Systems Engineering with an International Focus

October 2010
Vicki Ward
Vicki Ward

When Vicki Ward began work as a MITRE multi-discipline systems engineer in 2006, she was a recent college graduate with an interest in hands-on technical work and a willingness to travel. Her assignment to MITRE's AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) program has allowed her to dive into complex technology-integration issues while collaborating with U.S. allies overseas.

"As the task lead for the Korean Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) project, my focus is on technical support to the government of South Korea to ensure that its systems work with other allies' systems," says Ward. The AEW&C is a new airborne early warning system, with a fixed, rather than rotating, radar. The design uses a Boeing 737 instead of the larger 707 that the U.S. and NATO employ for AWACS.

When she was a newly minted physics undergraduate, she discovered MITRE through a family friend who had worked for the company for 40 years. "I didn't know what AWACS was at that time, but most of the people in the department were senior people, which allowed me to gather knowledge quickly," Ward recalls.

Originally assigned to work on ensuring the integrity of AWACS/AEW&C data links, she discovered that the role offered the opportunity to learn about the emerging technical issues that occur with any complex system. Her work program also allows her to engage in all aspects of systems engineering, from developing technical requirements to test and evaluation activities.

A Focus on Interoperability Testing

"The AEW&C system that South Korea, Turkey, and Australia use is a similar command and control platform, and we want to make sure this is interoperable with U.S. systems when ours are exported," Ward explains. She adds that the work requires an understanding of "the politics of the U.S.-South Korea relationship, as well as the ongoing tensions between North and South Korea."

The job requires Ward to travel about a quarter of her working hours, which she enjoys. Her travels bring her to the offices of contractors in Seattle, where MITRE staffers oversee interoperability testing, and to South Korea for site surveys of AEW&C ground support system installations there. On another recent trip Ward visited Hawaii, where she took part in an airborne test to see how the system works in a real-world environment.

The results of this work are briefings to U.S. Combatant Commanders about what the foreign systems can do—and what they need to do to ensure that all sub-systems will work together seamlessly in the event of hostilities, she explains.

"It's challenging work because a lot of the technical issues are new," Ward says. "But I do like working directly with the foreign customers."

Earning a Graduate Degree on the Job

The job also offered another opportunity—to attend graduate school, where Ward recently earned her master's degree in systems engineering through a collaborative MITRE-Johns Hopkins University (JHU) program.

The program, run by MITRE's in-house education arm, the MITRE Institute, and JHU, allows staffers to earn master's degrees at our corporate headquarters, in McLean, Va., and Bedford, Mass. The program aims to equip students with the skills necessary to guide the development of modern complex systems.

"The program was tailored to MITRE's work," Ward says. "It allowed us to explore examples of the kind of systems engineering problems I deal with in my job today."

Though her schedule is often packed, she still finds time to work with the MITRE Command and Control Center's Mentoring Program, which brings together senior and junior staffers to promote professional development, encourage networking, and promote collaboration on technical issues.

"We're trying to raise the profile of our mentoring program through speed-networking events, which has been a lot of fun," Ward says. Overall, she says the job has provided opportunities she didn't expect at the outset—and that she foresees even greater opportunities to come.

"I really enjoy the work, especially since I get to collaborate with such a wide mix of customers and partners," Ward says.

—by Maria S. Lee

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