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College interviewing tips

For several years I’ve been volunteering as an alumni interviewer for my alma mater. It’s enjoyable to spend a bit of time interacting with a younger generation and exploring their interests; my optimism is buoyed by their potential.

At my university, the process is managed through a web portal. At the beginning of each application season I set my availability and geographic area. At set times for each application period, I am offered interviews which I can accept or decline (for example, if I personally know the student, which would be a conflict of interest). The only information I am given is name, phone number, email, high school, and major if they’ve declared one. I know nothing about the student’s academic qualifications or background.

I then reach out and schedule an interview. For the past few years meetings have been virtual, though I am hoping that in-person interviews can resume soon; I personally dislike virtual meetings for a number of reasons (see: Zoom fatigue). In-person interviews are required to be in a public space, like a coffee shop or library. I prepare some basic questions to gauge the student’s interests and personality, and mostly allow the “interview” to proceed as a natural conversation as much as possible. After the interview, I return to the online platform and write three brief paragraphs of my impression of the student in response to prompts given to me. Overall, it’s a low-pressure situation that gives the admissions committee an additional perspective on the student from someone who knows the university’s offerings and culture.

I recently offered a mock interview to a high school student to help them practice and I realized I had a lot of advice to help students with the process. I searched online to see what advice was already out there and was pretty disappointed, so I decided to compile my own list:

Advice for college alumni interviews

  1. Don’t stress—the interview is the least important part of the college application. Also, it’s as much about giving you the opportunity to engage with an alum and get excited about the school as it is them evaluating you.
  2. It’s more important to be likeable than impressive. Remember, the interviewer has an emotional connection to their alma mater—they want to see passionate, thoughtful candidates who will value their time at the school and contribute to the school’s ongoing success, not someone who chooses a school because of a reputation.
  3. Send a resume in advance. Very few students do this for college interviews and it is by no means required. I appreciate it because it allows me to get a sense for your interests without you having to rattle them off, and then to ask you about things where we might have a mutual interest, increasing connection and likeability.
    • Unlike a professional resume, activities and hobbies are highly recommended.
    • Include links to other resources when appropriate, for example if you have a portfolio, been featured in a news story, or created something worth sharing.
    • Get feedback from others, both substantive and proofreading.
  4. Prepare answers for common questions.
    • Don’t prepare word-for-word, but look up common interviewing questions and know how you’ll respond. Most interviewers start with “tell me about yourself”1, so prepare your “elevators speech” that is brief and engaging.
    • Stories and anecdotes are the best way to connect; listing things is the best way to bore your interviewer. So think of the stories you’ll use to illustrate each question. Look up the STAR method for tips on how to best organize your responses.
    • Find a balance between your personal experiences (past) and goals (future). How have your past experiences prepared you college and how will you leverage your college experience to achieve your goals?2
    • Be mindful of the length of your responses. Too short is unengaging, rambling on becomes boring. This is a hard one to balance but you’ll get the hang of it with practice.
  5. “Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you.” —Robert McNamara
    • This also requires balance; you should answer the question they asked and then use that as a jumping off point to provide additional valuable information without going off on a tangent.
    • Example: “What extracurricular activities do you do?” “I play hockey and volunteer at the library. But what I’m really passionate about is art. I like to take the things I see in the world and interpret them through the medium of stained glass, which gives me a greater appreciation for the natural beauty in the world. I’m currently working on a piece that shows a rover on Mars to highlight both human achievement and the wonders of the universe.” Far better than just rattling off a list, you answered the question while showing your passion for your interests.
  6. Every interviewer is going to ask “Why did you choose [school]?”—this question is the most important and you need a thoughtful reason that connects your own experience to the college’s offerings.
    • DO NOT SAY clubs or outstanding faculty or size or location—those all may be your criteria, but they’re not unique to the school; they don’t make the interviewer feel that their alma mater is special or that you care about it particularly.
    • You may already have a great answer about a previous college visit, experience with high school programs offered, family who attended, etc. If so, use that. Just make sure to connect it with your own experiences and goals. For example: “I learned about Duke from the TIP program and every year I did a residential summer studies course. I really connected with the faculty and loved my time on campus, so it was easily my top choice. Right now I am thinking of pursuing a career in clinical psychology and Duke has an excellent psychology department.”
    • If not, you need to find a specific thing at the school that appeals to you. A particularly well-regarded department, a specific faculty member, an undergraduate lab you want to work in, etc. Foe example: “I do Model UN and frequently in my research I’d use papers from the Fletcher School, which is very well-regarded school for global affairs. That’s how I came to learn about Tufts. Even though Fletcher is a graduate school, the fact that it’s on the Tufts campus is a huge draw because they offer public talks and events which I plan to attend. I’m interested in joining the Peace Corps after college and this would be a great way to explore challenges and opportunities around the world.”
  7. Have good questions—Near the end, the interviewer will ask if you have any questions for them. This may be the most important part of the interview because it shapes final impressions and gives them a chance to share. Your questions should both engage the interviewer and demonstrate a thoughtfulness about the college experience.
    • Some good questions: “If you were able to go back in time, what would you do differently at [school]?”, “What about your [school] experience shaped your thinking about the world?”, “What about your [school] experience changed your path in life?”, “Are there any unique experience or tradition at [school] that I shouldn’t miss?”, “Do you have any advice for someone preparing to matriculate at [school]?”, “What DIDN’T [school] do well?”, “In your opinion, what are the character traits of successful [school] students?”
    • Do not ask about specific professors, dorms, clubs, financial aid, etc., unless it connects to something your interviewer has shared with you. Your interviewer won’t know the answer and it doesn’t fulfill your objective in the discussion, which is to make a good impression.
    • People like to hear themselves talk, so give your interviewer that room. You don’t have to add anything to their answer beyond “that’s great advice” or “sounds really interesting” at the end.
    • Ask at least one great question even if you go over the scheduled interview time. If you still have time you can ask a second question or even a third question, but don’t keep asking once you’re past the scheduled time and never ask more than three.

