Senior Mechanical Systems Engineer
What is a typical day like for you?
My job, as an engineer, is mostly to solve problems, whether they are problems getting the project completed or problems needing new machines or processes. This usually involves thinking through the problems and trying to solve them in a creative and cost effective manner. There are frequently meetings with others on my project team where we decide specific issues relating to the project. These issues can be as dull as how many hours are left in the budget to get the job done or as interesting as inventing a new machine to perform a task in space that’s never been done before. The dull meetings are still necessary to plan our work and make sure we meet out customer’s targets, but the interesting meetings are the fun ones where I get to be creative and solve problems.
What is the most enjoyable part of your job?
Inventing new ways of doing things. Creating new machines or processes to help solve our customers’ problems.
What is the least enjoyable part of your job?
Doing the paperwork that is sometimes necessary to complete a job.
Explain the path you took to get to this job (education, internships, etc.).
I was very lucky with my education. I attended Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) primarily because it was the local university in my home town of St. John’s. As it turned out, however, the MUN engineering program was one of only two fully co-op engineering schools in Canada at the time. The co-op program was a real benefit and provided me with two full years of on-the-job engineering experience by the time I graduated. This was invaluable in many ways. Not only did I get real-world experience but, because there were six work terms in the program, I got to try several jobs in different parts of the country. This allowed me to “try on” several different jobs to see what might be right for me after graduation.
I had always wanted to go into the aerospace engineering field and, by the time I graduated, I thought that it might be a good idea for a simple mechanical engineer from Newfoundland to get some specialised aerospace education. I spent a year at U of T starting a Masters of Engineering program, but found that the things being taught did not match the direction I wanted to take my career. I got a job after a year in the master’s program, as a design engineer at Pratt and Whitney Canada, and never looked back.
Who or what was the greatest influence that set you on this path?
Frankly as, a child of the Sixties, my greatest influence was watching space launches on TV as a kid. Watching Gemini and Apollo program launches and, of course the iconic lunar landing of 1969, cemented my dream of wanting to be part of that field when I grew up.
What advice would you give others seeking a similar job?
Pay close attention to your math and science, of course, but also develop a deep and abiding passion for the industry. There will be tough times and it’s a very cyclic industry, so you need that passion to get you through the tough times and support you when things look rough.
How does your job make a difference?
Well, I believe in space exploration and exploitation. It’s very difficult to do, but I believe that striving for these difficult goals provides not only the keystone technology that feeds much of the world’s commercial industry, but, even more importantly, it feeds the imaginations of those who would discover new things in all walks of life. Even those of us who may live vicariously through the exploits of the astronauts, deep sea divers and astronomers who do the actual discovering are inspired to do better. To be able to provide some of the means for people to explore is a great honour.
If you tell someone that your name is actually on the surface of Mars, or that you worked on something that is currently on orbit, only a very few people don’t get at least a little excited at the prospect. That “Oh gosh” moment is what it’s about. Not that I, personally, have done anything, but that they are connecting to the exploration that the technology implies. They get excited to connect, even for a moment, to something that just about everyone, everywhere, thinks is cool and worthwhile.
Many people come away from that with just a little more inspiration in their own life and that’s a positive impact on everyone.
How do you use science, math and technology in your job?
As an engineer, much of my job is science and math to create the technologies that solve our customer’s problems. The core of all of our solutions is science and math; from calculating strengths & forces to using lasers to estimate distances to analysing large computer generated models of new machines to using computer controlled machines to create the actual parts. Science, math and technology is at the heart of everything I do.
Is there one course you wish you had taken in high school but didn’t? Why?
Well, I wish I had taken typing. I write so much now on a computer that having that skill would have been very helpful over the years. I wasn’t allowed to take it at the time I was in High School and by the time I needed it, well after graduating university, I wasn’t in a position to take the time to learn it.
What makes this job right for you?
It allows me to be creative, it is challenging on many levels, I get to work with very bright and interesting people that are a lot like me and I really have a passion for the things my company creates.
What's the most bizarre or silliest thing you’ve ever done in this job?
At my previous employer I had an idea to protect a piece of equipment from fire but my company had never used the protective material before. They were determined to use it in a particular manner. I was certain that I could use it in a more flexible format, so, to prove that I could protect the equipment with the flexible material and still meet other requirements for access, installation and the like, I used a couple of old pairs of jeans, cut them up and sewed together the flexible protection I had envisioned. I sat at my desk for several days being a tailor while actually inventing a new protection method.
Everyone in the office, including my bosses, laughed at how scruffy the end product looked and initially dismissed my idea, but once we all gathered and considered the pros and cons of the various methods of doing the job, it was my idea that won out and we went on to make the parts and prove they worked in a very demanding fire test.
I still have that hand-sewn prototype.
What activities do you like to do outside of work?
I read a lot (science fiction and military history), I write and edit some history publications and I build plastic models of spacecraft and military vehicles. I am also on the Board of Directors of a science fiction society and have been the president of several model building clubs and societies. I also enjoy table top strategy and role playing gaming.
You just won $10 million! What’s the first thing you’d do?
At this point in my life, I’d probably retire so I could spend time with my family and we could all spend some of the money travelling to interesting places. There are so many things I like to do that having more time to do them would be great.