Space exploration, whether it be through telescopes watching the skies or probes sent to far away planets, is the culmination of thousands of people's work, collaborating together to solve the innumerable problems that arise when you try to reach beyond what seems possible.
Being that there are so many aspects to the work, describing someone as a "NASA engineer" could mean a thousand different things of course. In this case, we had a chance to speak with Edward Gonzales, an electromagnetic compatibility engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Edward spoke with us about his experiences, his work, and how he ended up at NASA.
Tell us about your current position, and how long you've been at it.
My name is Edward Gonzales, and I'm an Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) Engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. I've been here for a little less than a year, but in that short time I've had the chance to get my hands on a lot of amazing projects: electronics that will be on Hubble's successor the James Webb Space Telescope, instruments on the Mars 2020 rover, the "flying saucer" LDSD, and earth observatories like Grace Follow-On and SWOT.
As an EMC engineer, my job is to make sure that all the electronics on a spacecraft don't interfere with each other. We can see the effects of EMC in our daily lives when you turn on the blender and the lights dim or when your cell phone buzzes in your speakers just before getting a call. On a spacecraft, that kind of interference can mess with operations and scientific data, and in the worst cases it can be mission-ending! My job is to minimise the effect of interference by analysing the electromagnetic environment (usually by hand calculation or computer simulation), writing requirements around that environment, ensuring appropriate spacecraft and component design based on those requirements, and ultimately making sure the whole thing works.
What drove you to choose your career path?
I actually wasn't set on pursuing any kind of engineering until late in high school, and even then only begrudgingly. I played a lot of guitar in high school so I wanted to go to college for music recording, but the little voice in the back of my head wanted to make sure I got a job after graduating. I had heard a lot of music engineers were electrical engineers, so I chose that and figured I could minor in music recording. As I went through the degree, I started to love the beautiful maths and physics that tied our thoughts to a quantifiable reality. Music recording became more of a hobby, and I ended up minoring in Philosophy instead.
After I graduated from college, the semiconductor company I had interned with in previous summers hired me full-time as a reliability engineer. Part of my degree was focused on semiconductor physics, so it was a great learning experience for the first few years. In three-and-a-half years there, I got lots of experience designing tests, writing requirements, and managing projects, teams, and budgets.
I eventually wanted to try something different and outside of the corporate world. To me, space exploration has always been one of the most beautiful expressions of human ambition. I remember watching videos of JPL's Curiosity rover landing on Mars in 2012 and getting a little misty-eyed, so JPL came to mind first when I started my job search. I had taken lots of electromagnetics classes in college and thought that the EMC position would be a good fit when it came up. I didn't know a whole lot about the specifics of working in EMC when I applied, but it sounded cool.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
The odds of getting a job by applying through an official website are usually considered low, but that's exactly what I did. I found the listing for an EMC engineer and applied through JPL's career page. I found out later that my resume stuck out partly because of my work experience, but mostly because of the classes I took in college.
I completed my bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering (with an emphasis in electrophysics) in a five-year program at the University of Southern California. A bachelor's degree is the minimum qualification for engineering positions at JPL, and I would say a master's degree is generally preferred. For many specialised positions, a PhD can be required (especially for science positions). In my case, I felt that the bachelor's degree was the foundation for what I really wanted to learn in my master's, and the master's prepared me for the engineering rigour needed to hit the ground running.
While some people like to say (almost proudly) that you never use what you learn in school, it has been the complete opposite in my case. Everything from simple geometry ("soh-cah-toa" comes in handy more than you'd think) to Fourier Transforms of linear chirp functions, I've gone back to my class notes more times than I can count. It's refreshing to see that all those decades of school and tuition money get put to good use!
That said, I would say that having a flexible mind and genuine curiosity for new things are among the most important traits for engineers at NASA. Each project has its own challenges, and a previous solution to a problem may not work (read: will not work) on the next one. Being willing to reach back into your high school maths classes while also learning about Martian geology or superconductor magnetic flux-pinning helps to understand and ultimately solve those problems.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
While I don't spend the majority of my time doing any one thing, I do spend a quite a bit writing/reviewing procedures and reports, along with attending any associated meetings. Good documentation and information sharing is critical to avoid making the same mistake twice, duplicating work already done, and giving/receiving credit for work well-done.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
A previous Career Spotlight about aerospace engineering summed it up pretty well: people tend to believe engineers are smart people that spend most of their time in solitude. In reality, I frequently work with other engineers and managers to exchange information and make decisions about spacecraft requirements. Even when I work in lab, it's almost always with a diverse group of engineers.
It takes a collaborative effort to build and test a spacecraft successfully, on-schedule, and on-budget. Also, while many engineers at NASA are "smart," a better description would be that they are very passionate people that happen to be interested in engineering and space. I think that tends to equate to "nerdy" for many in our culture, which is unfortunate because it can turn a lot of people off to a career path that they might otherwise find fascinating.
On that note, another misconception is that we're all like characters in The Big Bang Theory. I'm not a huge fan of the the show for that reason...
Also on that train of thought, how do people usually react when they hear you work for NASA?
"Hey you're pretty normal and not like the guys in Big Bang Theory!" At least as often though, people tend to be very excited to hear that I work for NASA and want to know about what the next big thing in space exploration will be. I'm an optimist, so I kind of take that to be a general excitement for what humanity is working towards.