If you’re an interviewer, what advice would you add? If you’re a student, how did your interview go? Do you wish you’d prepared any differently? Share in the comments below!

Agile isn’t faster

A common misconception is that Agile development processes are faster. I’ve heard this from leaders as a justification for adopting Agile processes and read it in proposals as a supposed differentiator. It’s not true. Nothing about Agile magically enable teams to architect, engineer, design, test, or validate any faster.

In fact, many parts of Agile are actually slower. Time spent on PI planning, backlog refinement, sprint planning, daily stand-ups1, and retrospectives is time the team isn’t developing. Much of that overhead is avoided in a Waterfall style where the development follows a set plan.

What Agile does offer, however, is sooner realization of value. And that’s the source of the misconception. The charts below illustrate this notionally. You can see that Agile delivers a small amount of system capability early on and the builds on that value with incremental deliveries. By contrast, Waterfall delivers no system capability until the development is “done”, at which point all of the capability is delivered at once. Agile development isn’t faster, but it does start to provide value sooner; that adds up to more area ‘under the curve’ of cumulative value.

Two graphs showing that Agile delivers value sooner than Waterfall, resulting in significantly more value delivered over time
Comparing the value of Agile and Waterfall approaches to system development

But, that’s not even the real value of Agile, in my opinion. On the charts you’ll also notice two different Waterfall lines, one for theory and one for practice. In theory, the Waterfall requirements should deliver the exactly correct system. In practice, requirements are often poorly written, incomplete, or misinterpreted, resulting in system that misses the mark. It’s also possible for user needs to change over time, especially given the long duration of many larger projects.

But because validation testing is usually scheduled near the end of the Waterfall project, those shortcomings aren’t discovered until it’s very costly to correct them. With Agile, iterative releases mean we can adapt as we learn both on an individual feature level and on the product roadmap level.

In short, Agile isn’t faster. But it delivers value sooner, delivers more cumulative value over all, and ensures that the direction of the product provides the most value to the user.

For more, check out my series on Agile Systems Engineering. Also, share your thoughts on the differences between Agile and Waterfall in the comments below.

“Diversity of thought” is the “all lives matter” of corporate inclusion efforts

For at least the last decade, engineering companies have talked a great deal about “diversity and inclusion”. Inevitably, many people1 have the takeaway that this means “diversity of thought”. This is like telling a Black Lives Matter supporter that “all lives matter”; of course all lives matter, but that’s completely missing the point2. Diversity of thought is important to avoid groupthink and promote innovation; but that’s not the point of diversity and inclusion efforts3.

