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  • Engineers and Military Programs – Second Update

    Posted by David Foster on June 25th, 2008 (All posts by )

    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.”

     

    44 Responses to “Engineers and Military Programs – Second Update”

    1. Mrs. Davis Says:

      Just wait till they find out about the Obama-Pelosi-Reid layoffs.

    2. Jack Diederich Says:

      The Manhattan Project is over. The Apollo Project is over. The Cold War is over.

      Back in the day if you wanted to help send a man to the Moon you joined NASA. Today you get a job with ex-dotcommers in California who are building their own space ships.

      The only engineers I know who want a government job are Environmental Engineers. The Army Corps of Engineers is rebuilding wetlands around many floodplains. The Civil and Mechanical Engineers work for construction companies or startups. The Electrical Engineers work for whomever the heck they want (the wash out rate for EEs is huge, which is why I graduated Comp E). Software and Computer Engineers working for the government? Forget it – I wouldn’t even work for a company that had ex-government programmers on staff.

      [I went to a school whose team name was “The Engineers” so yes, I know a few]

    3. Smitten Eagle Says:

      War isn’t high-tech anymore. Sure, if you can lighten the weight of my body armor, I would appreciate it. But these issues are only tangentially related. We are no longer playing cat-and-mouse games between weapon system and its countermeasure like we were during the cold war.

      War today is more about basic soldiering, leadership, with a dash of social science mixed in (anthropology, economics, basic government, criminal justice).

      Furthermore, so much of the high-tech stuff required by war today is Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS), mainly because the defense contractors are too slow at bringing their products to their customer. So instead of a multi-million-dollar UAV system developed by the conventional methods, the military instead buys ScanEagle, a UAV system originally designed for commercial fishermen to find schools of tuna. (Granted, ScanEagle is made by Boeing, but it wasn’t developed through normal defense means. It was a commercial product.)

      With the proven value of COTS equipment, maybe it’s better to have those engineers working in the commercial sector. Then the problem changes to one of luring engineers across the world to the US, and keeping them here. Commercial technology leaking to enemy powers also becomes a problem.

      I still think we need a Skunk Works. And we should probably aim to keep as many engineers working for defense contractors as we can. But I don’t think the situation is as dire as the NYT makes it out to be.

    4. David Foster Says:

      Smitten…I agree that technology is relatively less important in the current situation than it was in WWII and the Cold War; however, there are still many ways in which it can provide an edge…and these are too often getting screwed up. For instance, the FBI Virtual Case File System was supposed to help in the fusion of information sources to help identify terrorist threats. It failed. There was a project to issue unforgeable ID cards for workers at ports and other transportation facilities–when I posted about it back in fall of 2006, it was majorly screwed up, and I think it still is.

    5. A Lowly Cog Says:

      I’m a 15-year veteran of Air Force defense contracting (aerospace engineer) and this is a very accurate article. I don’t say that about the NYT very often.

      There are a lot of reasons why. The USAF policy of moving officers every three years is a huge problem. It’s great for fighter pilots (who run the Air Force and whose skill transfer from base to base), but terrible for engineers and program managers. A military engineer will work on satellites in his first assignment, then fighter maintenance in his second, then push paper in a program office for his third–if he doesn’t get disgusted and leave the service by then. In every one of those assignments, he starts from zero in terms of experience. By the time he’s trained and good at his job, the PCS cycle has run out and he’s moved to another one where he starts over. All that leads to chaos in requirements development, contracting, and testing.

      Bureaucracy is a gigantic issue. The big aerospace contractors have largely recreated DOD’s bureaucracy in their own organizations. The result is bloated, slow, risk-adverse companies full of little empires and paper-pushers whose main job is to say “no” to new ideas and to force any actual work to push through a mountain of red tape and/or approvals from dozens of people who have no clue about the actual engineering work involved. Don’t even get me started on the multiple layers of bean-counters with no concept of actual engineering or manufacturing work. Add to that the civil service bureaucracy and the uniformed bureaucracy, and you’ve got a maze that Kafka would crawl under his bed to avoid.

