PNAS: Raymond Wagner, Systems Engineer

(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Raymond Wagner, an engineer and technical fellow for a defense contractor.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

Chief Engineer for an initiative to enable users of a system-of-systems to concurrently train or test while still performing the global military mission – 80-90% of my time

Corporate Technical Fellow – 10-20%

2) What is your science background?

AB (physics), Rice University, 1968

PhD (astronomy), University of Texas at Austin, 1972

3) What led you to this job?

I did the usual post-doc/acting Asst. Professor for two years, and then moved to a tenure track Assistant Professor position at a large state university’s physics & astronomy department. After 4 years there, I was denied tenure, and started looking at other positions including both teaching and non-academic. After a final semester of teaching, I moved into the aerospace and defense industry. My first non-academic job was algorithm development and coding of satellite tracking software for the Air Force’s Space Computation Center in Cheyenne Mountain. I then moved into Security Engineering and development of trusted software and secure networks and systems. This applied mathematics and formal (predicate) logic knowledge from undergraduate school classes. Subsequently, I became a supervisor, then program manager, then systems engineering department manager, then manager of a business unit. Eventually, my VP suggested that I might want to (“have more fun”) get back into technology development and engineering, so I applied to become a corporate Technical Fellow. Being a Tech Fellow gives me a bit of discretionary time each week to spend in R&D, besides still doing system requirements, design, development, and security and safety engineering on my engineering leadership assignment.

4) What’s your work environment like?

Single-person office (with hard walls and door) on the outer edge of an “engineering bay” filled with cubicles. My office has a speaker phone, whiteboard, PC/workstation, desk, bookcase, file cabinets, and 3 “guest chairs” and table for small meetings. A typical senior engineer / manager-level office in the corporate universe.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

Basically office work, such as e-mail, reviewing and commenting on engineering documents, writing engineering documents such as design concepts or requirements specs, work planning and statusing, specifying and refining technical requirements, developing and evaluating design concepts, and coordination with other members of my team whether collocated in the engineering bay or in other geographic locations across the country.

There are also very frequent meetings with the various stakeholders, such as other contractors (who are designing and building other systems with which we have to interface the system we’re building), the users, the customers, and the external technical advisors for the customer (FFRDC and SETA). Some of these are net-meetings and some are face-to-face. Some meetings involve demonstration of risk reduction prototypes and off-the-shelf product tests to verify their applicability in solving the design.

There is also a fair amount of reading technical publications and technology news. Some of this is more general-purpose, and some is looking for specific applicable technology or knowledge that can be applied to CTTO or other programs in my company.

In the Tech Fellow role, I evaluate and consult on R&D projects (both inside the company [both in my business unit and in other business units] and at local universities), mentor/counsel other engineers and scientists, and help administer the Tech Fellow selection process. I also work on company-wide systems engineering and security specialty engineering processes, policies and tools. In the past, (but not currently) I have also run R&D projects.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

Physical science and mathematics classes and research projects teach a lot about defining and understanding technical problems, and dissecting and solving them. This is absolutely key to the systems engineering I do today. It also turned out that my teaching experience helps me deal with the variety of people I interact with in my job. Applying for NSF research grants helped give me writing and communications skills that have been useful in developing (and winning!) engineering proposals to a wide variety of customers, both internally (like R&D projects) and externally (to the Government or to other prime contractors).

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

I recommend interning in an aerospace or defense business’s engineering or R&D group to learn what happens there and get experience. This knowledge will help you interview successfully after graduation. The experience will help you stand out in the candidate pool, especially if you can get letters of recommendation from your summer internship supervisor(s) and the engineer(s) with whom you most closely worked.

You also will need at least a Master’s degree (preferably in science or engineering) if you want to reach the senior engineer level in a reasonable amount of time.

8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?

For me, it is how to define and decompose a problem, and then solve it. Another thing is collaboration and teamwork in tackling a research problem.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Finish your degree in science, but a basic business or engineering class or two will be useful, as are as many math and software engineering / computer programming classes as you can squeeze in.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?

At the senior engineer level, you can expect a basic salary >$160K/yr, plus individual performance incentives, stock grants, profit sharing, and cash awards for inventions or patents.