Diversity and inclusion means making sure that teams are actually diverse, across a range of visible and not-visible features. Why does that matter?

The business case

There are a lot of business justifications for fostering diverse teams. The consulting firm McKinsey has published some slick reports with charts and stock photos4 to make the case to business leaders: inclusion = performance = profits. There are also arguments about finding and retaining top talent, regulatory mandates, and employee engagement.

The thing is, who cares? This blog isn’t about corporate profit, it’s about effective engineering practices. In my experience, engineers tend not to care much about profit except as a means to do fun and innovative work5. Getting some business benefits from diversity and inclusion is a nice side effect, and if it helps get corporate buy-in it’s hard to complain too much. But it still doesn’t feel right.

The innovation case

All the talk about business case often neglects to consider the mechanism, why do diverse teams perform better and how do we leverage that to enhance performance? It’s actually fascinating. As Harvard Business Review puts it, “diverse teams feel less comfortable“, which slows down their decision making and causes them to think more critically.

If you’re a fan of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, you may recognize this as engaging the “slow” system. We tend to rush to decisions with fast thinking, which is efficient but not always the most effective. The friction caused by diversity forces us to engage the more creative and thoughtful slow thinking. That’s interesting to understand and is a more compelling argument to the technically-minded, but it still doesn’t feel right.

The human case

When I think about diversity and inclusion, I always end up back at the same rationale: it’s just the right thing to do. We live in a world where some members of society have fewer opportunities because of historical racism, sexism, and homophobia, including the aftereffects of that discrimination that are still present today.

Ideally, we would live in a world that was a true meritocracy where everyone has equal opportunity to succeed based on their fit for the role, regardless of skin color, nationality, physical disability, cognitive disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, age, hairstyle, height, fashion sense, bench press ability, body modification, etc. Though we are getting to that world, we are still far from actually achieving it. A few representative statistics:

  • U.S. patent data show that women are inventing at an all-time high, but still less than a quarter of patents issued each year include a female inventor.
  • The American Bar Association analyzed the demographics of patent attorneys (who require a strong technical and legal background) and found that, despite recent gains, less than 7% are non-white.
  • Black and Hispanic people are underrepresented in STEM fields according to data from Pew Research.

We’re moving in the right direction, but it’s hard to argue that these are the outcomes of equitable opportunity. My personal opinion is that there actually is plenty of opportunity for those who know where to look for it, but that students don’t pursue technical fields because they don’t see it as an option for them.

And who can blame them, when the most famous Black inventor lived a century ago, when we celebrate Watson and Crick but not the female scientist whose work was critical to their discovery, when chemistry labs are not built to accommodate scientists with disabilities.

That’s changing too. There are excellent, diverse STEM role models and communicators out there: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Raven the Science Maven, Abigail Harrison, Helen Arney, the late but still extremely influential Stephen Hawking, just to name a few. This is great!

But is it enough? It’s easy to point to the high-profile success stories and say the problem is solved. It will still take a generation for the students currently looking up to these role models to pursue technical degrees, begin working in the field, and become role models themselves. With each successive generation we move closer to parity and equality. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a more active role in bringing about this change as soon as possible.

Consider your role

Equality is the soul of liberty; there is, in fact, no liberty without it.

Frances Wright

There is a project called “I Am A Scientist” which aims to show students that anyone can be a STEM professional. In a few decades this effort will no longer be necessary; of course anyone can be a scientist or engineer, who would think otherwise? In the meantime, we (as a society, as engineers interested in fostering the next generation, as teachers and leaders) have to make a deliberate choice6 to recognize, affirm, and support the widest possible range of people who may be interested in STEM, including promoting diverse voices so every student can find a role model that appeals to them.

We must think about the way in which we approach diversity. So many efforts are mere tokenism, made obvious by phrases such as “diversity hire7 and by carefully arranging corporate photos to “‘highlight” “diversity”8. If you recognize these types of practices at your company, take a moment to consider if the priority is to foster true inclusion or merely to tick a box.

