IEEE-USA InSight recently had the opportunity to ask Dr. Nora Tgavalekos, Raytheon’s Chief Software Engineer, about her career, mentoring, diversity and more. During her past 11 years at Raytheon, Tgavalekos has continuously made strides for women in STEM, working her way up the ranks and helping those around her by mentoring and being a shining example for young engineers. She is also the technical competency development lead for Raytheon’s Engineering, Technology and Mission Assurance (ET&MA) organization. Since assuming this role in 2011, she has been responsible for assessing and improving the technical competencies of the engineering, technology, operations, Mission Assurance and Raytheon Six Sigma™ workforce.
Tgavalekos has a very robust resume linking back to her days at Boston University and joining GE Healthcare shortly after graduating. In 2012, Aviation Week named her to its “40 Under Forty” in the aerospace industry. She received the Raytheon Excellence in Engineering and Technology Award in 2010 and the Raytheon CEO Award in 2018.
InSight: What initially drew you to engineering? Were you a tinkerer as a child? Did you excel at math?
Tgavalekos: Growing up, I always liked solving problems. I didn’t tinker so much as I liked doing logic puzzles, writing computer programs and finding different ways to approach math problems. I think I did okay in math and science classes – I even placed in several local and regional science fairs starting in elementary school all the way to high school.
InSight: Has your career followed a conventional path or have you taken some unconventional steps to arrive at your present role? What, if anything, would you have done differently?
Tgavalekos: My career has definitely not followed a conventional path. In high school and even in the first few years of college, I had plans to become a medical doctor. I ended up majoring in biomedical engineering, which is applying engineering skills from across traditional engineering majors such as electrical, computer and mechanical engineering, to biology and medical applications. After graduate school, I spent several years in the medical device industry before transitioning to a systems engineering role in the defense industry. I believe the multi-disciplined training and research I was able to participate in early in my career has prepared me well to be able to take on different kinds of challenges that led me to my current role as Chief SW engineer. I don’t know if I would have done anything differently because all the challenges and opportunities I have had in my career have lead me to where I am today.
InSight: What advice would you offer to women and/or members of other underrepresented groups who want to pursue a career in engineering?
Tgavalekos: The advice I would offer is to first, take on the hard roles/tasks. By taking on the most challenging roles, and succeeding, you will gain confidence in your abilities. Even if there are obstacles in your path, you will learn as you go along. The second piece of advice is to never stop learning. Learning can come in different forms: new experiences, online training, advanced studies or even through mentorship. By constantly learning, you are adding to your toolbox of skills and will be ready to tackle the hardest problems!
InSight: What sorts of diversity initiatives do you think are most effective for companies that want to increase their workforce diversity?
Tgavalekos: Diversity in the workplace is very important for a team or company to be successful – especially ones that are developing ground-breaking technologies. Diversity in the workforce brings a variety of skills, inclusive thinking and ideas that lead to innovative solutions. Diversity initiatives that focus on making people feel included and part of the company are probably the most effective ways to increase and maintain workforce diversity. For example, at Raytheon we require training on topics like unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. We also have Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), made up of employees who have particular insights stemming from their unique experiences and backgrounds. The ERGs provide a forum where employees can communicate and network both inside and outside of their group, which helps both the employees and company.
InSight: How important are soft/career skills today? For engineering managers? For non-managers? Are there certain soft skills that you look for when evaluating potential new hires?
Tgavalekos: I feel like there needs to be a good balance of soft skills, such as written and verbal communication, with pure technical skills. Without the soft skills, getting your technical ideas out for the broader audience to appreciate is impossible. Also, being able to communicate at all different levels from the highest leadership levels to the individual contributor is important so you can get all the support you need to solve the hardest problems.
InSight: Have you had any career role models – someone you wanted to be like?
Tgavalekos: I have had several career role models – all of which I have tried to learn from to help round out my professional skill set. The most effective role models are the ones who have had strengths in areas that I perceived as being my weakness. These areas included communicating to different types of audiences and approaches to solving complicated multi-faceted problems. By learning from these role models on how they handle these types of situations, I have been able to round out my skill set and am more comfortable handling these types of challenges.
InSight: What tips do you suggest for being a successful mentor?
Tgavalekos: Successful mentors take the time to learn from their mentees and really understand what their career goals are and how to realistically achieve those goals with all of life’s constraints. It is very important that a mentor carefully listen to the mentee to ensure that they understand the mentee’s perspective and to always repeat back to ensure that they get agreement on what they heard. Mentors should also be comfortable with making their mentees uncomfortable by encouraging them to take on roles they may not have considered initially – which may payoff in the long run by giving them experiences that will stay with them for years to come.
InSight: What hobbies do you have outside of work? How do these play into your engineering career?
Tgavalekos: Most of my time outside of work is spent running around to my kids’ activities. However, when I do have spare time, I enjoy playing on recreational sports teams. All of these activities teach me the value of priorities, teamwork and setting goals, which are certainly important for any career in engineering.
InSight: Engineering is a demanding career. How do you approach work-life balance?
Tgavalekos: Work-life balance for me is really about establishing priorities within “life” and “work” and across “life” and “work.” One way to do that is by streamlining activities and tasks that have to be done every day or even every week, leaving more time for other activities that cannot be streamlined or any new ones that may pop up. For example, at the beginning of each week, I try to plan out my family’s meals for the week, so I don’t have to think about it when I get home and can spend that extra time on homework, reading or extracurricular activities. I try to do the same with work – plan out what I know I will need to accomplish so that when pop-up tasks come (which they always do!), I still have the bandwidth to do both. With both work and life, no matter how much I plan out, there is always some event or activity that I wasn’t expecting, so it is important to be agile and be able to adapt to the unexpected – no matter how much you plan!
InSight: How do you see your industry changing over the next 5-10 years?
Tgavalekos: With the advances of new technologies that provide greater capabilities in areas such as machine learning, I expect how we analyze problems and the types of solutions to these problems will change. With the advances in software and hardware, we have access to more data and the capability to analyze it faster than we ever did before. This will eventually lead to novel solutions that can be deployed at rate we have never seen before. I don’t expect these changes to happen overnight – but over time, our ability to find solutions to problems and deploy them to our customer will be faster.