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Aeronautical Engineers

A day in the life of two aeronautical engineers.

By Nancy J. Mellem

Name: Brett L. Anderson

Company: Integrated Defense Systems, The Boeing Company
Job Title: Director of Technology, Tools and Processes, NASA Systems
Education & University: BS Aerospace Engineering,
Iowa State University;
MBA, Wichita State University

Anderson joined The Boeing Company at their Everett, Wash. location in 1989. Since 1989 he has worked for Boeing Commercial Aircraft, Integrated Defense Systems and Phantom Works. He is currently assigned to Boeing NASA Systems as the director of technology, tools and processes. He is responsible for supporting the efforts of over 7,800 employees working on the Space Shuttle Program, the International Space Station, and the exciting new programs under the Vision for Space Exploration.

Brett L. Anderson

The Vision for Space Exploration calls for an affordable "stepping stone" strategy of human and robotic missions to achieve new exploration goals of returning humans to the Moon and journeying to Mars and beyond. Anderson coordinates with internal and external technology experts to identify short- and long-term roadmaps to match business needs with strategic direction for technology development and business opportunities.

Anderson is a Fellow of the Society of Allied Weight Engineers (SAWE) and an Associate Fellow in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). He received the National SAWE Ed Payne Award for outstanding young engineer in 1999. Anderson was granted his mechanical engineering license in 1999. He is a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and an active team member for the Accreditation Board for Engineering Technology (ABET) for Engineering colleges with Aerospace curriculums.

Name: Catherine M. Downen

Company: Raytheon Aircraft Company
Job Title: Manager, Technology and Contracted Research
Education & University: BS and MS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Kansas

Upon graduating with her MS in aerospace engineering, Downen was hired at the Raytheon Aircraft Company in Wichita, Kan., and she has worked there for more than nine years. Downen started out as a nacelle designer on a new aircraft program, the Premier I, which is an entry-level business jet, and she spent about six months designing the housing that surrounds the engine.

Catherine M. Downen

Her true interest from school was aerodynamics, so Downen looked for other opportunities within Raytheon and transferred into the aerodynamics group. She did wind tunnel testing, flight testing, and other aerodynamic analysis on the Premier I program until it was certified with the FAA. Throughout her six years on that program, she gained more experience and responsibility in the group, until she was the lead aero engineer on the program.

Dwnen is very involved in the AIAA, and she has been elected to the position of vice president of member services. She also participated in a leadership development program for engineers sponsored by Raytheon.

1) How long have you been at your job and what do you do there?

BLA: I've been with Boeing for over 15 years in a wide variety of assignments. This job is relatively new and I've been doing it for a little over a year now. My primary responsibilities are to identify and develop technology, process and tools that maintain or improve our ability to support programs that provide our customers with technically excellent products.

I've also been active on some proposal teams, recently managing multiple leading edge technology development programs in support of a Boeing proposal for a long duration, nuclear powered spacecraft utilizing electric propulsion.

I'm currently involved in several programs that support the Vision for Space Exploration, as announced by the president on Jan. 14, 2004. These are exciting and challenging projects that really represent the best of what [Boeing] can do.

CMD: I have worked at Raytheon Aircraft Company for over nine years. After the Premier I program, I joined the Preliminary Design group at Raytheon Aircraft. In that department, I act as a manager and engineer for several research projects we conduct to investigate new technologies in aerospace. One of the most fun projects I have worked on in that group is the design of a supersonic business jet that has a "quiet" supersonic boom. Someday, designers will be able to build a supersonic jet that does not produce the loud "boom" that resulted in restrictions in supersonic overland flight.

2) What's the best aspect of your job?

BLA: The people and the job are fun. I have the opportunity and responsibility to look over the needs for our current and future programs and help [my team] determine what technology or tools need to be available to make us successful. I get to work with the smartest people, doing the most exciting technical work and help everyone figure out how to package [our products] as solutions for our customers. I've always felt that I've had some great jobs within Boeing, but I honestly don't think that anything can top my current assignment.