We have to keep promoting inclusion in our workplaces to serve our peers today and in the future. After all, a diverse crowd of STEM degree holders isn’t helpful if they aren’t actually included in the real work. It’s easy to make fun of “unconscious bias training” and the like. But when you actually speak to people from discriminated categories and ask about their experiences you learn about the small inequities that compound to hold people back from participating and from career success. Countering those inequities can be as simple as making sure that everyone is heard and respected, that everyone has the resources and support to advocate for their career opportunities, and offering mentorship.

Clear data exists and can be collected about diversity in STEM fields and that should be our metric for success. When patents issued, papers published, degrees earned, and other outcome measures reach parity with the demographics of the general population, we can claim success. We should all do our small parts to make that happen.

Are you a “diversity candidate” with an experience to share? Do you have other suggestions for increasing inclusion? Leave your comments below.

Agile SE Part Zero: Overview

“Agile” is the latest buzzword in systems engineering. It has a fair share of both adherents and detractors, not to mention a long list of companies offering to sell tools, training, and coaching. What has been lacking is a thoughtful discussion about when agile provides value, when it doesn’t, and how to adapt agile practices to be effective in complex systems engineering projects.

I don’t claim this to be the end-all guide on agile systems engineering, but hope it will at least spark some discussion. Please comment on the articles with details from your own experiences. If you’re interested in contributing or collaborating, please contact me at benjamin@engineeringforhumans.com, I’d love to add your voice to the site.

Part 1: What is Agile Anyway?

A broad overview of Agile as a concept, including the difference between Agile processes and being agile and critical discussion of how Agile most often fails. Also, adapting the concepts which have been successful for software development in order to find success in a systems engineering context.

Part 2: What’s Your Problem?

Henry Ford’s apocryphally faster horse, a solid example of how customers can misunderstand their users, and requirements myopia. In short, requirements-based acquisition is terrible, let’s refocus on solving problems and providing value.

Part 3: Agile Contracts and the Downfall of Requirements

Requirements are the antithesis of agile1: impractical, time consuming, prone to misinterpretation. But, they are the foundation for every large DoD acquisition. A major paradigm shift is required for true agile systems engineering.

Part 4: Digital Transformation

A slight detour to discuss an important enabler. Integrated digital engineering has enormous benefits by and of itself. It also addresses many of the objections to agile systems engineering and agile hardware engineering.

Learn from the mistakes of others

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience… i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business…

General James Mattis

The most successful people in any profession learn from the experiences of others. You can learn from their successes, sure. But don’t focus on doing things exactly they way they did, you’ll stifle your own innovation. Instead, understand their successes, extract relevant lessons, and forge your own path.

More importantly, learn from others’ failures and mistakes.

That’s why I publish a Reading / Listening List. As of the publishing of this article, 5 of the 6 recommendations are about poor engineering and design1. I find these stories fascinating, enlightening, and valuable. By avoiding the pitfalls of the past, we improve the likelihood of success in our own projects.

It’s okay to make mistakes, but strive to at least make original mistakes.

Board man gets paid

For years I’ve been advocating for the effective inclusion of human systems integration (HSI) in the systems engineering (SE) process. I had to address a persistent misunderstanding of what HSI is and how it relates to human factors; while that can be frustrating, I recognized that it wasn’t going to change overnight. Instead, I worked diligently to share my message with anyone who would listen.

Recently, my diligence paid off. I was contacted by a group putting together a proposal for a defense contract. The government’s request outlined their expectations for HSI as part of the systems engineering effort in a way that the proposal team hadn’t seen before. Someone on the team had heard me speak before, knew I had the right expertise they needed, and reached out to request my support.

It will be a while before we find out who won the contract, but I am certain that our proposal is much stronger for the inclusion of HSI. The HSI piece of the work is small but essential, and any competitors without the requisite expertise may not have understood its impact or importance to the customer.

This experience reminded me of basketball star Kawhi Leonard’s most popular catchphrase: “The board man gets paid.” See, Leonard is known for his skill at grabbing his team’s rebounds1. This is a key differentiator on the basketball court. The team has done all that work to get the ball up the court, yet failed to score. Grabbing the rebound before the opponent does gives the team another chance. Most of the time, the defensive team is in a better position to grab the rebound; Kawhi Leonard has made a career of getting to those balls first.

