Setting your career path: Tips from an alum

Posted by on September 25, 2014 in Alumni, Industry, Research, World Class Engineering | 0 comments

by Ned Brokloff (’82 ESM)

When I left Penn State, diploma in hand, I really wish that someone had given me some practical advice about how to succeed as an engineer in the real world. I had the technical knowledge, that’s for sure, but felt lost as I tried to set my career path.

I hope all Penn State engineers can learn from my experience as I share five takeaways from my path from my Penn State engineering degree to my successful career at a major research organization.

#1 Be willing to take measured risks and embrace changes in your career and life because they can only lead to professional and personal growth.

Upon graduation I accepted a job in Maryland, away from my friends and family in State College, at a place that was unfamiliar to me. Although the idea was daunting, I was willing to take the risk of being way outside of my comfort zone because I came up with a Five Year Plan. This Plan was based somewhat on the academic path taken by my senior project advisor:

  1. Get my first job and use their tuition reimbursement program to get a master’s degree in math from the University of Maryland and then get a master’s degree in physics from Maryland or Johns Hopkins.
  2. Leave my first job after five years and go work for some Washington, D.C. area consulting firm.
  3. Return to Penn State and get a PhD in nuclear engineering.
  4. Open up my own fusion consulting firm.

True to my Plan, I did earn my master’s degree in applied physics at Johns Hopkins – after realizing that an advanced math degree was not for me. Not only did the degree serve as a great complement to my engineering science degree at Penn State, it also exposed me to cutting edge software and taught me some great real-world problem solving skills.

Five years later, according to my Plan, I was supposed to leave my job for job at a DC consulting firm. But by this time, I actually was really enjoying what I was working on and loved the mixture of an industrial and academic atmosphere at my work place.

Side note: Remember when you are looking for a job – don’t just look at the salary and job title or job description. Look at the full benefits package that a company offers you. For example, in terms of benefits, make sure you know their vacation leave, continuing education opportunities, retirement benefits (never too late to start that), and medical benefits. In terms of the atmosphere, make sure you look at the types of offices, the infrastructure – like computers and other support stuff – demographics of your co-workers, dress code or lack thereof, travel requirements or possibilities, and outside activities that they sponsor.

So I decided to take a risk and change the plan and stay at my first workplace. And the rest is history, as they say, since I have now been there for 32 years. But along the way I have switched jobs a few times and those changes were risks to me. For the first 10 years, I worked on projects that involved developing the methodology, models, and software to predict the fundamental errors or inaccuracies in the navigation and guidance system on missiles.

But then a former co-worker presented me with the opportunity to work in a very different area where I could apply my basic modeling and test and evaluation skills to a different underwater data-gathering problem. I was scared to death to leave my nice little comfort zone and start working on a completely new project, in a different area, and with all new people. I was not sure I could do the job. I was not sure that they would like me. What if I completely failed at the job – what would happen? You can imagine all the thoughts going through my head. Well I decided to take the risk and make the change – and boy that was one of the smartest decisions I ever made.

For this next assignment, I worked on projects where we built one-of-a-kind prototype sensors and systems for them to find “stuff” in the ocean. Here, I was involved in developing the overall concepts, helping fabricate the sensors and the fully integrated system, planning at-sea tests, determining ways to analyze the data gathered by the system after these tests, and finally actually looking at the data to see if we had built a system that could find “the stuff” that our customer was looking for.

This job also required me to deal with – and travel to – companies in both the US and Europe. The first time that I traveled to France, for an important oceanographic conference, I did not speak one bit of French, so you can only imagine the difficulties I had renting a car and driving 6 hours from Paris to the west coast of France. But when I got to the conference I ended meeting people that I have worked with for over 20 years and who I still call my friends. By being willing to work outside of my comfort zone and take risks, I was able to work with some very high-tech, unique, and one-of-a-kind systems.

#2 Math and physics are the fundamentals for all engineering disciplines; learn them well and you will use them throughout your engineering career and perhaps your entire life.