      For myself, I’ve had enough. I’m looking for a way out.

    6. Whitehall Says:

      Dudes,

      It’s the cubes. Remember when Instapundit posted photos of his office? Palacial! I work commercial and probably make about as much as a law professor at a backwater state school but my employer’s idea of a suitable work space is a cubical so small I couldn’t be buried in it.

      Face it, there’s little dignity in engineering anywhere. At least in the business work, the pay is better. Offer better offices and they will come.

    7. drb Says:

      Places like Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, BAE Systems, and Lockheed Martin are absolutely awful places to work. How do I know? Because I’ve worked for outstanding small companies that attracted the attention of the big players, became acquired, and scattered to the wind. There’s a lot of interesting and challenging engineering work — particularly signal processing — in the government domain but the great places to do it are the small companies that appreciate the value that engineering brings to the table and rewards employee efforts appropriately.

    8. Daniel Moore Says:

      I’m a recent engineering Ph.D. who recently had to make the decision between industry research and military research. The pay definitely had an impact on my decision (almost double in industry), even though I know that my hours and flexibility will be a lot worse in industry than in a government lab.
      However, I disagree with the commenter who said that no engineers want a government job. It was actually a tough decision for me and with most professors at top research universities turning into fundraisers instead of bench researchers, there is a feeling that government and military labs are one of the few places where a researcher can, to some extent, guide their own research.

      In my experiences, the starting-out offices for military labs are significantly better than those in industry.

    9. Scott Says:

      It is on the civilian side of the government too. I’m 33 and I’m the youngest person in my division in my agency. Besides the pay/bureaucratic nightmares (which are big) there are several other issues that disuade people from taking IT/science/engineering jobs in the USG:
      – the hurdles to get the job is too long. Everyone in IT has to have a “minumum background check” which is almost as long as the checks to get a secret clearance. Getting hired can be a 6 month ordeal sometimes. Way longer than new grads want to spend waiting (and broke).

      – limited advancement

      – projects can be on the cutting edge when they start, but either die off within a year, or drag on for years until it becomes irrelevant.

      – politics: not the Rep/Dem kind but office politics. Like universities, gov’t agencies have a bad track record of office politics causing good people to leave.

    10. James Says:

      I’m an aero engineer working for the Navy. I love my job, but it’s not without its gripes and complaints. We deal with a lot of beauracracy that can hinder the job. I work the test engineering side of the house, so my work tends to be refreshed every few months with something new. As a government employee, there are neat jobs in the civil service if you know where to look. And the base where I work tends to employ a higher number of young people than other government agencies. However, the job is not competitive in terms of salary, so we don’t always get the best and the brightest. As far as the good ‘ole boy systems government agencies are known for, my impression is that it’s not much different than the commercial world. You have the same office crap and politics anywhere you go.

    11. Scott Kelly Says:

      Every one of these reasons is why I eventually left and henceforth swore off government work. Boiled to its essence, I simply have better alternatives in the private sector.

    12. Geoff Says:

      I’ve recently quit the defense world and joined the commercial world.

      The reasons for me boiled down to compensation, specifically health benefits in my company were becoming worse. I always knew my compensation was less, but I had a great deal of flexibility and good benefits. Once I saw the squeeze was on with benefits, I bolted.

      There is a ton of bureaucracy. The people on the government side change positions frequently so they lose institutional memory. The technology is not cutting edge (but nor should it be).

      While I miss the mission, I like having a nice view (most of my career without windows). The work is more interesting technically. And the pay is better.

      That’s not to say there weren’t advantages to where I was or that everything was horrible.

      One last thing: you were right to note that a lot of commercial projects fail.

    13. Jack Lillywhite Says:

      So? DoD will then farm out the engineering and the defense contractors will sub that out even if it is to allied countries (new air tanker, for example). Money talks – and it that means DoD has to start paying more since the contractors need to pay more, etc. then that is the way it will work. What I am more concerned about is our energy plans and strategy, If it means more drilling, oil shale development, nuclear, high-efficiency batteries, hydrogen – then where are those engineers with those skills going to come from? More important in long run than the next generation howitzer of 3CI device.