What are your average work hours?
My schedule is flexible, but I've settled on being in the office from 8am to 5:30/6pm most days. If I have deadlines, an early call with international partners, or "flight hardware" qualification (testing the stuff that will actually fly on a mission), the hours can be longer, but it's usually reasonable. People are pretty good about not sending too many emails after-hours, so I don't usually have surprises in the morning.
I can't speak for all NASA centres since JPL is managed by Caltech, but we also use the 9/80 work schedule: for any given two weeks, you work eight 9-hour days (lunch excluded), one 8-hour day (a Friday), and get every other Friday off. It's pretty sweet.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
For quick requests and clarifications, a call is usually better than email. I've found that dropping by somebody's office works as well but it's easy to get caught in long side conversations. Not that I don't like chatting, but sometimes you just need to get things done!
Also, a little written planning goes a long way. It's easy to want to skip drawing a simple diagram of what you're going to set-up, what equipment or people it will take, when you're going to do it, etc. When you're flying by the seat of your pants, you'd be surprised at how many little things you'll forget. Not that you won't forget things if you plan ahead, but at least you've thought about most of it ahead of time.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
When it comes to providing data to managers and vested engineering teams some engineers prefer to prepare a data package for their managers to present, but I prefer to present my own material whenever appropriate. After presenting regularly to VPs and SVPs in stressful situations at my previous job, I've gotten comfortable with presenting regardless of who is in the room.
What's the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
I've noticed a bit more bureaucracy here than at my previous job. There's a lot of paperwork leading up-to and out-of formal qualification tests, and most things are under change management. It can be time-consuming, but I understand the need to document everything considering the complexity of even smaller space programs. On the flip side, there is an attitude at JPL that if you have a crazy idea and need to do more-informal tests for it, people are pretty supportive. On balance, it's a pretty good trade-off.
What's the most enjoyable part of the job?
No two days are alike. An abbreviated list of things I might do (and have done) in a given week could be: work on a magnetic simulation of a spacecraft, build and test a prototype to validate the simulation, present the results to systems engineers, write reports, plan out a completely unrelated test on the rover testbed in JPL's MarsYard, and help develop requirements for Mars 2020.
The people here are amazing. I've never seen so many people excited about what they do and eager to share what they are working on. Some of the people here are world-experts on things like planetary science or landing 1-ton objects on Mars, but you wouldn't know it when you bumped into them in the cafeteria.
The biggest perk for me is the immense satisfaction that comes from knowing that what we do is in service not just to the nation but to humanity. Some of the spacecraft I work on will look back at Earth so that we can have the data to protect it through better legislation, business, and personal choices. Some spacecraft will explore other planets and celestial bodies so that we might know more about the context of our existence. The impact of projects at NASA and JPL is unparalleled, and I'm excited that I get to play even a small role in that.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job?
The average starting salary for a person with a master's in electrical engineering working in the tech industry in Southern California is about $US75k - $US85k. With good work performance, salary can get in the range of $US90k - $US100 within 3-5 years. It can be more if you hop between jobs or work somewhere like Silicon Valley.
How do you "move up" in your field?
In general there are at least two paths: management or technical expertise. Engineers and scientists hold the majority of management roles here. They range from line management that takes care of overseeing engineers of a certain type (ex: "EMC engineering"), to product delivery management that oversees the engineering of whole subsystems and instruments for a project (ex: "Europa magnetometer"), to project management that leads teams of all different stripes through the life-cycle of a specific project (ex: "Europa Clipper").
Having just started I can't speak specifically as to how they get there. But besides the typical manager-y traits like "working well with people" and "seeing the big picture," I do notice that most managers have a good understanding of space program development and a very broad understanding of diverse science/engineering concepts.
That said, if you really enjoy doing detailed engineering work, that's a viable career path as well. My mentor at JPL stayed in the same line of work for 52 years (!!!) until he retired this year. He worked on everything from the Voyagers to the soon-to-be-launched InSight lander. Along the way he literally wrote the textbook on certain EMC topics and many other NASA technical handbooks that are still in wide distribution today. He was asked at some point to go into management, but after trying it out for a while he realised he didn't like it and went back to doing technical work.
What do people under/over value about what you do?
If we do our job right, the spacecraft will work exactly as planned. Engineers know the consequences when EMC goes wrong (it's usually pretty dire), but if everything goes right it's the culmination of numerous engineering judgments, some of which are EMC-related. As a result, it can seem a little thankless, but mission success is pretty satisfying all its own.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
If maths, science and engineering sound interesting, then don't let anyone or anything convince you that you're not the right type for it because of your "intelligence," socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or gender. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it (especially maths, since it underpins almost everything).
I believe many more people are capable of pursuing STEM fields than they realise. Persistence is often mistaken for pure intelligence, and it's unfortunate (if not tragic) that the two get confused so often. The reward is there if you stick with it; there's obviously a financial reward, but more importantly, these fields are beautiful in a way not unlike art and music. There's something inexplicably satisfying that comes with taking a mere idea, manipulating it in a way that preserves the truth of that idea ("maths") but also reveals a nugget of insight about the world, then turning that insight into reality.
I don't think STEM is for everyone, but there could be more creative engineers and scientists than there are, and it would be a shame if those possibilities were ruled out and for the wrong reasons.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about -- from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.