Leonard identified an underexploited opportunity and worked hard to develop the skill to take advantage of it. Throughout high school and college, he called himself “The Board Man”. He shaped his career around this unique skill and has been extraordinarily successful because of it.

That’s not to say you have to find a niche to be successful. Obviously there are superstars in every field. But, it’s a heck of a lot easier if you can identify those opportunities nobody else is taking advantage of2.

Bonus read: The top 5%. Share your own tips, inspiration, and niche in the comments below.

Diversity in engineering careers

I had the privilege to attend the Society of Women Engineers conference WE19 in Anaheim, CA last week. I left inspired and optimistic.

Speakers and panelists relayed their experiences over the previous decades. These women had been denied entrance into engineering schools, marginalized in the workplace, and forced to become ‘one of the guys’ to be accepted among their peers.

We’ve come a long way. It’s never been a better time to enter the workforce as a woman/person of color/LGBTQ/etc. Diversity in the workforce and leadership of engineering companies is on the rise, barriers are falling, and the value of diversity is being recognized. And yet, we still have so far to go.

We recognize that diversity is good for business 1 and companies are actively recruiting more diverse talent. Our organizational cultures are still adapting to this diversity. In many ways, we still expect all employees to conform to the existing culture, rather than proactively shape the inclusive culture we desire.

A great example is the “confidence gap” theory for why men are more successful in the workplace. Writing in The Atlantic  in 2014, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explain that “compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.”

Jayshree Seth‘s WE19 closing keynote combated the confidence gap with a catchy “confidence rap”. I was excited to share it with you in a gender-neutral post about combating imposter syndrome. In researching this post, I learned that the “confidence gap” is symptom, not a cause. Telling women to be more confident won’t close the gap because our workplace cultures are often biased against women who display confidence.

Jayshree Seth countered the “confidence gap” with the “confidence rap” in an excellent keynote.

Research demonstrates that an insidious double standard2 is what’s holding women back. Women who talk up their accomplishments the same way men do are perceived as less likeable. Women who are modest are more likeable, but nobody learns of their accomplishments and they appear to lack confidence. Women can be just as confident as men, but the cultural expectations of the workplace do not allow it.

That’s not to totally dismiss the confidence gap theory. This double-standard stems partly (primarily?) from continuing societal expectations. Though gender equality has advanced significantly in recent decades, many parents continue to raise girls and boys differently3. A girl raised to be modest and display less confidence will join the workforce with the same attitude.

That’s not the whole story, of course. Our behaviors and habits continue to be shaped by the workplace culture, especially for younger employees just learning to fit in at the office. Currently most office cultures encourage confidence in men and discourage it in women.

I think this is changing slowly over time along with other aspects of gender equality. I also think that a gradual change is not good enough. We owe it to ourselves, to our female peers, and to the advancement of the profession to consciously bring gender equality in engineering more swiftly.

We should define what a gender-equal workplace looks like, identify where our cultures diverge from this ideal, and create strategies for closing that gap. As a starting point, Harvard Business Review shared some management and organizational strategies. And all of us can contribute by recognizing our own biases and by finding ways to highlight others’ accomplishments.

What does workplace gender equality mean to you? How does the culture of your office support (or not) gender equality? What strategies would you recommend for addressing bias on an individual, team, or organizational level? Post in the comments below.

Thoughts on “A Message to Garcia”

“A Message to Garcia” is a brief essay on the value of initiative and hard work written by Elbert Hubbard in 1898. It is often assigned in leadership courses, particularly in the military. Less often assigned but providing essential context is Col. Andrew Rowan’s first-person account of the mission, “How I Carried the Message to Garcia”.

There are also a number of opinion pieces archived in newspapers and posted on the internet both heralding and decrying the essay. There are a number of interpretations and potential lessons to be extracted from this story. It’s important that developing leaders find the valuable ideas.

Work ethic

Hubbard’s original essay is something of a rant on the perceived scarcity of work ethic and initiative in the ranks of employees. He holds Rowan up as an example of the rare person who is dedicated to achieving his task unquestioningly and no matter the cost.

Of course, this complaint is not unique to Hubbard1 nor is it shared universally. Your view on this theme probably depends on whether you are a manager or worker and your views on the value of work2. Nevertheless, Hubbard’s point is clear: Strong work ethic is valuable and will be rewarded.