    14. John Davies Says:

      I turned down a job doing military work 25 years ago for a different reason. I knew I’d be happier working on a much smaller project where my performance was directly related to the success than working on a small part of a big project. Some engineers I talked to had worked on a project for over a year and didn’t know the final destination of their component.

    15. BC Says:

      Until one and half years ago I have worked for one of the large defense contractors as scientist/systems engineer and then switched to Finance industry.

      A Lowly Cog (post #5) pretty much nailed it. Especially bean counting, risk aversness and beuracracy.

      Large defense contractors don’t want to do risky cutting edge R&D. All they want to do is large project management and repackage COTS or previous technologies.

      During the 6 years that I’ve worked there about 6 PhD level people has left the company (mostly retirement). None of them were ever replaced. They did hire people but more for bean counting, project management and doing engineering paperwork (e.g. requirements management)

    16. A Lowly Cog Says:

      You guys who’ve made the switch out of defense to “normal” business/industry, help a brother out here: What kind of work are you doing now? What industry? How did you go about making the transition?

    17. Astrosmith Says:

      Let me second #16: defense systems engineering to finance? How did you do it? What other paths are possible? Thanks in advance!

    18. Ken Aamodt Says:

      I recently earned a PhD in EE, in signal processing and communication theory. After sending out hundreds of resumes for appropriate jobs, many in the defense sector, I have received no responses. From my perspective, it seems the defense sector is not looking very hard for engineers.

    19. Geoff Says:

      I’m now in the communications industry. I’ve always been a software person. It’s up to you to keep your skills up-to-date. If you have skills, you’ll be fine. If not, well, would you hire yourself?

      Another thing, there was always pressure from the government (in our specific field) to move stuff to the Washington area. I want nothing to do with that crowded area. But if I lived there, I would have kept my clearances and would have bounced between jobs getting raises every year or so. Your clearances are worth money to other defense contractors.

    20. Geoff Says:

      Ken,

      You may be too expensive as a PhD. That would increase their costs for the government and could have been the issue.

    21. TomJW Says:

      “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.””

      If you really want to get depressed: FAA is losing air traffic controllers faster than they can train them. My brother, an air traffic controller, says that morale is terrible. He is planning on leaving in a year or, when he is eligible for the pension. He recommends that we don’t fly.

    22. DensityDuck Says:

      Lots of people crapping on Big Aero here, and I want to point out that we aren’t happy either. We don’t want to be bogged down in bureaucratic nincompoopery–it’s our customer that forces us to do it. The government has decided that you can’t just build something and sell it to them; no, your process has to be EXACTLY how they want it. They want to have their cake and eat it, too; they want a low-cost commercial contractor to do all the work, but they also want it done to pointlessly nitpicky government standards. The big aerospace contractors have largely recreated DoD’s bureaucracy in their own organizations because the DoD has forced us to do it!

    23. Jonathan Says:

      Rand Simberg has a post on this topic here.

    24. Geoff Says:

      Sorry for posting so much. DensityDuck is absolutely correct. Defense companies are like dogs and their owners. They start looking like their customer. Not that they necessarily want to.

    25. Marcus Vitruvius Says:

      Like A Lowly Cog, I’m a civilian defense contractor vet, too, coming up quickly on 15 years (plus some advanced degrees.) I, too, agree with much that the NYT article says, but I agreed with it the first time it was written, somewhere long about ten years ago at the height of the dot com boom.

      To their credit, they’re getting one subtle part of the story correct, namely, the growing lack of trained systems engineers. Their anecdotes are extremely good ones, and I could compare more than one of them to problems I’ve seen on my own projects. To a degree, individual pieces of technology can be farmed out to smaller defense contractors, or to commercial outfits with the right types of design expertise. I don’t like doing it, because it usually results in headaches, but it does not necessarily result in disaster.

