office a few hours from Orlando, which is the office that manages his current project, the SunRail Commuter Line transit extension. His entire career has been in heavy rail system design, build, operation and maintenance.
Born in the Bronx, Torres moved to Puerto Rico when he was fourteen. He attended the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico (San Juan), and earned his BSEE in 1999.
Torres’s first job was for Siemens Transportation Group, which was building the Tren Urbano, a fully automated rapid transit system serving metropolitan San Juan. “It was my first job and my first experience in the rail industry. I had good grades, but being bilingual was probably the key factor in my being hired,” Torres believes. “Siemens is based in Germany, and the employees spoke mainly English and German. I played a key role in translating.”
Construction ended in 2006 and engineering design firm AECOM (Los Angeles, CA) was contracted to oversee operations and maintenance. Torres joined AECOM as the lead systems communications engineer.
A new opportunity
In 2009 he joined HNTB. “I heard they were looking for a systems guy in Florida to help with building an extension from an existing station to Miami International Airport,” he explains. He got the job and soon became the project manager/systems manager.
In 2011, Torres joined the HNTB systems engineering group for the SunRail Commuter Line, sixty-two miles of rail that the state of Florida had purchased from CSX Corporation. “I was initially SunRail’s communications engineer,” he says, “reviewing the design and overseeing the construction, installation and testing of
the communications system.” In 2012, he was promoted to systems integration manager where he ensured that all systems – communications, signaling and onboard –
integrated with each other.
Torres is now an HNTB consultant to the Florida Department of Transportation, overseeing SunRail Phase 2 designs. He’s also acting as rail systems engineer for the now-operational Phase 1. He reviews trouble logs, determines what systems failed, and assists in troubleshooting. “I can help because I know all the intricacies of how the system was built,” he explains. He also oversees preventive maintenance.
“Now I say I’m trilingual,” he laughs. “I have to speak Spanish because some of the workers don’t speak English, but I also have to translate the messages that I’m getting from management to them.” He also has to be able to translate his technical knowledge back to management.
Torres earned an MS in engineering management from Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico in 2008, the year before he joined HNTB. “I wanted to be able to understand management terms and I felt that a masters degree would enhance my career and not limit it only to engineering,” he explains. “It’s really opened doors for me.”
Torres has his professional engineering license and is a member of the Florida Board of Professional Engineers (Tallahassee, FL).
“The rail industry in Florida is growing,” notes Torres. “My title of rail systems engineer is unique. It isn’t something that you learn in college.”
Hiring is hot at HNTB
“HNTB is hiring at an unprecedented rate,” says Lindsey Jordan, corporate HR director and vice president. “We differentiate ourselves from competitors by creating a work environment attractive to all generations of workers. Diversity and inclusion at HNTB means we promote a work environment where employees are respected, have opportunities to grow professionally and contribute fully to our common goals.”
Dana Burge: standardization and Lean Six Sigma for the USAF
Dana Burge is an industrial engineer in the systems engineering policy branch of the Air Force Sustainment Center (AFSC) engineering directorate, headquartered at Tinker Air Force Base (Oklahoma City, OK).
Burge grew up in Spencer, OK. “I liked figuring out ways to make things run more smoothly,” she explains, “what we call today ‘leaning them out.’”
During her senior year of high school, Burge participated in an Engineer for a Day event at Tinker. “They took us to a warehouse that was completely dark and we rode in an automated guided vehicle programmed to follow wires in the floor,” she remembers. “It took us where we needed to go without turning on any lights, a way of reducing electricity costs. That turned me on to industrial engineering.”
Burge won an engineering scholarship at Oklahoma State University (Stillwater), and earned a 1993 BS in industrial engineering and management. She interned at oil company ConocoPhillips, where she helped design pipelines.
Kicking off a varied career
She accepted a job with Dana Corporation (Oklahoma City), a supplier of powertrain components. “The division I worked for made filtration systems for big rigs,” Burge says. By 1998, Burge was an industrial engineering manager working in new product development.
She wanted to move into a bigger company, so she joined a building products manufacturer in Oklahoma City. As an industrial engineer, she worked with a team of engineers in different disciplines including mechanical and chemical engineering. After three years, she moved to sales and marketing.
An opportunity for growth and leadership
In 2003 Burge heard of a job opportunity at Tinker AFB and jumped at the chance. “Initially, I acted as a facilities engineer working with production shop floor personnel, using ergonomics and lean principles to modify shop layout, increase throughput and decrease man-hours.”
