Director, Software Systems Assurance Department
El Segundo, California
Why did you decide to pursue an aerospace engineering degree?
In high school I loved calculus, physics, and computer programming, and aerospace engineering was a good way to learn more about all three of those topics.
Describe your current position.
The Aerospace Corporation is a nonprofit research center that provides impartial technical advice and analyses, primarily to the US Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office. I manage a department of about 20 people who assess software engineering products for satellites, launch vehicles, and ground systems. We perform analyses to ensure that mission-critical software is built properly and will work correctly when it becomes operational. I develop strategic goals for the department, and I make sure my people have everything they need so we can exceed those goals together.
What do you like most about your job? What do you find most challenging?
I enjoy being involved in a diverse set of programs. The aerospace industry includes many esoteric specialties, and aerospace projects often span several years. It's easy to spend an entire career developing deep, narrow expertise on only a few big projects. In ten years, I've worked on four distinct launch vehicles, satellites of all sizes, ground systems, and aircraft, and I've been exposed to the many different ways that various aerospace companies do business.
As a software person, my biggest challenge has been trying to take advantage of innovations in software engineering coming out of the IT world and apply them in the unforgiving world of spaceflight, where constraints are much more rigid and customers are much more risk-averse than they are in Silicon Valley.
If you participated in student projects and/or organizations, how did your experience in these groups help prepare you for your career?
I helped put together a team that participated in the NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program and flew a combustion experiment aboard the KC-135 "Vomit Comet." I learned how to interpret technical specifications and prepare a competitive proposal, how to optimize a design against multiple requirements, how to coordinate a team, how to troubleshoot issues, and many other core engineering lessons. Now that I'm responsible for hiring decisions, these are the types of "real world" experiences that I look for in job candidates.
Were you involved in any fellowships or internships? If so, please explain and discuss the benefits.
My favorite job ever was an internship at NASA Johnson Space Center, where I spent a summer developing software to analyze berthing constraints between the International Space Station and the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle. It was there that I learned what it was like to play a (tiny) meaningful role in a major spaceflight endeavor, and I found my calling. From then on, there was no question in my mind how I would direct my life's work.
Do you recommend any particular focus for students other than academics to improve themselves as potential candidates for jobs?
Communication skills are like success multipliers. It can be tempting to dismiss communication as a wishy-washy "soft skill," but in real-world engineering, the difference between success and failure often comes down to being able to express complicated concepts clearly and precisely to a diverse set of audiences.
The other thing I'd recommend is to take advantage of as much culture and enrichment as you can outside the classroom. The best visionary leaders draw inspiration from diverse experiences, and there is no better place than a college campus like UT to gain perspective and insight into the world outside your bubble. It might not help you land your first job, but it may help you weave that job into a successful career and a more fulfilled life.
Are there courses at UT you wish you had taken? If so, which ones and why?
I have no regrets, but had I known that I would end up spending much of my career working with software, I would have taken another computer science course or two.
Why did you choose one track over the other (atmospheric/space)? Do you feel this has made any difference in your career?
I chose space because I found orbital mechanics and attitude kinematics to be more elegant and satisfying than the messy vagaries of fluid dynamics. At my company there is a similar distinction between atmospheric-oriented "rocket people" and space-oriented "satellite people," and I've often been glad that my time at UT gave me solid foundation in both arenas.
Who was your most influential ASE or EM professor and why?
Dr. E. Glenn Lightsey gave me my first job as an undergraduate research assistant at the Center for Space Research, and he introduced me to the Global Positioning System (GPS). I've spent most of my career working on the GPS satellite constellation and ground segment, so I have quite a lot to thank him for.
What has been your most influential ASE or EM course and why?
Satellite Navigation. Not only did I learn how to code my own GPS Kalman filter, I also got a crash course in how to respond to setbacks. Throughout the course I was plagued by a sneaky software bug that I never really managed to squash, and I received my worst grade ever as an undergraduate. Ironically I ended up spending years helping GPS squash its software bugs.
What is one piece of advice you have for current students?
Don't fret if you aren't 100% sure what you want to do with your life. Learn voraciously and always take pride in your work, and you'll either (a) get good at doing what you love, or (b) learn to love doing what you're good at.
Do you have a favorite memory as a UT aerospace student?
On my KC-135 "Vomit Comet" project, there was a moment of triumph in the hangar at Ellington Field when our experiment weighed in at the exact upper limit allowed in the specifications. We had struggled to keep the weight down, and we had to make stressful last-minute modifications to meet the requirement, so when the digital display read "200 lb" on the dot*, it was a huge relief, and the whole team busted out laughing and celebrating.
(* or whatever the weight number was; I don't recall exactly)
List three things that most people don't know about you.
1. I have an irrational fear of small birds in enclosed spaces.
2. In high school, I was a football player, and a bit of a troublemaker.
3. I used to fall asleep in class all the time. I always sat in the front row to try and stay awake, but it never worked.