      What you simply cannot farm out, though, are the systems engineers. For the Big Four, that is our claim to fame. Want to procure a whole aircraft? Your supply base of prime contractors is extremely limited, and it’s limited to those companies with the expertise and pockets to keep a large stable of systems engineers employed. Want to procure a major avionics package, or ground RADAR systems, etc? Similarly. Those are vastly complex systems stretching across every major discipline of engineering.

      What they miss, though, is that this is a demographic problem. The problem is not attracting young engineers, per se– now that salary adjustments put defense contracting at least in the same ballpark as commercial engineering, we have young talent coming in the doors again, at least at my site. We have more youngsters, lately, than I can easily remember the names of. (And someone, get me my walker!)

      The problem is the substantial demographic staffing trough of engineers in the age 40 to, roughly, 55 bracket. People 55 and over are retiring, right now. But people 40 to 55 have melted back into the civilian engineering fields, many as a result of the dot com boom back in the late 90s. This is the pool from which good, solid systems engineers are drawn– engineers who have mastered (and not just in an academic sense, sorry my young PhDs…) at least one and often two fields of engineering expertise, even if they’re just different flavors of electrical or different flavors of mechanical engineering. These are the guys who have the perspective to notice weird and undesireable interactions between different sub-systems designed at different sites by different specialities, and have enough weight to slow people down and fix the problems in advance.

      We’re not completely absent those people, but in an historical sense, we have less now than in the past. They cite responses by, e.g., Georgia Tech, to develop systems engineering curricula, but this just makes exerienced defense contracting engineers giggle that slightly manic giggle we get when we know we have a real problem. They’re nice kids, bright, eager, motivated, but they’re not systems engineers in a practical sense. Again, sorry my young systems engineering students and recent graduates, but… do yourselves a favor and double major in a traditional engineering field, too. Systems engineering can’t be taught. Systems engineering is almost defined as, “The stuff no one can figure out how to write a text book for.”

      That’s the real problem, as guys in their thirties are pushed farther along that curve than they should be, so that we have replacements for the next major wave of retirements– those guys have to learn from the ones we still have, who are in turn scarce and over-worked as a result.

    26. cme Says:

      About two years ago, right after completing my active duty with the US Navy as a submarine officer, I was interviewed by BAE for a mechanical engineering job. (ME was my major.) I had a TS security clearance already and was excited at the thought of working for a defense contractor. I felt like the interview went well too. But as it turned out, the job I was being considered for was canceled. Anyway, I have no regrets about not working there. If they have no use for a mechanical engineer coming out of the military with a security clearance, then well, whatever.

      Now I do HVAC work for an architecture and engineering firm. I mostly like the job, but wow, it was a huge paycut from being a submarine officer. I am planning to switch careers from the engineering world to the business world later this year. I expect to be making a lot more in two years in a new career than I would if I were to remain an engineer. Considering that my wife’s salary is even more modest than my own, my engineering salary isn’t really enough for us to afford daycare for a few kids (or for us to go to a single income). We do okay now without any kids, but unless I get a new job, it will be really tight when we do.

    27. Skeptical Chuck Says:

      I’ve worked in defense for 24 yrs as an engineer with both gov’t and contractor, and I believe the young engineers avoiding defense work are making a good call. I’d be gone tomorrow if I didn’t have so much time invested and wasn’t in the fiftyish nerd-guy demographic so highly sought-after by non-defense employers.

      There are a few pockets of interesting defense work, but for the most part, daily existence for defense industry engineers is pretty much sit-in-the-cube-stare-at-the-tube. It’s not often that you see direct results of your work, and often boring enough that you wouldn’t want to (you checked off all the things on this list that appear in that document! Yeehaw!). You end up living in and dealing with large bureaucracies on slow-moving programs (reforming the defense acquisition system is horribly overdue, but that’s another subject). Gov’t pay, especially at starting levels, is so poor that it’s a wonder that they get any good engineers. You can make more money at the contractors (still, anybody much over $100K is making a _very_ good salary for this industry), but the tradeoff is shaky job security. Nothing like telling your wife and kids that your program has been cancelled and that you have to move them across the country (again) to stay employed.

