Ask Jonathan: the roles of soft & hard skills as a lead engineer for NASA

Jonathan Brown serves as the Engineering Integration Lead for the SOFIA Program at NASA. His passion for electronics and the engineering field reflect through his accomplishments and words of wisdom. I have gotten to know Jonathan personally over the years. I admired his rare combination of soft and hard skills. For those who are either interested in pursuing the engineering field or would like to hear an intriguing perspective from an experienced leader, this blog post is for you.

Question: As with any Q & A, I’d start off with an introduction. What would like to tell my audience?

Answer: I want to first point out that you need to be adaptable. Things are bound to change in the span of one’s career, whether they are within your realm of control or not. The only thing you do have control over is how you respond. You have to be flexible in order possess value and excellence. That being said, the only limitation is your ability to adapt.

Question: What do you do now?

Answer: My latest title is the SOFIA Program Systems Engineering Integration Lead. I oversee the engineering and integration process control for the CPU program for NASA. SOFIA stands for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. It’s a heavily modified 747 aircraft with a retractable garage door on this side. It houses a very large IR telescope. The program is not only multicenter but international; we have a partnership with Germany. It’s one of the largest research programs currently on the west coast from either Ames Research Center or Armstrong Flight Research Center. It’s a very demanding, challenging, and fast-paced program. It provides a lot of interest in an area that up to this point I have not put much effort into. However, this is something that I have to change; the better I understand the scientific research, the better I can serve my current role.

Question: What are current projects in development you would like to share?

Answer: The SOFIA Program at present is based on looking at the galactic center. They are developing extremely sensitive detectors to determine where the waterline is and the protoplanetary development process. In other words, we are feeding our knowledge on the creation of the planets and the greater galaxy.

One of the challenges with IR telescopes is distortion from water vapor in the air. Land-based telescopes are at an extreme disadvantage, due to the moisture in our atmosphere. By flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet, we can get above 98% of the water vapor. This allows us to get a much better detail of IR signatures. That’s the advantage of SOFIA to land-based systems. Also, when compared to orbital systems, the plane lands daily. This means that as our technology improves, we are able to replace current equipment on the plane much more quickly and at a lower cost than satellites.

Question: What is your educational background and/or credentials?

Answer: I graduated as a valedictorian from Valley Christian Academy in California. From there, I went to the local junior college [Hancock] for prepatory coursework. While at the community college, I held a position in an oil company. Since broad-based engineering exposure is always beneficial, I did not solely focus on electronics.

Afterwards, I went to Cal Poly for a year and a half. When I got married, I needed a stable job. Therefore, I did not complete my degree at the time. I started off with contracts at Vandenberg Airforce Base. My work grew from entry-skillsets to electronics design. Then, I held specialized roles in ITT and FCC. While at Quintron electronics, I helped develop telecommunications systems for the military.

Several years into my work, I finally got back to completing my degree with a B.S. in electronics. As a side note, I’d strongly encourage folks to stay — if at all possible — to finish their degree without interruption. All things considered, I got exposed to various engineering specialties. I don’t consider this lost time or opportunities.

As I mentioned, I took a bit of a detour. At the same time, I varied my type of work from hands-on to management. I worked as the Branch Chief and then the Deputy Director for Safety and Mission Assurance for Armstrong Flight Research Center. This definitely entailed more soft skills than hard skills. Now that I returned to engineering, I’m fortunate to know some very sharp individuals that work with me. I provide the leadership and direction for them to excel.

In 2000, I got an offer as a contractor from Edwards Airforce Base. In 2004, I became a Civil Servant at an assistant safety group. From there, I went up the ranks to my current title [Systems Integration Lead for SOFIA].

Question: What inspired you to move from engineering to management, and vice-versa?

Answer: In some respects, it was an opportunity that I did not focus on. I wanted to stay more technical; the idea of moving into mid-management meant straying away from the passion of designing electronics systems. At the same time, when there is a need, you do want to help the organization you are part of in any way possible. Ultimately, I saw this as an area for personal growth and to try something new. To be quite honest, I greatly appreciated taking a path that I otherwise would have not considered. You have to be open to learning new things.

Question: What do you believe is more valuable? Soft skills or hard skills?

Answer: You will always have technical experts on the hard skillsets that are absolutely mandatory to accomplish great things. But without the soft skillsets, you will find yourself very limited. The issue is not what is more valuable. If you want more opportunity, improving the soft skillsets is necessary for leadership.

You can have a great career staying solely in the technical field and applying the hard skillsets. However, you may find yourself limited when forced up or out of an organization. To remain competitive in a field, I recommend taking time to develop soft skills.

Question: What do you recommend to those interested in your field?

Answer: If you have an interest and aptitude for math, science, or physics, I’d encourage that person to at least consider this field. The majority of folks may not ever become independently wealthy through this, it’s a route in high demand with steady work. There is always activities, projects and programs in the public and private arena that need engineers. As a discipline, it’s one of the greatest pleasures I could possibly find.

There are individuals who are solely motivated by the profit margin — the idea of getting rich and famous inspires advancement. Others are equally as motivated by a sense of duty and obligations to their community. You cannot dismiss one or the other as being more valuable overall. Nonetheless, one’s motivations and values are factors for consideration when deciding on what sector to work for.

Question: Any closing remarks?

Answer: Even though I’m still in the field that I started out in, the fact that it turned into a career was because I established the options early on during school and after school. I focused on making a living — or career, as I use these terms interchangeably — and then continue the process of learning and maintaining interest. Learning doesn’t stop when you get out of school, especially with any technical field. Given technological or personnel changes, you must always strive to understand and learn. That’s a capacity that, oddly enough, not everyone shares.

I highly recommend that if someone does not already have an innate interest to find out how things work and continue learning, he or she must find a way to foster it. That’s the difference between someone who has a job but is ultimately edged out of their field versus someone who is active and with a future.

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