In 2005, she moved into program management, then into facilities layout, where she worked on a project to convert a three-million-square-foot space that had been an automobile assembly plant into a maintenance repair and overhaul facility for aircraft.
Then she moved to AFSC engineering. “I was the liaison between the maintenance world and the engineering directorate,” she explains. The engineering directorate oversees all the engineers at three air force bases. “Under AFSC, we have to make sure all the policies are standardized for the three complexes.” She still spends a lot of time on the shop floor, seeing what’s working and what isn’t.
In 2013, Burge participated in the aerospace and defense MBA program at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville). The program combines several one-week residencies with distance learning and is focused on management in the aerospace industry. “MBAs are becoming the norm in our industry,” she notes. She is also a member of the Society of Women Engineers.
This fall, Burge moved into a new role managing a team of ten program managers handling Lean Six Sigma projects. “It’s an exciting opportunity to get back to my roots and also use what I learned getting my MBA,” she says.
Monique Mitchener uses Scrum for big projects at L-3
L-3 National Security Solutions (NSS, Reston, VA), a business segment of L-3 (New York, NY), does advanced technology and software development for government and military customers.
As a senior systems engineer, Monique Mitchener fulfills the responsibilities of a Scrum product owner for her government customer. “I oversee, set priorities and manage the work for a software project that utilizes Agile development methodology,” she explains. “The end product will support the national intelligence community’s information technology enterprise program.”
Often, NSS needs to deliver new versions of software to customers in two or three weeks, and Scrum is an essential process to that requirement. “We hold daily Scrum meetings to share relevant information and set the context for the day’s work,” says Mitchener. “This process is in wide use at L-3. We’re setting the standard in this work for our government customers.”
Interest spurred by Reserve service
Mitchener has always worked in IT and has been with L-3 for eleven years. However, the Baltimore, MD native remembers, “My early aspirations were in psychology. My interest in the tech field was piqued during my time in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. I scored high in the electronics portion of the military test, and I chose a career field in database administration.”
Mitchener attended the University of Maryland University College (UMUC, Adelphi) and received her BS in computer science in 1993. “I was living overseas, and UMUC offered the flexibility I needed in order to hold a fulltime job while seeking my degree,” she remembers.
She also earned an MS in software engineering from Central Michigan University (Mt Pleasant) in 1998.
Mitchener earned both of these degrees while employed by a Department of Defense component in the Washington, DC area. “Government recruiters came to my high school and gave students an opportunity to take their exam,” she says. “I took the exam and was recruited right out of high school. I joined in 1986 and was there for fourteen years.”
During eight of those years, Mitchener was also a database analyst in the Air Force Reserve.
She left the DoD to become a principal engineer at General Dynamics (Falls Church, VA), and stayed there for three years. She joined Titan Corporation (San Diego, CA) in 2003, and Titan was acquired by L-3 two years later.
Mitchener belongs to the Project Management Institute, the Federal Information Technology Security Institute, the Information Systems Security Association, the Scrum Alliance, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and the International Council of Systems Engineering. She’s also a member of L-3’s NSBE recruiting team.
Claude Jones of the FAA: bit by the aviation bug
“My interest in aviation began in the early sixties when John Glenn orbited the earth,” remembers Claude Jones. “I was four, and I asked my dad, ‘How do you shoot a man into space?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. Why don’t you find out and tell me?’ So I began reading and looking at books about rockets and airplanes. I’ve been an aviation enthusiast ever since.”
Jones is program manager of the Runway Status Light (RWSL) program, a critical runway safety initiative for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA, Washington, DC). RWSL technology uses red in-pavement airport lights to signal potentially unsafe situations to pilots and support crews.
Jones is responsible for the overall management and technical direction of the RWSL nationwide. He leads a federal and contractor workforce of designers, engineers, testers, logisticians, and construction and installation specialists. “There are thirty-seven core team members and over 100 members on the extended team,” he says.
Proud traditions and service
Born and raised in Raleigh, NC, Jones has lived in the DC area for almost thirty years. He attended Shaw University (Raleigh) and received a BS in mathematics in 1979. “Shaw University was the family alma mater,” he notes. “My mother was a professor there.”
He got his start in technology in the U.S. Air Force. “I went to see an air force recruiter in 1980 during the Iranian hostage crisis to volunteer for military service,” says Jones. “The recruiter told me about an engineering opportunity that included attending the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT, Fairborn, OH), and I accepted it.” He earned a BS in aerospace engineering from AFIT in 1982. He also has a 1995 MS in engineering management from the University of Maryland (College Park).