      So I would say a decision by young engineers to go into another industry is pretty rational. I’m a little skeptical of the conclusions drawn by the article, however, that this lack of engineers is driving cost overruns and technical problems on defense programs. I believe that’s a systemic problem (see several of the posts above) that that any number of superb systems engineers couldn’t change. Actually, this article is just a variant on the common articles decrying the lack of young people studying science and engineering, and how we are soon to have a major shortage of engineers with dire consequences. I’ve been hearing that since I was an undergraduate 30 years ago and it’s never come to pass. When defense engineers are too valuable to waste doing routine paperwork, start seeing pay raises that well exceed inflation, and maybe even have recruiters calling us with lucrative offers, then maybe I’ll believe aren’t enough people going into the field. Not much evidence of that so far…

    28. doc Says:

      I’m another one who moved from defense systems engineering to finance. In my case, my PhD in systems involved stochastic processes, and my defense work was closely related (mostly guidance, navigation, and control). It turns out that this stuff is very much a part of modern finance — asset allocation, risk management, options pricing, and so on. My actual career path was kind of an accident (guidance algorithms ==> guidance software ==> software economics ==> venture-funded software company doing business planning ==> major financial firm), but you could so something similar on purpose if you wanted. Look into the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) program – it gives potential employers some comfort that you know something about finance, and it’s less time-consuming than an MBA.

    29. Cap'n Dan Says:

      I’ve been a federal civil servant for 30 years, employed by the US Army as an aerospace engineer. As noted by others here, you have Minuses – the pay would have been better on the outside, there are bureaucratic hassles, and it does take a while to get some things done; and Pluses – whatever you build will be around for a while, and you have the satisfaction of knowing your job is to keep American soldiers alive.

      There’s one other big plus that no one has noted here – in federal civil service you will have a much higher degree of responsibility much earlier than in industry. I remember a contractor telling me he spent his first 5 years working on landing gear components at a drafting table (pre-CAD). Within 2 years of hiring, I was running wind tunnel research programs. By the time I had been in civil service for 5 years, I was managing a million-dollar flight test effort, with test pilots, mechanics, instrumentation technicians and engineers working for me. With 15 years experience I was flight test manager for a major Army helicopter program. My contractor counterpart was 20 years older. That’s a selling point you don’t usually hear mentioned by Government recruiters.

    30. M. Simon Says:

      I once had a very very nice office (rosewood) with a chair to match. It was stifling. I wanted dingy walls and hard beaten floors. Engineering – it is a dirty job and I love to do it.

      The only engineers who are any damn good are those who do it for love. I can’t think of any school in the world that can teach that. None. Zero. If you have that you don’t need school. (I’m non-degreed aerospace). If you don’t have that there is no school that will help. The wash out rate should be high. That way mostly lovers will be left.

      BTW the military world can bypass the bureaucracy when the need is critical. I never found them to be a handicap. The biggest handicap in mil/aerospace engineering is rigid mind sets. There is not enough zero budget thinking (what would we do if we had to start from scratch).

    31. M. Simon Says:

      Tom JW,

      Interesting. I worked on the FAA’s original route control system in ’67. TTL and wire wrapped boards. SUHL was better logic. TI had a better price. Which is why you never heard of SUHL.

      As to systems engineering. I don’t understand why people have to retire at 65. Just when they are starting to get good.

    32. Whitehall Says:

      Don’t get me wrong – I’ll gladly work out of a trailer next to a new nuclear plant under construction – just give me a clipboard, hard hat, and boots. But if I’m stuck in an office, I would hope for some privacy and some dignity in where I work. Engineers don’t get that, in my experience.

      And Mr. Simon is correct – the good engineers are ones who love engineering and/or really believe in the mission.

      Here in the nuclear power industry, we too recognize the need for engineers starting their careers to join the team. There seems to be lots of interest in nuclear power now that the political winds have changed so dramatically the last year or two.

    33. Allison Says:

      Bureacracy and slowness are close to the reasons I left, but they don’t hit the mark exactly. The issue is that most defense contractors nowadays are Extremely Risk Averse. They aren’t into innovation. They don’t do innovation. There are no Skunkworks, no equivalent people being allowed to push the envelope.