You would be amazed at how many places the basics of calculus and Newtonian physics come up in everyday topics or even other disciplines outside of engineering. Math and physics will follow and assist you throughout your entire career as an engineer.

For another example/illustration, I have a story from a few years ago, when we were working on a sonar to produce very high resolution images of the ocean floor.

To process the data from each time you transmit and receive a “ping” or pulse of sound that reflects off an object on the ocean floor, you must know the roll and pitch of the vehicle when you transmit the ping and when you receive it back. We wanted to minimize the cost of the sensors for this project so we installed inclinometers on the vehicle to measure the roll and pitch. Inclinometers are simply pendulous masses whose position you measure at say 10 Hz relative to the case of the sensor and now you know how much the case is tilted relative to local vertical thanks to good old gravity; to keep these inclinometers from being susceptible to vibrations, the motion of the pendulous mass is damped by a somewhat viscous fluid inside the sensor. This can introduce some unintended effects because now the pendulum may under or over predict the angle because it’s reacting too slowly. So I asked one of my software colleagues to write a routine in our navigation software to predict the correction required at each measurement to make the answer closer to reality. I asked him to use our knowledge of the fundamental period of the roll motion and pitch motion and some empirical data to come up with the answer. And I suggested that we might want to look at the acceleration of the pendulum.

Well, you guessed it: This computer science guy did not know much physics or math, so he did not remember the chain rule let alone some basic differentiation. So he created this huge spreadsheet where he computed the first and second derivatives by brute force using differences in THETA for tiny time steps and then for a full range of possible values of omega over a one hour time period. You can imagine how big this spreadsheet was. And then he wrote a routine to query this table every time we wanted to compute the correction! True story! So remember, math and physics come in handy every day.

#3 There is usually more than one way to solve a problem. Try to explore as many of them as possible and see how the answers compare or contrast in the end.

To illustrate this point, I have to go back to my childhood and high school days. Although my dad worked in the chemistry department at Penn State, I am a first generation college graduate. His idea of a great summer vacation for me was to not to go to camp or on a vacation, but instead to do some practical or problem solving project during the summer.

Thus, one summer, my dad decided that it would be a good idea if I disassembled an old mechanical typewriter down to the smallest part and put the parts out on a white sheet in the driveway and count them. How many of you have ever even seen a mechanical typewriter? Another summer, he made me do the same thing with an old refrigerator just to see how it works. You can tell that early on my dad instilled in me some street smarts and practicality to make sure I explored all sorts of ways to solve problems.

One example of this is would be the year over Christmas break that my dad bought a “double” scissors jack to replace the “single” scissors jack that originally came with his Toyota Corolla. At the dinner table, my dad asks “which jack do you think goes up faster for each turn of the crank?” Well it was a blizzard outside and I did not feel like plowing my way through the snow to their garage to look at the jack. So I pulled out a piece of paper and pencil and wrote down the differential equation for both situations and a few minutes later proudly announced that it depended on the pitch of the screw driving the jack but for a similar pitch, the “single” scissors jack would go up faster but with more effort. Of course, practical dad asked “Why didn’t you not just go out and take both jacks and spin the handle ten times and see which jack went up more?” So sometimes it’s a good idea to take both a practical as well as theoretical approach to a problem.

#4 Communications, both oral and written, are very important for people to understand what you are doing, what you have done, and what you want to do so learn to communicate in all methods.

I always say that you should have ready for your boss the “elevator speech” about your current project or projects. In other words, if you ran into your boss on the elevator going from say the 6th floor to the 1st floor, and he asks you, “So John how is that XYZ project coming along?” Make sure you can succinctly describe the status of your project in the 30 seconds you have before getting to your 1st floor destination. She will appreciate that you not only understand what you are working on but also that you understand that her time is valuable and she just needs the 50,000-foot view, not the 50-foot view.