Jones is a manager now, but he had previous assignments as a systems engineer. “My first career job was in transportation, not aviation,” he says. “I worked for the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT, Raleigh, NC) for two years as a highway engineering technician.”
Between 1980 and 1986, during his air force service, Jones was a test engineer in the AF armament division, participating in tests for missiles, bombs and range instrumentation.
After he left the service in 1987, he joined New Jersey-based defense contractor Semcor, Inc as a communications engineer. He worked on the technical staff for engineering support of shore-based communications/electronic systems for the Navy Space and Warfare Systems Command and on a variety of other navy projects.
He joined the FAA in 1999, and managed a variety of FAA programs before taking on his current role with the RWSL.
Jones is a member of the National Black Coalition of Federal Aviation Employees (NBCFAE, Atlanta, GA), a group that works to promote equal employment and improve employee-management and community relations. He is also a member of the Project Management Institute, the American Management Association and the Academy of Model Aeronautics.
Gates scholar Briana Lucero supports critical missions at Ball Aerospace
Gates Millennium Scholar Briana Lucero is a missions systems engineer and requirements manager at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation (Boulder, CO). She supports critical missions for the Department of Defense, NASA, NOAA and other U.S. government and commercial entities.
Lucero attended Colorado School of Mines (CSM, Golden) for mechanical and electrical engineering and earned her BS in 2009 and MS in 2011. She has an additional MS in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD) and is finishing her engineering systems doctorate at CSM with minors in humanitarian engineering and science, technology, engineering and policy.
The Gates scholarship (gmsp.org) has funded her through ten years of schooling. “I studied a lot of literature,” she remembers, “but I have wanted to work in aerospace since I was a child.”
A career path mixing philosophies with smarts
She grew up in Denver, CO. “There was always an emphasis on trades in our family, understanding that there is a joy and beauty to working with your hands,” she says.
She started taking courses at CSM during her senior year in high school. “My family put a lot of emphasis on community and giving back. I leaned toward the sciences as a way to develop tools to work with disabled students or help low-income families send their kids to school.”
She interned at two different employers, working mostly in facilities and maintenance engineering. “It was wonderful fun,” she says, “but I felt that my calling was in aerospace engineering.”
Lucero had been active in CSM’s minority engineering program, and she responded to a call from Ball Aerospace inviting all the engineering schools in the area to a diversity career fair. She applied and was accepted into a ten-week internship program after graduation. She worked as a contractor for an additional six months until she finished her masters degree, and became a fulltime employee in 2010.
Her first assignment was working with the systems team on the launch of the NPP weather satellite for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, Washington, DC). Its data is used to detect the potential for dangerous weather conditions days or weeks in advance.
Two months later, Lucero was promoted to mission systems engineer and moved to Ball’s command and data handling subsystem. “It was a very technical role that allowed me to touch hardware more often, relying more on my electrical side,” she explains. “One of the things I love about Ball is that I can keep my existing skills sharp while I’m learning new ones.”
Part of a critical team
She took on her current role in May. Lucero is responsible for two environmental imaging sensors that look at environmental impacts of pollutants and emissions in North America and Asia.
“The work I do is very team dependent,” she emphasizes. “In systems engineering, you essentially have an inch of knowledge that is a mile wide so you rely on team members who have a mile’s worth of depth to support you.”
Lucero says she still isn’t sure what she wants to be when she grows up. “Right now, I’m doing a lot of administration, making sure we can account for all of our margins and artifacts because once we start testing, everything has to have full traceability.
“There are a lot of opportunities for growth within Ball. I hope to continue to put my knowledge to work for them and see what the future brings.”
Many opportunities at Ball Aerospace
“We have a large systems engineering organization here in Colorado and many systems engineering employees in locations across the country,” says Vikki Schiff, Ball Aerospace’s vice president of human resources. “We hire systems, systems integrations and test, and configuration management engineers. In addition, we bring many systems engineering-focused interns into our organization every year.”
She adds, “We consider diversity a big priority for our business. A diverse workforce gives the company access to a variety of experiences and perspectives. These perspectives drive innovation by revealing new and creative solutions required in a technology development environment.”
Hin Chan: systems engineering for NAVAIR
After graduating in 1987 from Polytechnic Institute of New York University (formerly Polytechnic University, Brooklyn) with a BS in electrical engineering, Hin Chan began his career as a systems engineer with the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD) in California.
In a twenty-eight-year career with the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), Chan has worked in both hands-on and administrative capacities. He now has a dual role as deputy director of software engineering and software engineering and acquisition management division head at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (Patuxent River, MD).
