For the past two years, Nita Patel has been Senior Director of Engineering at L3 Communications, a global organization that develops advanced defense technologies. Before that she was their Systems and Software Engineering Director.

In her 11 years with the company a lot has changed, and the teams she’s managed have had to adapt quickly. Patel was generous enough to give DevelopIntelligence a look into her work, how she builds an engineering team, and how she keeps pace with the continuously evolving world of technology.

What do you do?

My role is about leading an organization of interdisciplinary development engineers – including hardware and software,  – to achieve our customers’ missions. We typically focus on two core technology areas: imaging systems using different wavebands to enable users to see better in the dark, and laser-based systems to enable range finding, marking and pointing.

Our systems are designed for the individual warfighter. We typically start an idea with the special ops community and migrate more mature designs to larger Army, Air Force or Navy contracts. My job is to make sure we continue to align with our warfighter’s missions and the latest technology to achieve those missions.

How do you build a high functioning engineering team?

Open communications and lots of it: communications with our customers, communications among the team, communications with production teams, communication within the department. We also work hard to provide the tools and data needed to accomplish the hard tasks we ask our teams to complete.

How important is culture to team performance? How do you build yours?

It’s very important. We purposefully build, small integrated development teams with a lead engineer and project manager in order to make sure they have the autonomy to make decisions rapidly. Teams work very collaboratively. Teams need to know they have the responsibility and accountability to execute. Therefore, we are clear about their goals and their constraints, and then we ask them to deliver with as little overhead as possible. 

How has the Director of Engineering role changed in the past few years?

Development cycles need to be faster. Not only do the design cycles need to be faster, the production timelines and duration of production is shorter, so we have to design the next iteration faster. We have to manage insertion of new technology, addition of advanced features and quick production ramps to meet our customers’ demands. 

You mentioned the need to move faster and to manage new tech, production ramp ups and customer demands. How do you do it?

It’s tricky. Sometimes we ask our teams to do more with the same resources; that’s obviously hard. It forces different thinking because ultimately we can’t do the same things. So, there’s a lot of posing questions: yes, this worked for us. Yes, this has been very successful. Yes, it’s very good, but we have new expectations now. How do we change to meet those expectations?

It’s a little bit of change management and asking people to think differently. It’s hard for people to change. That’s where asking questions, finding what else is out there, having people attend conferences and events, or look at different sources of technical information comes in.

How is somebody else doing it? We’re not the only ones who have harder demands. Other people do too. What can we learn from them? Eventually, by pushing and pulling and maybe suggesting, everybody gets the idea. Not that it’s easy, it’s really reminding people that we did well, but now we have to be different.

You talk a lot about different ways of thinking. Does training play a role in prepping people to meet new, greater demands?

Training definitely plays a role. Especially with new tools that can help facilitate work or new techniques, like the software development community moving to more agile techniques. But it’s also reinforcing training by adopting and implementing what makes sense. Then, make sure you tailor the training and then repeat elements of that tailored piece to integrate it into the team.

On the job, you mean.

Yeah.

How important is formal training for an engineer these days? Is classroom training valuable?

To some extent, yes. The dilemma with classroom training is it attempts to be very conceptual, but then there’s an element of taking that concept and applying it to your actual workplace, your people, processes and workflow. Classroom training is helpful to give people that initial sense of the possible, what’s different. But then you absolutely have to do some informal on-the-job training because you can’t take that concept and automatically have it make life magical. Somehow it has to be applied. Application tends to very tailored to your work environment, your people, your skills, products.

DevelopIntelligence systemically creates a classroom environment that’s more like a lab. They work with their clients to find out your strategic business objectives so that we can create a curriculum that will build on those things. It’s not just theoretical or conceptual. People in the class will work on the same things on the job. They’re on their computers writing code, breaking code, etc. Is that unusual? It seems different than the classroom environment you just described.

I think that is unusual. I don’t see a lot of people developing that kind of classroom training that’s very hands-on and very tailored to the group you’re trying to address. 

I think that’s awesome, and it’s valuable because it’s good to hear a theory.

But until the engineering team can actually see it in practice, use it, give it a try, it’s hard to adopt. If you want people to change – which is the whole point of training – you have to make it adoptable, and sounds like that your training meets that!