Mr. Grant Blythe, a senior engineering student at Iowa State University, Ames, wrote the winning essay and received a check for $2,000.
Trust Matters. Those were the words staring back at me from the wall on my first day at my new co-op. The phrase was from a Rockwell Collins poster hanging in my mentor’s office. “At Rockwell Collins, we never forget that the fortunes of so many depend on our performance,” the print-ad elaborated. I didn’t give those words too much thought that day. The ad was catchy and visually stimulating but finding my desk, setting my passwords, and meeting my co-workers all seemed much more urgent at the time.
When I first learned that I would be joining the SATCOM group at Rockwell Collins for a summer co-op, my expectations were simple. I’d spend the summer working in a lab writing code, running tests, and fixing bugs. There’s a sign on the window of one of my college engineering labs. “Please don’t feed the engineers,” it says. This joke, making light of engineering’s lack of human interaction, sums up my expectations for my new job. Working as an engineer was about bits, computers, and signals. Communications electronics wasn’t about people. People work was for business and art majors.
My first task was to update a large set of requirements for a new version of our SATCOM radio. Our product, a Satellite Receiver-Transmitter, had specifications for everything. Size, weight, shape, I expected all of these to be specified. Then came maximum temperatures, minimum temperatures, atmospheric pressure, and vibrations. So far, there were no surprises. But then, there was explosion proofness, water proofness, fungus resistance, salt spray, sand and dust. I’d never thought of fungus as a potential issue with electronics, but there the requirements were. Lastly, there was even bullet/shrapnel resistance! Were these people serious? They expect this radio to get hit by a bullet and continue to work?
I asked my coworker about these specifications. He pointed me to one specific requirement. “The probability of the complete loss of the SATCOM voice and data communication due to a failure within the SATCOM system shall be less than 1E-5 per flight-hour.” it read.
“1E-5…that’s less than failing once in every 10,000 hours,” I thought. “I guess Rockwell takes reliability seriously.” “But does this stuff really matter?” I asked. “Do we just do this because we have to? Or is it actually important?” He answered me without a moment of hesitation. “Of course it matters, how else could you trust our product?” Again with the trust. I figured “trust” must be the new trendy corporate buzzword.
A few more weeks down the road I found myself in the position of running some tests. After a bit of training I was ready to start. I started at 8:30 A.M. At 9:30, I was still testing. At noon, I was still testing. At the end of the day, I was still testing. At the end of the week, I was still testing!
Back at college I’ve been assigned a lot of projects. I’ve had to build circuits, code software, and set up systems. I’d never done any testing like this though. For example, if I had to write a new application for class, I’d start from the beginning by coding. Then, I’d run the application once and try it out. If everything seemed to do about what it was supposed to I’d hand it in. This was entirely different. We were spending more time testing than we were on designing it.
I asked my coworkers about this too. “Yeah,” they all said, “we spend more time on testing than we do on anything else.” This didn’t make any sense to me. Couldn’t the company make more money by adding more features and improvements instead of sitting around testing? The thing obviously works like it is supposed to, let’s move on to something new. “It’s a trust thing,” they explained.
Later that week we had a barbeque for all co-op and intern employees. At this event there were exhibits on the history of the company. Collins had supplied the equipment to establish a communications link with the South Pole expedition of Rear Admiral Richard Byrd in 1933. Collins communications equipment was used for the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury programs, providing voice communication for every American astronaut traveling through space. Collins communications equipment is responsible for 70% of all commercial and military air communications traffic in the world. Looking at the success of the company I was starting to think they must be doing things right. If they keep talking about trust, then trust must be important.
That same week an announcement was in the Collins weekly newsletter. “A U.S. Coast Guard C-130 equipped with a Rockwell Collins Tactical Search and Rescue Direction Finder (DF-430) recently located two men whose vessel, the Extractor, was reported missing off the Florida coast.” The Coast Guard had searched for 18 hours with two helicopters, two ships, and a plane with no success. Then, after calling in the aircraft with the Rockwell Direction Finder, the men were found in minutes later in the water clinging to their overturned vessel.
Finally, I understood exactly what the big deal about trust was. Communications electronics is not just about radio waves, and processors, and coding. Communications electronics is about people. When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, his link to the rest of mankind was a Collins radio. When a family travels on a vacation, the link between their airline and the ground is a Collins radio. When those two sailors were lost at sea, their last connection to their families was a Collins radio. My initial expectations about what working in this field would be like were entirely wrong. Communications electronics are about connecting people.
The reason trust was so much more important than I had previously thought was because the products were so much more important than I had previously thought. Lives depend, in the most literal sense, on the quality of communications electronics. When using a radio you’re not connecting a transmitter to a receiver, you’re connecting an officer to his troops in the field. You’re not sending bytes from point A to point B, you’re sending the location of a downed fighter pilot back to the rescue team. The reason trust is so important to us is because our customers trust our products with their lives every day.
Throughout my co-op at Rockwell Collins I was exposed to many different products, many different people, and many different ideas. Despite the diversity of my experience, it was easy to pick out the one overarching theme I found in everything I worked on. That theme is trust. I spent time working with combat military electronics and with small commercial aircraft electronics. I worked with hardware engineers, software engineers, and system engineers. I saw different approaches to solving problems and helping customers every day. In all of these things there was the same mentality of trust leading the work. There are two words that sum up what I learned about communications electronics during my co-op experience at Rockwell Collins. Trust Matters.