      And it’s not just a business perspective where they decide they’ll be systems integrators and buy innovation. They simply don’t know how to innovate, or even buy innovative technologies, so the innovators are repeatedly hamstrung when they come up with new ideas. It’s painful to be innovating and turned down, time and time again.

      My second reason for leaving the defense sector was the lack of seriousness in the mission. GD, BAE, Boeing, etc. didn’t have a mission statement or corporate culture that said “we deliver solutions to our armed forces so they can beat the bad guys.” It wasn’t even clear that the corporate cultures BELIEVED in bad guys anymore. Nothing like watching Loral give away the store to China to make you feel that. But the culture of protecting the USA wasn’t there at the top of the organization, and wasn’t there in the middle and low parts, either. Most engineers didn’t feel any national security loyalty anymore–didn’t understand the point of a security clearance, didn’t understand why a chinese-or pakistani-born-national-now-naturalized shouldn’t have a clearance. Engineers aren’t any more politically conservative than any other group of folks, and with one entire political party that’s unserious about defense, it’s not clear that they could create such a corporate culture now anyway.

      But the NYT misses the mark in other ways. It really isn’t the money. Engineers and scientists with clearances receive VERY competitive packages all of the time, and job hopping will increase your salary quite rapidly. NYT’s comments about doctoral candidates also misses the mark. The defense sector doesn’t want them, largely they are viewed as expensive elitist who can’t be trained, can’t be managed, and can’t become part of the team. PhDs don’t support their mission. A tiny number may be a necessary evil, but the defense sector would rather hire an engineer with a master’s and leave the phds to academia and think tanks that they partner with for NSF funds.

      But the last reason I left was because I could see the writing on the wall. FCS was getting plundered of innovation, and so were all the other projects. When Obama is elected, the defense sector will fall on even harder times.

    34. Marcus Vitruvius Says:

      I agree with Cap’n Dan.

      I alluded to it in my own post, about people in their late 30s/early 40s being pushed farther along their curve than historically typical. That’s typical for defense.

      I remember shopping around for a while in the late 90s myself, after having worked defense for a few years already. I interviewed with a cell phone outfit, and I was asked by the hiring manager what sort of design tasks I was intreested in. Well, I was a sythesizer and PLL designer at the time, and I was looking for more perspective so I said either those, or maybe receiver chains.

      He was looking for answers a lot lower down on the food chain.

      I had the direct impression that the reason those phones are so advanced and come out on tight schedules is that they’ll have fifty or a hundred engineers working on a flip phone the size of a short stack of credit cards. By contrast, at my next job, my first task was a full, specialty frequency converter card. When I asked the phone house about system engineering, they (that group, at least) didn’t even have dedicated people doing it, it was just kinda informal by the older guys.

      A few other scattered notes:

      1) Salary increases can be gotten by job hopping between defense gigs. Anyone not bright enough to figure this out is not qualified to design weapons.

      2) It’s not so much why do the systems guys have to retire at age 65, as it is, how are you going to stop them?

    35. MikeT Says:

      #1 Is flat out not true. Contractors with high level clearances are usually paid far better in metropolitan D.C. than their commercial counterparts. The pay may not include million dollar stock options, but I can guarantee you that most engineers with at least 5 levels of experience, who’ve made one or two job hops in the contracting world, and who hold a high level clearance (SCI or higher) will be able to get at least $100K. Even for those who have low clearances like DoD Secret, the pay is still good and reliable by commercial standards.

      Contractors have to deal with the same issues of government slowness, and it is harder on young people who want to go in, get their hands dirty and get the job done. You have to go through an elaborate “requirements kabuki” that takes months in order to do a month or two of software development in many cases! It also doesn’t help that many times the government doesn’t plan ahead, and contracts end up with no support funding, leaving them at the mercy of any bugs that exist in them. All too often, software development work that is done for the federal government is done to replace functional systems that just had no support contract, and have to be rewritten from scratch because no one can maintain them now.

