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.
Ron Burch has worked on military satellites for U.S. and allied government governments for nearly four decades at Boeing, and a predecessor company, Hughes Space and Communication. He currently serves as the Director of Advanced MILSATCOM for Boeing Space and Launch, where he focuses on developing advanced resilient military satellite architectures and solutions for the government and U.S. allies. Burch is also the author of a recently published book, “Resilient Space Systems Design: An Introduction.”
How did you get involved in the defense industry or community?
I hired into the satellite manufacturing industry right out of college. At that time, in the early 1980s, our company (Hughes Space and Communications) designed and built both commercial and defense satellites. The U.S. Government’s investment in space was rapidly increasing and consequently there was a greater need to staff those programs. From a personal perspective, some of the more interesting and challenging design work was required in those areas, so I was more than happy to be directed down that path. Since then I’ve worked on commercial, civil, and government programs, but the majority of my time has been in support of government customers for defense applications, which we still provide.
What are some challenges you faced working through your career?
I’ve faced many of the common challenges that engineers working in the government space sector have experienced. We are often leveraging leading edge technologies to meet next-generation requirements, building systems that perform far beyond what has been built before, while committing to aggressive cost and schedule targets. We commit to inventing the future and delivering on that promise, which is a bit of a bold proposition.
Furthermore, our products are often very technically complex, and we face the further challenge of communicating these concepts to our customers so that they can understand our decisions and recommendations and feel comfortable in making their own decisions and providing us with the required guidance. We are often trying to move quickly and communications is the foundation of the trust required to do that. We also face challenges internally, simply because the endeavor is so large, with so many moving parts, with a program with hundreds of people, that keeping everyone rowing together can be difficult, requiring experienced management and leadership.
Did you feel like you always had sufficient mentors and leaders to help guide you? Why/why not?
I was very fortunate from the earliest part of my career to have mentors who took an interest in my personal and professional development. Almost from day one I had a mentor and he was very energized and eager to mentor the “new kids” just hired out of school. Over the years I have benefited from a wide range of mentors who each provided me with guidance and good advice that helped me navigate my career. Many of them were my direct supervisors but others were peers, sharing their experiences with the company and the industry. I feel as though it really accelerated my growth and helped me avoid more than a few land mines along the way, and I’m indebted to all of those who mentored me.
How do you work to be a mentor yourself to younger counterparts?
I have mentored both informally and through formal programs and found it very rewarding. Last year I participated in Boeing’s mentoring program and mentored two engineers. In preparing for these conversations I try to put myself back in their place, remember how I felt when I was looking for guidance. I don’t naturally give advice, but there are certainly areas where I feel that I can help a less experienced person see the path forward, and consider some things that might not be obvious to them at that point in their career. And sometimes it’s just good to promote conversation, to provide a sounding board for them to try out their ideas and thoughts about their future. I believe that the best mentors I had, in retrospect, were those who listened at least as much as they spoke. If you really listen, you have a better chance of offering valued guidance because you need to understand the mentored person’s world view.
What does it mean to be successful in your career field?
First and foremost, I think that the work must appeal to you, and that to some extent you are personally invested in it. In the defense field that means keeping national security, the mission, and the warfighter in front of you. I think that for most people in the community the job goes beyond simply meeting our business goals and objectives and delivering high quality products, although those are also highly important. Beyond that, having integrity and the ability and willingness to collaborate freely with others is key.
We often are a part of large teams and there’s a need to be able to effectively work together. That also means communicating well, both verbally and in written form. Mastering the tools of the trade in an electronic era is also a newer, but critical skill. When I first started working, the emphasis for engineers was to eventually become an expert in a particular field as a template for success. While I think that is still a recipe for success, it seems to be becoming more common to strive to have a broader set of skills and knowledge and thus more flexible because we live in a much more dynamic world and our markets and products are also changing to reflect that. If you want longevity, it is likely better to be more agile and able to accommodate that change.
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?
There are many unsung heroes in the defense field, both in industry and on the government side, and I’ve worked with a number of them. Some of the most under-appreciated are the people who provide essential logistical support in large organizations to simply get things done. Sometimes that’s through the formal process, but often it is through the informal process. Office assistants, expediters, chiefs of staff, technical publications staff, information technology professionals…the list goes on. They provide the critical support to the technical and managerial staff and maintain critical infrastructure to enable them to be as creative and efficient as possible. Unfortunately, in many organizations these groups are often categorized as “overhead,” which is something that is always to be minimized. But their value to the organization is sometimes obscured because a lot of the work is “behind the scenes”.
What is your advice for new entrants to the defense/military community?
I would advise new entrants, in industry particularly, to become well versed in their customer’s missions, platforms, and users. Mission understanding is key in putting requirements in context, and the top level requirements drive everything. Become familiar with the organizations and stakeholders, who the subject matter experts are in the community, and also the relevant policies that govern how the government does things. Take the opportunity to hear directly from government leaders when possible, rather than have messages filter through others. These opportunities exist at conferences, in trade magazines (including online) and other media outlets.
What do you see as the future of your sector in national defense?
The military space sector continues to have a bright future, largely due to the fact that the U.S. continues to develop systems that are highly dependent upon space capabilities such as global communications, imaging, and navigation. The challenge is to accelerate the timelines to acquire, design, and deploy future systems as we must counter new and escalating threats. This means ensuring that the next generation of systems is more resilient than today’s systems. Future space systems must also be more affordable while delivering new capabilities, including the advancement of autonomy and cognitive functions to aid the operators and users. As complexity grows, we must provide the tools to manage and operate these systems to continue to make them usable. Finally, as we fully transition to a converged global digital future, our systems will become even more networked and interconnected, requiring the introduction of new technologies to space. So there is quite a bit of work in front of us in the space sector for decades to come.
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