Jumping the Generation Gap
After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with degrees in mathematics and computer science, Nathan Paczan approached his father for some job-hunting advice. Michael Paczan had worked for MITRE in the 1970s and '80s, so he was quick to point his son in that direction. "He said he really enjoyed the work and the culture at MITRE," Paczan says.
By the time Paczan emerged from the interview process and secured a job offer, he had to admit that father knew best. "I was fascinated by the work MITRE does, by the amount of flexibility and freedom and respect that they give to young engineers, and the opportunities to pick and choose the projects that you're most interested in." He took a position as a senior software systems engineer at our McLean, Va., offices.
Hit the Ground Researching
Paczan assumed he'd have some dues to pay first at MITRE before he'd get his chance to contribute significantly to a project, but he was pleasantly surprised to find his assumption proven wrong. "In other companies that offered me a job, I would have started out testing other people's code. After many years, if I proved to be a good tester, I could graduate to be a real developer. But right off the bat as a brand new employee here I was assigned a project and trusted to do it with minimal oversight."
The work that Paczan was most interested in exploring upon starting his career at MITRE was unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). "When I was in college I did a lot of study in robotics and artificial intelligence. So when I got to MITRE I had a strong interest in UAS because it's a cool combination of artificial intelligence, robotics, and aviation, which admittedly I didn't know anything about then." Because there were no immediate openings in any UAS projects at the time, Paczan joined another aviation project so he could study the subject more.
His patience and preparation paid off when he was awarded a research project that examined ways to automate processes for UAS. He describes the project, called Composable Widgets for UAS Command and Control, as "investigating what interesting things you can do with automation and artificial intelligence to reduce the workload and the stress of UAS pilots and to increase their capabilities."
The Mathematics of Good Decisions
Paczan is also getting a chance to put his mathematics training to good use by developing algorithms for several MITRE projects. "Algorithms are interesting to me on a theoretical level. Given some set of stimuli and input, how do you get a computer to make a good decision?" He's developed them for a sponsor's sensors system, and he's also designed one to help air traffic controllers best manage the flight paths of a group of aircraft.
At first, Paczan's air traffic control algorithm had trouble winning the trust of the air traffic controllers who put it through its test run. Where the air traffic controllers would typically solve a chain of conflicts in a stream of traffic with adjustments every 10 minutes, the MITRE algorithm resolved all possible conflicts with a single set of adjustments. Paczan demonstrated his algorithm's efficacy to the test operators, and it's now being used by air traffic controllers in Louisville.
The Sum of Knowledge
One group Paczan has never had trouble winning over is his senior collaborators at MITRE. He was amazed to find MITRE vets more than willing to share their knowledge and expertise with the new kid on the block. He learned that this willingness is a natural product of one of MITRE's guiding philosophies: The sum of everyone's knowledge is greater than the parts.
"The number of more experienced people at MITRE who are willing to sit down to talk with me and answer my questions—no matter how simple—is remarkable. Some of my most rewarding relationships at work are with people my father's age."
And Paczan quickly learned that these relationships are not one-way transfers of knowledge. He finds his superiors as eager to listen as they are to talk. "If you have a good idea and you're passionate about it, that resonates with upper management. They use that fresh perspective to help shape MITRE's future research strategy."
To keep alive the MITRE culture that his father praised and his co-workers embody, Paczan—now a wizened MITRE veteran at the age of 26—takes pains to pass on his hard-earned knowledge to the young guns that approach him, and, in turn, to listen to the new knowledge they might have to share in return. Because Paczan knows that at MITRE, you're never too young to have a good idea.
—by Christopher Lockheardt
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