One of the reasons I took this job was that I could see a renewed interest and vigor in our space program. Space exploration is one of the most challenging endeavors that any engineer can tackle. Space is an unforgiving environment, but it has brought our society so many benefits. When you think of the cool stuff we have today, a lot of it came from our technology or engineering advances from space exploration. Just a few of the many examples of these specialized or consumer products with a direct origin in the space program include: digital implantable hearing aids, miniature heart pumps, smoke detectors, fire-resistant aircraft seats, rain water purification systems for developing countries, LASIC eye surgery, satellite radio and television services, cordless tools and GPS navigation. Just think, all of this from addressing the challenges of space exploration. How could anyone turn this type of job down?

CMD: [The best aspect of my job is] the ability to create something and see it come to fruition. The time I spent working on the Premier I program was incredible because we started with a clean-sheet design for an aircraft and worked together to create a production aircraft. It was so exciting to see the first flight of an airplane that I had helped design!

I also get to experience this creativity in my current job in the preliminary design group. We are working with some of the leading-edge researchers at NASA and other groups to promote and research new technologies. Some of the projects we are working on may not fly for ten years, but it is very rewarding to know that we are pushing the envelope on new technology for business and personal aircraft.

3) What's more important: salary or job satisfaction?

BLA: Job satisfaction is absolutely the most important part of any career. I have enjoyed some success in salary, but it is because I have always picked my next assignment based on what I wanted to do or what I was fascinated with at the moment. Do something you love and are passionate about, and you will be successful.

Do something only for money and it becomes a job. Passion leads to fulfilling careers.

CMD: Job satisfaction is the most important reward. Engineers are generally paid fairly well, at least enough to lead a comfortable life, so I have never been too concerned with salary. When I'm ready to retire and look back on my life, the money will not be what I remember. I will remember the awesome aircraft programs I have contributed to, the first-flights I witnessed, and the great people I worked with. If you don't get satisfaction out of what you do every day, then no amount of money will compensate for that. I strongly believe that everyone must find a career that makes them happy and inspired.

4) What's the best career advice you've ever received?

BLA: It was a contradiction of the old phrase, "It's not what you know, it's who you know." A group of us were discussing this over lunch one day when our senior manager overheard us. He stopped and listened a bit and then passed on the following thought: It's not who you know, but rather who knows you and your capabilities.

Engineers do need to network because that does help a career, but you still need to have a solid technical reputation. Build your professional reputation on your actions and work, but make sure you learn about the environment as you do. Over time, the leaders of your organization will recall who you are and put you in the position to work on interesting projects and show your strengths.

CMD: Look out for Number One. Meaning, be proactive and take control of your own career. After all, who will care about you more than you do? Don't expect your boss to decide where your career path will take you. Figure out where you want to go and how you plan to get there. Then talk to your supervisor and work together to make it happen. If you find yourself in a job you don't enjoy, don't just wait for something to change. Take action! Talk to your boss about your concerns and be involved in the solution. Also, find a mentor who will offer you sound advice and honest feedback on how you can improve. Never forget, this is your career, so don't be a spectator.

5) What's the best way a fresh-out-of-college employee can impress you during the first week on the job?

BLA: The first week is a tough time. What impresses me is the individual who takes advantage of this time to really understand the job by talking with their customers and suppliers. All too often, we start employees with a huge list of tools they need to learn how to use, policies and guidelines to follow, and training they need to function in the office. That can lead new hires to sitting at their desk and reading manuals or playing with the computer all day long trying to understand the tools. However, the real job involves understanding how you impact other's work. Show me that you understand where you fit into the process because you've talked to your team, customers and suppliers, and I will be very impressed.

CMD: Show initiative, enthusiasm and a willingness to learn. Initiative is extremely important to be successful in any job. Look for opportunities to help out, solve problems and improve. If you encounter a barrier that stops you from solving a problem, don't just give up or wait for someone to show you the next step, look for another solution yourself.

We don't expect a fresh-out-of-college employee to be able to jump into a project and solve every problem, but we do want you to try, and to ask a lot of questions. Don't worry about sounding like the smartest person in the room; you'll make a better impression if you admit what you don't know. Besides, the senior engineers will appreciate your humbleness and be flattered that you are seeking their guidance. Show a willingness to learn and you will make a great impression.

6) How did you learn to work with staff outside of your department?