No questions asked

If that were the extent of the message, it would be an interesting read but not particularly compelling. One reason the essay gained so much traction is Hubbard’s waxing about how Rowan supposedly carried out his task: with little information, significant ingenuity, and no questions asked. This message appeals to a certain type of ‘leader’ who doesn’t think highly of their subordinates.

It’s also totally bogus.

Lt. Rowan was a well-trained Army intelligence officer and he was sufficiently briefed on the mission. Relying on his intelligence background, he understood the political climate and implications. Additionally, preparations were made for allied forces to transport him to Garcia. He did not have to find his own way and blindly search Cuba to accomplish his objective.

I don’t intend to minimize Rowan’s significant effort and achievement, only to point out Hubbard’s misguided message. Hubbard would have us believe that Rowan succeeded through sheer determination, when the truth is that critical thinking and understanding were his means.

There may be a time and place for blind execution, but the majority of modern work calls for specialized skills and critical thinking. Hubbard seems to conflate any question with a stupid question, which is misguided. We should encourage intelligent questions and clarifications to ensure that people can carry out their tasks effectively. After all, if Rowan didn’t have the resources to reach Garcia he may still be wandering Cuba and Spain may still be an empire.

The commander who dismisses all questions breeds distrust and dissatisfaction. Worse, they send their troops out underprepared.


On the topic of work ethic, Hubbard is preaching to the choir. Those with work ethic already have it while those with is won’t be swayed by the message. Of course, managers always desire employees who demonstrate work ethic.

“A Message to Garcia” would be more effectively viewed as a treatise on leadership. After all, Army leadership effectively identified, developed, and utilized Rowan’s potential.

Perhaps the most important lesson, understated in the essay, is choosing the right person for the job. Rowan had the right combination of determination, brains, and knowledge to get the job done. In another situation, he may have been the worst person. How did Col. Wagner know about Rowan and decide he was the right person for the job? How do we optimize personnel allocation in our own organizations?

That’s my two pesetas, now you chime in below. What lessons do you take from Hubbard’s essay? Feel free to link to an interpretation, criticism, or praise which resonates with you.

It’s time to get rid of specialty engineering: A criticism of the INCOSE Handbook

Chapter 10 of the INCOSE Systems Engineering Handbook covers “Specialty Engineering”. Take a look at the table of contents below. It’s a hodge-podge of roles and skillsets with varying scope.

Table of contents for the Specialty Engineering section of the INCOSE handbook.
Table of contents for the Specialty Engineering section of the INCOSE handbook.

There doesn’t seem to be rhyme or reason to this list of items. Training Needs Analysis is a perfect example. There’s no doubt that it’s important, but it’s one rather specific task and not a field unto itself. If you’re going to include this activity, why not its siblings Manpower Analysis and Personnel Analysis?

On the other hand, some of the items in this chapter are supposedly “integral” to the engineering process. This is belied by the fact that they’re shunted into this separate chapter at the end of the handbook. In practice, too, they’re often organized into a separate specialty engineering group within a project.

This isn’t very effective.

Many of these roles really are integral to systems engineering. Their involvement early on in each relevant process ensures proper planning, awareness, and execution. They can’t make this impact if they’re overlooked, which often happens when they’re organizationally separated from the rest of the systems engineering team. By including them in the specialty engineering section along with genuinely tangential tasks, INCOSE has basically stated that these roles are less important to the success of the project.

The solution

The solution is simple: re-evaluate and remove, or at least re-organize, this section of the handbook.

The actual systems engineering roles should be integrated into the rest of the handbook. Most of them already are mentioned throughout the document. The descriptions of each role currently in the specialty engineering section can be moved to the appropriate process section. Human systems integration, for example, might fit into “Technical Management Processes” or “Cross-Cutting Systems Engineering Methods”.

The tangential tasks, such as Training Needs Analysis, should be removed from the handbook altogether. These would be more appropriate as a list of tools and techniques maintained separately online, where it can be updated frequently and cross-referenced with other sources.

Of course, the real impact comes when leaders internalize these changes and organize their programs to effectively integrate these functions. That will come with time and demonstrated success.

