Engineer Embraces Design Thinking as a Framework for Problem-Solving

December 2018
Awais Sheikh
Awais Sheikh

Awais Sheikh was the first member of his family to grow up in America. Experiencing a culture in the outside world that was very different from the culture inside his home, he sought out ways to embrace the best of both cultures. This skill proved valuable in his engineering career as he began exploring human-centered design as a complement to classical systems engineering.

"My stories and experience, as well as listening to other people's stories, makes me a better engineer," Sheikh says. "The more we understand people and their experiences, the better equipped we are to address the complex issues facing our country."

Awais’ recent focus has been exploring business innovation methods to apply within MITRE and at sponsor agencies, including lean startup and design thinking. "Design thinking" is an approach that helps us better understand people's stories, Sheikh says. He describes design thinking as "living in a problem domain for a while, exploring the problem from the user's experience, and understanding what their needs are."

"It's a holistic and responsive approach that helps us solve the kinds of the kinds of complex problems that MITRE tackles for our government sponsors."

Bringing Award-Winning Skills to MITRE

Sheikh's early experiences primed him to look for ways to combine design thinking alongside traditional systems engineering. After earning a degree in business information technology from Virginia Tech, he worked for various management and information technology consulting firms. During this time, he gained valuable experience in technology management and applying agile methods to government projects.

While working full-time, Sheikh also returned to Virginia Tech and earned an MBA. Armed with his new degree and his earlier successes applying agile methods and design thinking to government projects, Sheikh joined MITRE in 2012. He wasn't the first in his family to take that step—30 years earlier his father joined MITRE.

"The fact that my father worked at MITRE didn't sway my decision to join the company," Sheikh says. "But over the years, my father talked about how MITRE differs from for-profit companies by working in the public interest. I wanted to be part of that mission."  

Design Thinking Achieves Innovative Outcomes

"Design thinking involves observing the problem and its effects in context," Sheikh says. "Then you start brainstorming, conceptualizing, developing, and rapidly prototyping possible solutions."

Among other projects, Sheikh led a team in MITRE’s first empirical study of applying design thinking in a federal context. "The government wanted formal research to confirm the benefits of using design thinking and turned to MITRE because of our expertise and objectivity," he says. "We developed research and methodology for empirically demonstrating the outcomes of a design-thinking approach."

His team's work has been featured at conferences and in journals, including the 2018 Academy of Management Annual Conference.

While at MITRE, Sheikh and his colleagues have applied design thinking methods for various internal efforts and sponsor projects. In one, they took a "big picture" view and employed design thinking to analyze the current tools, the actual users of these tools, and the problems end users want these tools to solve. As a result, MITRE developed a large-scale modernization solution that will result in faster, more efficient services, such as issuing identity and travel credentials.

Empowering Early Career Professionals

Serving as the business innovation capability lead at MITRE, Sheikh advocates design thinking as a framework for problem solving. "Design thinking enables MITRE and our government sponsors to approach old, stubborn problems in new ways and find long-term, sustainable solutions."

Sheikh is also passionate about mentoring early career researchers at MITRE. He serves as a role model by speaking with new hires and junior staff about innovation in an engineering context.

His achievements, both technical and professional, have not gone unnoticed. Sheikh was recently nominated for a 2019 Becoming Everything You Are (BEYA) award, which promotes diversity by recognizing engineers of color who have made achievements and accomplishments in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

—by Lisa Pacitto

Are you a good fit for MITRE, too? See our current Job Openings.

Explore more at MITRE Focal Point: Inclusion and Diversity.