NYT reports that many recently-graduated engineers (also programmers and mathematicians) are choosing to work for strictly-commercial firms rather than in the defense sector. Reasons given include:
1)Better pay in the commercial sector
2)A feeling that military projects take so long that anyone working on them is unlikely to keep up with current technology
3)A related perception that military projects are more bureaucratic than strictly-commercial work
4)Many more job options available for engineers than there were 10 or 20 years ago, including consulting and finance
5)Over half the engineering doctoral candidates at American universities are from abroad and hence ineligible for top security clearances
6)Trendiness…employers like Google have more cachet than those like Northrop Grumman
The article cites several big military programs that have had serious problems, attributable at least in part to poor engineering management. On the other hand, management problems in large government military and civilian programs are not new, and there are plenty of horror stories in the strictly-commercial world, too.
But if talented engineers are indeed avoiding defense work, it could lead to some serious problems down the road. I’d love to hear some discussion on this, particularly from those who work or have worked on defense projects, whether on the government side or the industry side.
UPDATE: There’s also a post on this at Neptunus Lex…promises to be an interesting discussion since it’s a blog frequented by many military and aviation people.
UPDATE 2: Thanks for all the comments so far. A couple more points I’d like to add:
1)Choosing careers & employers based on current trendiness is not always a smart strategy. In 1999, chemical & petroleum engineering weren’t at all trendy; the only forms of technology getting any media play were those which were directly computer-related. But now, chemical & petroleum talent is in short supply, with salaries to match.
In his book on the development of the 747, Joe Sutter remarks that, in his early days at Boeing (late 1940s) everyone wanted to work on jets. He was assigned to a prop-airliner development team (the Stratocruiser) and got a lot more early responsibility than he likely would have on one of the sexier projects. Similarly, when the development of the 747 was first mooted, the trendy thing was the supersonic transport. Had Sutter insisted on working in trendy areas, and been able to dragoon his management into going along with him, he would likely have never become the engineering manager for a large and successful airliner project.
2)Bill Swanson, CEO of Raytheon, tells the following story from a time he visited Nellis Air Force Base:
“I introduced myself to a pilot, and he looked me in the eye and said, “If it wasn’t for what you all do, I wouldn’t be here today.” A missile had been launched at his F-15, but we make a decoy, which he deployed. The decoy didn’t come home — but he did, to his family. I use that feeling to remind everyone that people’s lives depend on the reliability of our products.”
There are at least some people who get more satisfaction out of the kind of thing than out of helping to create a recognizable consumer product such as the iPod.
Also, for an interesting example of a failed software project, see my post on the FAA’s Advanced Automation System. This effort has been called, surely with some hyperbole, “the greatest debacle in the history of organized work.”