Visiting an operational missile cruiser

I was recently offered an incredible opportunity to spend a day aboard an operational U.S. Navy ship, meeting the crew and observing their work as they conducted a live fire exercise. The experience blew me away1. I came away with new appreciation for our surface forces as well as observations relevant for defense acquisition policy and systems engineering.

Naval Base San Diego

Americans are more disconnected than ever before from their military. To help develop awareness of the Navy’s role, Naval Surface Force Pacific occasionally invites community leaders to visit the fleet in San Diego. I felt very fortunate to be included as one of eight participants in an impressive group including business leaders, community leaders, and a district court judge who created a successful veterans treatment court.

The day began with a tour of San Diego Bay and the many ships docked at Naval Base San Diego. Our guide was Captain Christopher Engdahl, Chief of Staff of the Naval Surface Force Pacific.

White ship with red cross plus two other ships
The hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) and two other ships docked at Naval Base San Diego.

As we cruised around the bay, Captain Engdahl described the role of the surface force (surface being distinct from the aviation and submarine forces). Like most of our military forces, the surface force has a diverse mission set. Naval warfare has changed significantly from the large-scale, fleet vs. fleet battles of centuries past.

Recently, the surface force has been emphasizing projection of power, freedom of navigation operations, anti-piracy missions, and humanitarian aid. The surface force also supports air and land operations with forward deployment platforms, fire support, and direct enemy engagement. I haven’t even touched on mines, anti-submarine, electronic warfare, intelligence gathering, and countless other roles.

USS Independence (LCS-2) and USS Comstock (LSD-45) docked in Naval Base San Diego.
USS Independence (LCS-2) and USS Comstock (LSD-45) docked at Naval Base San Diego.

As we cruised by the piers, Captain Engdahl exhibited an encyclopedic knowledge of each of the ships we passed. As he spoke, he sprinkled in stories and details gained from an impressive Navy career. He was recently nominated to Rear Admiral and expects to be assigned to the Board of Inspection and Survey, which assesses the condition of Navy ships and reports to Congress.

Speaking of Congress and readiness, acquisition challenges seem to plague the Navy. These issues have been well publicized. Take the woefully over-budget and under-performing Littoral Combat Ships (pictured above is the USS Independence, featuring a trimaran hull). Another example is the futuristic-looking Zumwalt-class (photo below), which saw its initial 32-unit plan cut to just three amid ballooning costs and watered-down capabilities. The Ticonderoga-class cruisers are reaching the end of their service life and the replacement program is both vaguely-defined and on an aggressive timeline; the results remain to be seen. Given this recent track record, it’s hard to imagine the Navy fulfilling its plan to expand the fleet from 285 to 355 ships.

USS Michael Monsoor (DDG-1001), USS Cape St. George (CG-71), and USS Sterett (DG-104) docked and undergoing maintenance in Naval Base San Diego.
USS Michael Monsoor (DDG-1001), USS Cape St. George (CG-71), and USS Sterett (DG-104) docked and undergoing maintenance at Naval Base San Diego. The white tarps covering parts of the ships help prevent environmental contamination.

Captain Engdahl touched on these concerns but didn’t dwell on them. He did express concern regarding the military’s struggle with recruitment and retention. Many young Americans don’t meet the physical requirements or don’t view the Navy as a viable career. Top personnel often leave after a few tours to work in industry, which can offer more lucrative compensation and work-life balance. Though the Navy has been making significant strides on retention, personnel will likely remain a perennial issue.

USS Bunker Hill (CG-52)

After our tour of the bay, we headed to Naval Air Station North Island to catch a flight to the USS Bunker Hill (CG-52). Bunker Hill is a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser. She is assigned to Carrier Strike Group Nine, which includes the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). Though she has reached the end of her service life, the Navy has committed to maintaining her for several more years.

This was evident in the condition of the ship. Bunker Hill had just completed a maintenance and refurbishment period and was in the process of re-certifying the equipment and crew. The flight deck, just barely large enough for the MH-60 Seahawk which was our ride, had been certified the day before. On the day of our visit, the crew was conducting a live fire exercise to certify the ship’s two five-inch guns.

MH-60 helicopter on the tarmac
Our chariot at NAS North Island.

I almost fell over with the rocking of the ship in the ocean swells. Captain Kurt Sellerberg and his executive officer Commander David Sandomir welcomed us aboard. It was lunchtime and we were invited to enjoy burgers2 with several of the ship’s officers in the wardroom. The food was good, the coffee was strong, and the officers were proud of their ship.