As deputy director, Chan ensures that weapons software is developed to standards that ensure the systems are effective and operationally suitable for navy use. As a division head, he leads seventeen branches in four different parts of the country, with close to 300 in-house personnel and more than fifty contractors.
Chan’s family came to the U.S. when he was an infant. His first interest was in aerospace engineering. “But I found that the electrical engineering and computer science fields were growing exponentially compared to aerospace. Also, they offered more latitude in terms of what you could do and where you could work.”
He did two internships, the first at insurance company AIG (Boston, MA) and another at a company that sold information about companies on CDs. “Remember,” he says, “the Internet was not commercially available back then.”
Blown away by NAVAIR
After he graduated, Chan wanted to go to the West Coast, and after several interviews, he got a call from NAVAIR in Point Mugu, CA. “I was totally blown away by the work environment and the cutting-edge technology I saw there,” he remembers.
As a systems engineer, Chan spent six years working on the upgrades to the F-14 aircraft. In 1994, he became the F-14 lab integrated product team leader.
In 1997, Chan worked on a special assignment as a systems engineering consultant for NASA at the Johnson Space Center (Houston, TX) providing systems engineering support to the Space Shuttle Program Office. He worked on planning for an upgrade of the orbiter’s communication suite, displays and payload computer. “The orbiter was becoming obsolete from an avionics standpoint,” explains Chan, “and they brought me in to help generate a systematic way to update it.”
Climbing the ladder at NAVAIR
Upon his return to NAVAIR, Chan moved through a series of roles with increasing responsibility. In 1998, he was named tactical aircraft lab branch head. In 2000, he became F-14 chief engineer for NAWCWD. From 2004 to 2008, Chan was technical director for the battlespace systems engineering enterprise team at Naval Air Systems Command headquarters. He took on his current title in 2006.
“I could never have foreseen how my career would play out,” Chan reflects.
JP Cardenas works on long-term military projects through SPA
As he was graduating from college in 2008, JP Cardenas still didn’t have a job. “All my friends had jobs lined up, and they weren’t stressed out,” he remembers. “I was wondering what I was going to do.”
A few months later his father, who had recently retired from the U.S. Army, received an invitation to attend a career fair in Washington, DC focused on hiring military veterans. He passed the information along to his son.
“I talked with a lot of different companies before I went over to a booth for Systems Planning & Analysis (SPA, Alexandria, VA). It was a new company to me, but I was interested in what they had to say.” Two weeks later a recruiter called, and a job offer quickly followed. He joined in 2008.
SPA provides engineering, analysis and program management services for government agencies and private industry.
Video games lead to lifetime of curiosity
Cardenas’s mother is from Mexico and his father from Colombia. Born in Indianapolis, IN, Cardenas moved often because of his father’s military service. He lived in Guatemala and Tunisia before finally moving to Virginia, where he graduated from high school.
“I was always fascinated with technology,” he says. “My earliest experience was playing video games with my family on our first computer, and I immediately wanted to know how it all worked. I realize now the impact early exposure to technology can have on people’s lives.”
Cardenas attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech, Blacksburg), earning his BS in industrial and systems engineering.
He took computer science classes in high school and knew he would pursue engineering in college, but wasn’t sure what discipline. “The first year at Virginia Tech gives you an overview of available fields,” he says. “I thought about computer science, but switched to systems engineering because I enjoyed the math and statistics involved.”
He interned with the U.S. Coast Guard, working on its general campaign analysis model (GCAM), a tactical analysis tool that simulates specific Coast Guard missions. Coincidentally, the model had been developed by SPA, and Cardenas attributes his current job partly to his internship.
“During the interview at SPA, my experience with GCAM came up a lot,” he says. “I think that experience gave me a boost over other candidates.”
When he joined, his title was associate systems engineer. “My peers had different job titles but we pretty much did the same thing. Some of us were computer analysts, operations researchers, or systems engineers, but that’s one of the nice things about SPA. We aren’t tied down to any one position. We have the opportunity to move toward what interests us.”
His six years at SPA have been spent in support of the Coast Guard and U.S. Navy, working on physical security of strategic weapons and facilities and creating simulations of real-world tactics and procedures. A great deal of what Cardenas does is classified. “I spend a lot of time in a room with no windows,” he says with a smile.
