In this 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.
TJ Mathieson is the Chief Integration Architect for Northrop Grumman’s Space Systems Sector, where he is chartered with enhancing, optimizing and implementing integrated, solutions across all of Northrop Grumman’s space and ground platforms. He also serves as the company’s Space Chief Architect for JADC2 where he focuses on incorporating space systems into integrated, multi-domain and multi-service solutions.
How did you get involved in the defense industry or community?
The Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy had the most profound impact on my career trajectory.
I was in elementary school when we watched the first launch of a teacher to space. I distinctly remember the unexpected turn of events, the silence that fell upon us in the room, and the teachers suddenly leaving the room without explanation. We were quickly ushered home where parents around the world were trying to explain what happened. I would spend the rest of my education and career trying to figure out how to prevent that kind of incident from ever happening again.
Oddly enough, that event also ignited an innate desire within me to get involved at the hands-on level to be an astronaut someday. Even at a young age I loved tinkering, building and taking things apart, so pursuing engineering and aerospace felt like a natural progression. After college I had the opportunity to join Northrop Grumman, working on high-end space technology which opened my eyes to the capabilities, possibilities and impact of the space and defense industry.
In my current position at Northrop Grumman, I focus on finding new ways to utilize, operate and connect our space systems to enable truly integrated and interwoven multi-domain capabilities.
What are some challenges you faced working through your career?
It can be a real challenge to find the cause of both successes and failures, but I believe everything can be viewed through the lens of broader systems thinking. I was fortunate early in my career to work on extremely complex space systems, and not just work on, but investigate, fix and prevent failures from happening.
Ultimately, I would be responsible for the full utility of those systems in a very dynamic landscape. Sometimes these systems are thousands of miles away – where we don’t have the luxury of seeing or touching the very thing we are attempting to fix.
When we are working through complex solutions to seemingly “unsolvable” problems, we learn quickly that there are no coincidences.
Everything. Is. Related.
Let’s think about the butterfly effect but apply it to space systems: a small disturbance can result in a large imbalance.
Space is a very isolated environment where balance is critical (thermal, power, forces, etc.). Once we establish the balance of a system, any minor disturbance is noticeable in multiple dimensions and can affect everything. This has taught me to appreciate systems thinking and theory, ultimately driving me to pursue a PhD in systems engineering. My focus through my operational support work, my doctoral research and continued work in my current role is on using systems differently and understanding the full impact of new solutions. This all started by a focus on finding new and innovative ways to make systems survive and thrive.
Did you feel like you always had sufficient mentors and leaders to help guide you? Why/why not?
I have had the privilege of great mentorship that empowered me to search for my own solutions. The single best tool several of my mentors gave me is simply the confidence to try. I’ve learned so much from the process of digging into challenges and trying to create unique solutions and I encourage team members and mentees to do the same.
I credit much of this to one of my first mentors, chair of the anthropology (…not aerospace!) department in college. He showed me that our source of inspiration doesn’t necessarily have to be entrenched in our work – it can, and many times should, come from other parts of our life. I believe this kind of balance, like that of complex space systems, is important to stability, purpose and success.
How do you work to be a mentor to yourself or to younger counterparts?
I take a similar approach to that of my own mentors – to encourage people to get involved and ask “Why?”
Taking a systems thinking approach has positively impacted my ability to innovate, so I hope to show my younger counterparts how to appreciate that approach and adapt it to their motivations. Particularly in the space and defense industry, it’s important to understand that systems thinking looks at connected wholes, rather than separate parts to get after some of the nation’s toughest challenges.
What are some of the under-appreciated positions in the defense field, the unsung heroes that help the job get done with less recognition?
Operators and deployed personnel are, in my opinion, some of the most critical positions in this field. It’s these people on the front lines ensuring the equipment and systems created perform the job they were designed for, and many times, other jobs and functions for which they were never designed. These roles are vital and can be largely overlooked and undervalued.
How can the industry improve in promoting these individuals and building them up?
We can apply the butterfly effect with people: In the defense industry, it’s not just creating and integrating technologies, it’s also pulling together the people at all levels to understand the impact their specific role has across a mission chain. Allowing operators to inform design and designers to help optimize operations is all part of improving what we do in the industry, and it creates avenues of growth and recognition across the workforce.
Additionally, continuing to provide opportunities for diversity of thought will be vital as the space industry evolves in the years to come. Diversity of thought is exactly what helps organizations like Northrop Grumman solve the world’s toughest problems in space.
Additionally, the industry needs to continue to recruit, retain and develop the highly skilled STEM talent we need for the future space enterprise.
How has the culture changed around diversity within your career?
I think we’re moving in a positive direction of creating more space for everyone to speak up and bring their ideas to the table, especially our younger workforce. Through open innovation challenges and idea incubators to research and development competitions, we’re actively encouraging diversity of thought and broad participation for everyone across the company, regardless of their phase of career or role. This is just one of many ways younger generations are actively helping us define the future of space.
What is your advice for new entrants to the defense/military community?
My recommendation is to get involved on the operational end of the industry as early as possible. Take the time to see how the systems we build are used, and not used, and learn the challenges and constraints that warfighters deal with daily.
I was fortunate enough to be thrown into an operational setting very early in my career at Northrop Grumman. We had to learn to adapt with the equipment we had available to us, forcing us to think on our feet and find a way to make things work. This shaped how I approach everything in my career – from systems engineering to large scale mission architecting and even mentoring.
Separately, knowledge is the one thing we don’t inherently leave behind when we leave this world. Everyone’s individual knowledge and personal experiences are gifts that should be shared to help others enhance their own knowledge, understanding and creativity. I hope we can collectively cultivate lifelong learners with a growth mindset, an innate curiosity about the world and a desire to share what they learn along the way.
Solving complex problems requires a deep interest and willingness to understand different ideas. Sharing these insights empowers not only the current generation, but future generations to build on what has been learned over time.
What do you see as the future of your sector in national defense?
I see the space domain bringing about the next technological evolution as it is quickly becoming the backbone of modern society. The changing space economy and influx of interest and capital is driving new commercial business models and giving us the opportunity to rapidly advance disruptive capabilities.
As we’ve seen in recent years, many terrestrial and even airborne functions are transitioning to space due to the rapid growth in the space-capable industrial base. With this transition, we are learning new ways to leverage space for everything from scientific research and discovery to national defense.
I believe we are on the leading edge of transforming how we as a civilization operate and grow in space, to include how we protect and defend freedom of navigation in space. I’m looking forward to seeing how we will build upon our technological innovation for complex systems and use that technology in new ways.
Who are the Force Multipliers in your community? Let us know at [email protected]