In this new monthly column, Defense Daily highlights individuals from across the government, industry and academia whose efforts contribute daily to national defense, from the program managers to the human resource leaders, to the engineers and logistics officers.
Tiffany Nesbit has made her mark on the aerospace industry after nearly a quarter century of service in various research-and-development roles. Her career has spanned multiple sectors and two continents, and she has worked in all phases of development including systems, software, hardware and engineering. She currently serves as the vice president of engineering at Elbit Systems of America, but has previously held engineering leadership roles at Honeywell Aerospace, and worked for four years as the director of engineering for Honeywell China in Shanghai.
She also led the Aerospace Software Center of Excellence, an organization of over 250 engineers across eight U.S. states and three countries. During her tenure, the organization consolidated use of operating systems and processes to streamline software development and foster closer collaboration across borders. Nesbit is a Certified Project Management Professional, and holds a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
How did you get involved in the defense industry or community?
My Dad was a U.S. Marine. He was proud of his service and taught all of his kids the Marine Corps hymn. I even found the tune in my saxophone music book, so he would have me play the song and then my siblings would sing along. My Dad also helped me to realize that I could build products that would help U.S. service members if I worked as an engineer in the Defense industry, and that was the direction I pursued.
What are some challenges you faced working through your career?
The greatest challenge for me has been acceptance when I’ve taken on a new role or joined a new team. While I really appreciate the challenges that come with change, integrating into a new team is often more difficult than the technical work itself. As a woman navigating through the Aerospace and Defense space, I believe there are different dynamics at play. Sometimes women don’t have as many opportunities to create friendships in the workplace as there aren’t as many of us in the industry.
Did you feel like you always had sufficient mentors and leaders to help guide you? Why/why not?
During the first few years of my career, I struggled to find someone to help me transition from a college student to a professional. It wasn’t necessarily the day-to-day activity that was tough, but my ability to get validation from work or rate progress since I was no longer receiving a report card for my efforts. After a few years in the industry, I was assigned a mentor through a company program and while the relationship was only meant to last one year, my mentor and I have remained connected for nearly 20 years now! It is very rewarding to have a mentor that I can speak with. She’s helped me to grow both professionally and personally. I can learn from hearing about her challenges and how she tackles them. Having a female mentor provides perspective and sanity when I’m having a tough month!
How do you work to be a mentor yourself to younger counterparts?
I have taken on a few mentees over the years and I try to model myself after my own mentor who has been so helpful to me. I also remember one of our interns presenting her project and mentioning how excited she was to have female leaders to look up to. This young woman’s remark reminded me of my responsibility to exhibit behaviors that help women, young engineers, or both, learn how to adjust in the workplace.
What does it mean to be successful in your career field?
I think success is enjoying what you do and always being challenged. I find that I get bored doing the same thing for too long. If I’m learning new things – technical skills, different products or technologies, new customers or markets, or leadership challenges – then I’m happy in my job. This is success for me.
What are some of the under-appreciated positions in the defense field, the unsung heroes or essential cogs in the machine that help the job get done with less recognition?
As an engineer, it seems that many of the support functions are not recognized. I would have to say the intersection of components engineering and the supply chain counterparts who work to find us viable suppliers are so valuable, but truly underrated. With the increasing pace of technology and parts going obsolete much faster, those folks have a lot of work to do to keep material available for our products. I also think our configuration management teams do a lot to keep our data organized and ready for when we need it.
How can the industry improve in promoting these individuals and building them up?
I know Elbit Systems of America includes and recognizes employees from these support areas whenever we celebrate a milestone or a successful development activity. It’s easy to remember the design team, but we all need to remember to include them in our celebrations.
How has the culture changed around diversity within your career?
In my college days there weren’t many women in engineering programs. When I entered the workforce as an engineer there were only a few women to learn from. Much has changed. Today I see many more women studying engineering and coming into workplaces like mine. It’s really encouraging. I like that some of the largest Defense companies today have women at the very top. That is so inspiring to see.
What is your advice for new entrants to the defense/military community?
I would tell anyone new to the field that they must enjoy their work and they must feel that they can make a difference. The Defense industry comes with heavy regulation and a lot of paperwork. Often the regulations and paperwork can be frustrating to creative people who want to jump right in. Some see these requirements as a barrier to ingenuity and new technology. At Elbit Systems of America, there’s a continuous effort to remind ourselves of our end customers and celebrate our company mission to provide innovative solutions that protect and save lives. Understanding the bigger picture, the importance of our work, and the people who use our products all help to keep the work in perspective.
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