BLA: It started when my first lead engineer walked me out onto the factory floor and introduced me to the lead mechanic responsible for building the parts of the airplane I was working on. He said, in essence, that this man knew more about my product than I did, and if I was smart, I would work with him to learn more than just analysis. Since then I have always been more interested in the "big picture" and spent time understanding how my work fit with that of the rest of the team. Engineering is a single aspect of what it takes to conceive, design, build, market and successfully sell a product. It is important to know how our part fits with the rest so that we can all do a better job. The natural conclusion for me was that you have to go and talk to these people to understand how what you do impacts their job and vice versa.

CMD: When I first entered the work-force from school, I was terribly shy about contacting people outside my department whom I did not know. I didn't want to appear dumb, young or as if I didn't know my job. I finally realized that if you are just respectful and kind to everyone you work with, they will generally return the favor. I found that it is best to admit when I don't know the answer to a question, and then find the answer. It took time for me to get over this fear, but now I have no problem working with people I have recently met. It actually makes the job more fun to interact with people in different disciplines and with different backgrounds.


7) What trait do you admire in co-workers?

BLA: Honesty and integrity are the traits I admire most. It is always tempting to say how smart someone is, but at this level everyone is smart. Integrity is following through on commitments and knowing when to ask for help. Engineering is a job with a lot of responsibilities and pressures. Knowing when and how to ask for help or deliver bad news is a critical skill that isn't stressed often enough. Sometimes just having the courage to address the issues head on will allow the team to find solutions that aren't obvious to an individual.

CMD: [I admire] a positive attitude. It's great to work with people who love their work and strive to improve. The only person who likes a grump is another grump. It may be tempting to sit around and complain about things you don't like, but it shows great character to get up and try to make things better.

8) How do you relieve job frustration?

BLA: By having fun! Have fun at work, be passionate, and enjoy what you are doing; that will reduce the amount of frustration right at the source. I also enjoy sports-both watching and playing. I am also an avid football fan and enjoy both NCAA and NFL.

Working around the house is another stress reliever for me. I am always adding or fixing things, or just working in the yard or garden. Cooking is another great pastime.

CMD: I find great satisfaction in getting involved with technical societies for engineering. I have become very involved with one particular group, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and enjoy contributing to the local meetings and events. It's a great way to network, meet new friends with common interests, and stay up on the latest technology.

I have actually found that my involvement in AIAA helped me in getting a job promotion. Early in my career, I wanted to assume more responsibility and move up the ladder, but my superiors thought I needed more experience. It was a catch-22 because I couldn't get more responsibility to gain experience without already having proven my capabilities. This is where my involvement in the technical society helped-I volunteered for leadership positions in my local section and demonstrated my leadership skills in that capacity. My supervisors, who were also members of the same society, noticed the good work I was doing as a volunteer and reacted by giving me more responsibility at work. This is a perfect example of how an outside activity can relieve job frustration and boost your career at the same time.

9) What one thing do you know now that you wish you could have known when you first started your job?

BLA: The importance of continuing my education. I was so relieved to graduate and be done with school that it took me over five years to go back for another degree. The truth is that a degree is just a piece of paper. It's the process that counts.

[At Boeing] we want individuals that have a desire to keep learning. Ultimately, that is our true competitive advantage and it's something we want to foster and grow. The only thing I would change in my career to date is that I would have focused more on learning as an undergrad, and returned to continue my education in the first year or two of working.

CMD: I wish I had known that it is just as important to interview your first supervisor as it is to be interviewed. The relationship you have with your immediate supervisor will have a huge impact on how much you like your job. In fact, I have seen many people leave a company because they don't enjoy working for their immediate supervisor. This is unfortunate because in many cases, the employee could have changed departments within the same company and really thrived working for another boss.

My advice to graduating engineers, therefore, is to take advantage of your time during the interview and ask lots of questions. Don't accept any job offer without first determining if you will enjoy working there. A paycheck doesn't mean much if you are miserable during work hours.

Ask to meet the person who will be supervising you and determine if you are professionally compatible. Request an on-site interview so that you can see where you will be working and what the group dynamics are. Do the employees in your future department seem happy or stressed out? Pay attention to warning signals and heed them. If the job doesn't seem right for you, then keep job-hunting and another opportunity will come your way.

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