Segment of wooden flight deck in a curio cabinet.
The wardroom contains a cabinet with artifacts related to the ship. This is a section of flight deck from the carrier USS Bunker Hill (CV-17), decommissioned in 1947.

After lunch, we were each assigned a petty officer to guide us around. With the recruitment discussion fresh on my mind, I asked my guide why she chose to enlist in the Navy. She told me that she had been interested in becoming an engineer, but for personal reasons college had not been an option. We didn’t get the opportunity to discuss her future plans (the big guns started firing), but she clearly was the type of dedicated, knowledgeable sailor the Navy wants to retain; if she decides to pursue an engineering degree, she’d be heavily recruited by defense contractors.

In fact, every sailor and officer I met aboard the ship was a model professional. We had the opportunity to tour the medical facilities, the engine and generator rooms, the engineering plant central control station, berthing and hygiene facilities, the torpedo room, helicopter hangar, and firefighting facilities. By interacting with the crew, I gained a sense of the culture onboard, which I would describe as strong camaraderie and trust. I later learned that we were witnessing the first implementation of a new training strategy which allows them to complete their basic certification early and utilize the remaining time for more advanced exercises.

Today, the crew was demonstrating the 5-inch gun by firing at imaginary targets on San Clemente Island3. We had free range of the upper-level deck and bridge during the live-fire exercise, an almost-unbelievable amount of access. We listened to the radio calls as the forward observer on the island called in firing coordinates and we watched the gun aim and fire in response. The evaluation team on the island recorded data on each round to score the exercise. We witnessed illumination rounds4, spotting rounds, and the rapid “fire for effect”.

Between the forward and rear guns and multiple test scenarios, about 150 rounds were fired. You can see a few of them in the video below. All of the goals for the objectives were satisfied and Captain Sellerberg came on the 1MC (PA system5) to congratulate the crew on a successful exercise.

Heading home

Finally, it was time to head home. The captain and executive officer spent a few more minutes chatting with us while the helicopter landed and refueled. We said farewell and were off6.

View of San Diego and the Coronado bridge from the air
Coronado and San Diego from the air.

The flight back provided an opportunity for reflection on the day. Beyond being seriously impressed by the exercise and the crew, there are concrete lessons to be learned:

Engineers need field trips

You can read about the [Air Force/Army/Coast Guard/Marines/Navy/Space Force7] ’til the cows come home. But it can’t compare to observing and participating in the culture first-hand. In-person visits to an operational facility build unmatched user empathy and mission understanding. On each project, engineering teams need to take the time to visit their users and spend a few days observing their work; leaders in both the contractor and customer organizations need to support these visits.

Traditions matter

The Navy is proud of their traditions. The ship’s brass bell is rung every half hour and water fountains are called scuttlebutts. Traditions provide continuity, reminding us of our history even as we adapt to the future.

As far as I am aware, there is no psychology research on the effects of tradition on performance. I would venture to guess that tradition is highly correlated with culture and organizational learning in high-risk and high-performing organizations8. In this sense, tradition substitutes for shared experience.

In the military, traditions are intentionally-instilled doctrine. In engineering, tradition varies significantly by domain and organization. Engineering is evolving more rapidly than ever, and I think it’s important that we carry forward traditions and institutional knowledge even as we innovate.

Innovate with intention

Bunker Hill may be 35 years old, but you’d be hard-pressed to see signs of her age. Her crew may be young, but you’d be hard-pressed to see signs of immaturity. The Navy relies on centuries of experience with maintaining ships and training new sailors. They know what works and what doesn’t.

Meanwhile, industry gets excited about every hot new buzzword. We breathlessly promote blockchains, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and electromagnetically-launched projectiles. We shoehorn technologies into projects for the sake of innovation and not because it’s what the system really needs. Innovation is essential, but should be done with care and intention, not novelty.

Bravo Zulu

I can’t say enough about the men and women I interacted with during this experience. They represent the Navy and our country with dedication, skill, and professionalism. This experience gave me a renewed sense of pride in the work we do in the defense industry. Thanks again to everyone who took the time to share their world with us: you made an indelible impression on myself and the entire group.