Today, he is a member of professional staff. He says he has taken on more responsibility, but also has a lot more independence interacting with the navy, his main client. “I’m not at a program manager level yet, but I’m working in different areas where I’m needed. Some of what I do now is for a specific, long-term mission that I’ve been working on since I got here.”
A big part of systems engineering is making sure different components work together, and Cardenas says that’s also a big part of his work. “We have facilities and equipment out in the field, and we need them to work in unison because we’re trying to provide a more effective system,” he says. “It’s always a balance. You can implement a new feature, but you have to be sure it doesn’t end up breaking something else down the line. That’s why clients look to us at SPA: to think ahead and provide the best solution.”
Cardenas wants to stay in technology. He likes the people and the variety of work at SPA. He sees room for growth and eventually hopes to take on his own projects with a strong team supporting him.
He also may have the last laugh on his friends from college. “A lot of those guys are on their second or even third job,” Cardenas says. “I guess they didn’t like their first job as much as I did.”
SPA fosters diversity
Growth and diversity are important to the organization. “SPA is committed to fostering diversity when we fill open positions,” says Deb McDonald, recruiting manager. “We can be more creative and effective when we bring varied perspectives, experiences, backgrounds, talents and interests into our company. A diverse group of talented professionals is critically important to the success of every organization. We recognize that achieving diversity is an evolutionary process that requires a continued commitment.”
Parissa Fathalipour works in night vision and tactical comm R&D; at Exelis
Exelis (McLean, VA) is an aerospace, defense and information services company that delivers mission-critical solutions for military, government and commercial customers in the United States and globally.
Parissa Fathalipour is a project engineer in R&D; in the night vision and communications solutions division. She works primarily with international clients. “My role is a merge of a systems engineer and a program manager for R&D;,” she explains. “I’m responsible for the technical aspects of a program as well as its budget, schedule and other administrative issues.”
Her most recent work was on the development of the company’s i-Aware tactical mobility night vision goggles. “Our business development people, working with R&D;, came up with a concept for a new system. At the same time, we had a customer come to us with a need for this kind of equipment. Since we already had the idea internally, we were able to work with the customer to refine the concept and quickly produce prototypes.”
The project took three years to complete. Fathalipour led the team for two of those years. “For each of our development programs, the project
engineer works with a multidisciplinary team. It isn’t a direct reporting relationship, but the project engineer provides direction and is responsible for the team’s progress. I interacted with the customer, interfacing with their technical team and bringing back their requirements to our team,” explains Fathalipour. “I represented the Exelis R&D; team.”
A natural techie almost became an accountant
Fathalipour is from Tucson, AZ. Her parents both have technical backgrounds, and, she says, “engineering always seemed like a good fit for me.” She attended the University of Arizona (Tucson) and earned a 2006 BS in optical sciences and engineering.
As an intern, she did lab work and testing, first at the Arizona offices of Nitto Denko America, a subsidiary of a Japanese company. Her second internship was for the National Science Foundation.
When she graduated, Fathalipour found that the market for optical engineers wasn’t as big as she thought. “It was frustrating,” she remembers. “I ended up working as a bookkeeper for almost two years. I actually considered going back to school for an MBA and a CPA certification to get a job as an accountant.”
Finding her place
With the help of a headhunter, Fathalipour heard about an opportunity at Exelis for an optical technician. They considered her overqualified, but Exelis agreed to an interview and she was hired to help with optical testing, supporting systems engineers. “I helped qualify new vendors and did troubleshooting. It was a lot of hands-on work.”
She was promoted to systems engineer in 2009. In 2018, she earned an MS in systems engineering from the Stevens Institute of Technology (Hoboken, NJ). She studied online while continuing to work full time. “I wanted to get more of a sense for traditional systems engineering,” Fathalipour explains. “I wanted to be able to see through the lifecycle of a product.” She moved into her current role early in 2013.
Short term, Fathalipour hopes to hone her leadership skills as either a project engineer or program manager. “I like staying close to the technical side.”
Rajesh Chawla works on U.S. Navy ship technologies at DRS Technologies subsidiary
“Staff software engineer is my title,” says Rajesh Chawla, “but I work on a cross-functional team and do a lot of systems work here at PCT.”
Power & Control Technologies, Inc (PCT, Milwaukee, WI) is a subsidiary of Finnmeccanica DRS Technologies (Gaithersburg, MD). It provides engineering, design, manufacturing, and testing of power conversion, power distribution, controls and automation for naval vessels.
“The U.S. Navy is moving toward increased power efficiency and cost savings on its ships,” he explains. “To accomplish this, power has to be converted and delivered safely to various parts of the ship. This is a big part of my job.”