Conversely, make sure that you can describe what you do to your friends and family even if they are not technical. If you cannot describe your job or summarize the details of a particular project in a fashion such that a layperson can understand it, then you probably don’t really understand it yourself. Learn to communicate both in detail and in summary. Learn to communicate at a highly technical level as well as at a layperson level. Remember that not everyone is an engineer so you may feel like you need to “dumb down” your words. But remember that these other people are also smart so don’t insult them by communicating to them like they are 10-year olds.

I often find that referring to an illustration or drawing a diagram visually connects your spoken or written words. You can never underestimate the truth in the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

I also find that lots of my younger colleaques have a hard time writing cohesive documents. They are so used to the world of texting and email that they have forgotten how to write full sentences and meaningful paragraphs. Make sure that anything you write can be understood by anyone, even those who are not intimately familiar with the subject at hand. The old rule-of-thumb is KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid!

#5 Networking at work is very important if you want your career to grow and it’s very important in your personal life if you want to have a fulfilling life after Penn State.

Make sure to keep your Penn State bonds strong; there are Penn Staters, especially Penn State engineers, almost everywhere. You will find, like I have, that most Penn Staters are more excited about their Penn State experience than people from any other college in the US. Please join a local chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association wherever your life and career may take you. These chapters are great ways to make new friends, network, and share stories about Penn State. I am the VP of the Central Maryland Chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association and through this alumni chapter I have met tons of new friends in Maryland and at Penn State proper whenever I return to campus.

And there is nothing like breaking the ice during a meeting by reminiscing with someone new about Penn State. Well, I can think of only one exception from a few years ago. A Penn State friend of mine is a respiratory therapist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. One day he walked into a new patient’s room at the hospital and of course he was wearing some Penn State shirt and lanyard. The patient immediately yells out “WE ARE?” Of course my friend chimes in “PENN STATE,” to which the patient very snidely responds, “No, who the hell are you, I don’t care where you went to school.”

Where I work now, I was fortunate enough to have the ultimate networking opportunity when I started working there. For the first three months, my employer assigned 30 brand new engineers to a project affectionately known as “the training program.” I was fortunate enough to be the leader of the project for the 1982 Training Program.   I was fortunate enough to be the leader of the project for the 1982 Training Program. Our task was to evaluate the viability of a new microwave system that was being proposed to the FAA for instrumented landings in bad weather. The key here was whether or not the microwave signal was refracted by the thermal inversions or trapped by thermal ducts near the runway surface. If they were, then the airplane could be misled as to its actual altitude above the runway. The 30 friends that I made during this project where the beginning of my network at work. Thirty-two years later, nearly 1/3 of these folks still work at my employer and have been promoted to various very responsible positions. So when I need to find out who among our 5,000 employees might have a certain expertise, I simply need to send a message to this network and I usually get the answer back within a few hours. I could search through our online resume database but that would take days and days and probably not be as effective.

One last example today! Although I was not active with THON during my days as a student at Penn State, the past several years I have become a behind-the-scenes supporter of THON by making donations to the student organization itself rather than the Four Diamonds Fund. This goes back to my days as a member of a student organization that brought interesting speakers to campus – like today’s Distinguished Speaker Series. We brought in Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, for example. But we had very little money for the day-to-day operations of this group. Although THON raises literally millions of dollars, as an organization they are very hesitant to spend money on the day-to-day operations. Fortunately, two of the last three executive chairs for THON have been engineers – Eileen Tanela, executive chair 3 years ago, was a bioengineer, and Ryan Patrick the 2013 executive chair is a mechanical engineer. After I was introduced to Eileen and Ryan, I was able to form a close friendship with them because they are fellow engineers. They in turn have introduced me to a huge network at Penn State that I hope to utilize when I return to State College when I retire! So just like that your network can grow and grow as the layers build up.


Ned Brokloff has worked at Johns Hopkins University/Applied Physics Laboratory since graduating from Penn State in 1982 with a degree in engineering science & mechanics. In his current role as chief scientist for strategic deterrence he is responsible for research and development/science and technology endeavors with respect to various US Navy weapon systems.

Ned also holds an MS in applied physics from Johns Hopkins University.

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