    36. MikeT Says:

      Furthermore, one of the problems that software developers face is that the government goes into “shiny thing mode” whenever something new comes out. Previously, Java Enterprise Edition was the universal tool for every problem. Now, some agencies are trying to jam it all on to Ruby on Rails (have fun with that…) It’s not inaccurate to describe it as viewing it nearly like a techno-messiah, the chosen technology that will save every project, be good for everything, reduce the cost of finding new developers, etc.

    37. jimbino Says:

      I’m a nuclear physicist tired of working for US Government contractors, partly because most of the things I’ve worked on are the kind you hope never get used. But the main reason is that I won’t bend over and take drug tests and find that I don’t like to hang around people who do.

      Now that the Feds have mandated drug tests for their contractors, my choices are to work in the private sector or do my nuclear physics for a less invasive and more appreciative government.

    38. Orville Wright Says:

      A few of these posts claim the problem is too much government oversight and beancounting. That is the exact opposite of the conclusion the NRC report discussed in the NYT article. The real problem, as the report proves, is too little oversight, resulting in aimless zombie programs that continue to exist only because they generate revenue for contractors. Those kinds of programs are great for shareholders of defense contractors but terrible for engineers and taxpayers.

      If you’re unhappy with government oversight, the two most likely reasons are (1) the overseers don’t know what they’re doing but you do, or (2) they do know what they’re doing, but you don’t.

    39. nerdbert Says:

      As a former NASA engineer, I have to say that I went into that gig a shiny, enthusiastic engineer coming from the commercial end of things and left NASA after a couple of years utterly opposed to letting the government run any mission more complicated than opening envelopes. Even IBM had fewer office and project politics. Of course, when I left IBM for a startup I got a real eye opening to seeing how things really could be run efficiently and results oriented. When I was actively recruited by the USAF for a research position based on some of that NASA work a few years back I politely declined. Never again do I want to be burdened by that level of HR and paperwork insanity.

      As to education, I’m a Ph.D. EE and it’s too much education for most employers in and out of the government. I’ve had managers directly challenge me on that point. Live with the fact that Ph.D.s tend to be stubborn, you wouldn’t have gotten the Ph.D. otherwise, and stubborn folks can be troublesome to integrate into teams, so without a proven record of teamwork a Ph.D. may have more trouble than an MS finding a job, at least initially.

      As to being a systems engineer, been there, done that, was told I was good at it and still got out of it. Even in the commercial end of things it really tends to be very conservative and, frankly, boring. The degree of freedom to innovate is inversely proportional to the level of the component in the system (think of the level of acceptable risk allowed in an IC as compared to the level of risk allowed to a communications system in a satellite), so if you’re one of those really creative folks systems engineering can be a frustrating specialty since getting buy in for anything really innovative can be an excruciating process.

    40. Mike K Says:

      Interesting thread. I was working for Douglas Aircraft in 1959 when I decided to go to medical school. I’m not sure I would make the same decision now but the stories are almost the same with a few details changed. There is nothing new under the sun, including engineers’ lives. I worked on the Nike Zeus project and remember the project chief on the F5D, when it was canceled, blowing his brains out in a VP’s office.

    41. Skeptical Chuck Says:

      Orville Wright: Having been both a gov’t overseer and a contractor being overseen, I can vouch for your case #1 “the overseers don’t know what they’re doing but you do” as being by far the more common situation. The gov’t has a hard time recruiting and retaining good engineers in oversight positions – mediocre pay, little chance for advancement, and the real killer, they don’t do any engineering. After a few years, you fall behind. Unless you have a gov’t engineer who has worked at a contractor and is very experienced in that line of engineering (quite unusual, as they could get a large pay increase by working for the contractor instead), the oversight is little more than window-dressing. The many programs in trouble are proof- they are all currently being overseen and by more than one agency (DCMA, DCAA, the SPO, etc.), but it didn’t stop the problems.