Currently, he’s part of a team of about twelve engineers that’s coming to the end of the largest project in PCT’s history: the DRS integrated fight through power (IFTP) system. The project, begun in 2007, is being installed on the USS Zumwalt, the most advanced warship in the world and the first of a family of three navy stealth destroyers.
IFTP can locate problem areas and fix itself in the event of damage to the ship or its systems, essentially eliminating human error. “We have multiple cabinets monitoring all areas of the ship,” explains Chawla. “If it gets hit, the system automatically detects the problem and intervenes to transfer power to it from other areas.”
Chawla reviews how these large electrical cabinets produce power, ensuring that interfaces and switchings are accomplished without hiccups. If there are problems, he has to resolve them whether they are hardware or software issues, calibrations, or configurations. It’s essentially a systems responsibility.
Working toward achievements
Chawla is from Mumbai, India. “I was always intrigued by computers even though our family didn’t have one,” he says. “My dad owned an electrical repair shop and that got me interested in engineering.” He attended the Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute (now the Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute, Mumbai) where he received his BS in electrical engineering in 1985.
When he graduated, Chawla wanted to come to the United States for graduate studies but couldn’t afford it. He got a job at computer company PSI Data Systems (Bangalore, India) as a field service engineer.
He was interested in the automotive industry, and in 1987 was finally able to come to the U.S. on a student visa, settling in Detroit, MI. He began his studies toward an MS in electrical and computer engineering at Wayne State University (Detroit), which he received in 1989.
Chawla went to work in software engineering, first at Ecosystems (Rochester Hills, MI), a manufacturer of automotive statistical process controls. After two years, he moved to industrial computer manufacturer Xycom. In 1993, he worked for a year as a contractor to Chrysler working on diagnostic tools until he joined General Motors (GM, Detroit, MI) as a software engineer working on engine control strategies. “This is where I really got my systems knowledge,” he remembers.
While at GM, he earned a 1997 MBA in finance, again from Wayne State.
Taking risks and developing new ideas
In 2002, Chawla was an electronic throttle control algorithm engineer at GM when he got a call from friends who were starting a company called Moto Tron in Oshkosh, WI. “My career was moving along really well, but I left my cushy GM job and moved to Wisconsin. That’s the risk taker in me,” he says with a smile.
“It worked out well,” Chawla says. “We came up with a new method of code generation that could be used in any software development process. We did programs in three to six months that had taken other people two years to develop.” In 2008, Moto Tron was acquired by Woodward, Inc (Fort Collins, CO).
In 2010, Chawla joined PCT as a software engineer II. He moved up to drives group manager in 2011 and a year later, when PCT was having trouble hiring good software engineers, Chawla volunteered to return to software development as a principal software/systems engineer. “Hands-on work gives me a lot more satisfaction than managing people,” he says.
Chawla moved into his current job in spring 2018. “In the next year or so, I want to improve the way PCT does product development,” he says. “This can be time-consuming and costly, and I’ve talked with my general manager who is excited about my ideas. I believe it will revolutionize PCT and then we can do it in other areas of DRS.”
DRS: diversity spurs innovation
Director of human resources Liz Fricke says, “At DRS, promoting diversity and creating an inclusive work environment fosters the innovation that systems engineers must use to excel as independent contributors and as members of a larger project team.”
DIVERSITY-MINDED ORGANIZATIONS HIRING SYSTEMS ENGINEERS
Check websites for current listings.
|Company and location
|Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp
(Boulder, CO) www.ballaerospace.com
|Supports U.S. government and commercial entities
including the Department of Defense, NASA and NOAA
|DRS Technologies (Gaithersburg, MD)
|Integrated products, services and support for military, intelligence agencies and prime contractors worldwide
|Exelis (McLean, VA)
|Aerospace, defense, information and services
|Federal Aviation Administration
(FAA, Washington, DC) www.faa.gov
|Ensures the safety and efficiency of the U.S. aerospace system
|HNTB (Kansas City, MO)
|Infrastructure solutions for public and private owners and construction contractors
|L-3 National Security Solutions (Reston, VA)
|Advanced technology and software development for U.S. government and military
|Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division
(NAWCAD, Patuxent River, MD)
|R&D;, engineering, test and evaluation, acquisition, and lifecycle support of all fixed and rotary-wing
aircraft for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
|System Planning & Analysis
(SPA, Alexandria, VA)
|Systems engineering and project management support for the U.S. Navy’s strategic systems programs
|U.S. Air Force (Washington, DC)
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