      I think the problem with gov’t contracts that was being alluded to was not so much the human oversight, but all the contractual and regulatory stuff. You can’t just plow ahead and build System A. You have to have an IMP, a SEMP, an IMS, an SDP, you have to hold an SRR, PDR, CDR, TRRs, calculate BCWP and BCWS, and deal with many dozen other acronyms. That’s all enormously expensive and may add little to the final product

    42. DensityDuck Says:

      Skeptical Chuck: Exactly. The government would rather see a documented failure than an undocumented success.

    43. Kevin R.C. O'Brien Says:

      Smitten Eagle cites the ScanEagle as an example of COTS technology brought to the military.

      But, he tells us, it’s now sold by Boeing. Of course; it has to be. The government’s procurement labyrinth locks out everyone but full-bore, full-line, full-time defense prime contractors.

      The military ultimately gets a product this way, but it’s invariably years late, some multiple of the original budget, and often short vital capabilities.

      There are two reasons for this: reactive regulation which means DOD happily squanders billions to keep contractors from stealing hundreds, and the bureaucratization of procurement under the worst SecDef, Robert S. Macnamara. Mac’s big project, the TFX, has been the model for defense boondoggles ever since. The USAF finally had a pretty good subset of the capability they were supposed to buy by the time the F-111 was an F model; the Navy version never achieved anything but killing test pilots and the Navy was able to wriggle out of the contract after Macnamara split (to the World Bank, where he brought his arrogant quantitative “expertise” and produced the Third World debt crisis singlehanded).

      The Air Force version of the plane never performed on par with the aircraft it replaced, the 1950s vintage F-105. Not in speed, payload, range, maintainability, or survivability. (Macnamara feared this, and ordered the 105 tooling destroyed. Then the Air Force ran out of the things when he kept sending them against defended targets piecemeal “to send a message” to the DRV. Apparently he didn’t trust Dean Rusk (who would? But that’s another story).

      Anyway, Mac was the guy who began screwing up procurement. The C-5A was another procurement boondoggle that ultimately resulted in a usable airplane, but only a handful of the things because of the magnitude of the overruns. The overruns didn’t happen because of Lockheed (which at the time was building classified systems and space systems on time and on budget with minimum oversight). It happened because of incompetent DOD micromanagement, which is now hard-coded into the department’s DNA.

      Ask computer geeks of a certain age about another DOD brainstorm — standardizing on the ADA computer language.

    44. Dove Says:

      I’ve been a software engineer on the contracting side of the defense industry for three years now, and that right out of grad school. That’s not a lot of experience to speak from, but even just staying at one company and visiting three programs, I’d say the quality of the experience depends a lot on where you work.

      One program I was on was full of very smart people doing very innovative things–great systems engineering team, cutting edge development stuff. Another was nothing but paperwork and fingerpointing; I literally spent a month checking that changes to a document had been made in accordance with the contract. On pen and paper. With a highlighter. Eight hours a day. (But they paid me like a software engineer . . .) But then, that sort of stuff happens in the commercial world, too, doesn’t it?

      Sometimes it seems like the interesting work is happening all around me; someone *else* is solving some cool SIGINT or crypto problem I’d love to be in on. Sometimes I really love working on . . . well, jets and missiles and radar and stuff. I mean, dang. Who’d trade that for consumer electronics? Sometimes I feel a great deal of pride in what I work on; I do believe the stuff I produce saves lives and advances the cause of freedom.

      Then again, I read about internet startups doing radical things with languages that are barely years old, tight groups of true hackers solving hard problems in innovative ways. And I look at where I work–software built layer upon shaky layer, beyond hope of badly needed rearchitecture. Something that ought to be a ten-second job, like changing a display color or a builtin delay–instead costs $60000 and takes three weeks. I can’t directly communicate with the customer to build a product that’ll work for him; instead I have to build it to a spec that was originally a compromise written to solve a poorly-understood problem. Oh yeah, and we’re working in Ada. On a VAX.

      And I think, dang. I gotta get out of this industry.

      I don’t mean it, though. I can learn Lisp or Ruby or whatever on my own time, and where else do you get to work on such cool stuff?