Kickstart Your Aerospace Career – How on Earth Does This Place WORK?

Once you’ve got that first engineering job, you’ll have to deal with an array of new faces, names, job titles and processes. Someone will probably push a series of organizational charts (org charts, for short) in front of you, illustrating the hierarchy and reporting structure of the company, the department you’re in, who does what, who reports to whom, etc, etc.

It will be bewildering at first.

It will be bewildering later on, when you change departments or companies. A whole new set of face, names, processes, etc.

These org charts exist in aerospace companies for two reasons. One is obvious: Just as a map helps you navigate from one place to another, an org chart helps people understand how to interact with each other day-to-day.

The second reason is unique to aerospace and all highly-regulated industries. You need Design Organization Approval (DOA) before the airworthiness authorities will even allow you to BEGIN the process of designing an aircraft.

You can have the most amazing aircraft sketched up in CAD, and all the analyses done. The airworthiness authorities will not even entertain you, let alone look at your plans, if you have not already got DOA (from them).

It’s the bureaucracy that necessary for a safety-critical industry. After all, aerospace engineers, if they do shoddy work, can kill people.

Here are some of the job functions you will come across in a typical aerospace office. The job titles will change from company to company.

Lead engineer

Such an individual has a position of responsibility for a particular project, or a particular component, or a small group of more junior engineers – sometimes all three.

Section head (or chief)

Usually takes charge of several lead engineers and their associated projects or components. Both lead engineers and section heads usually have a fairly narrow disciplinary focus, e.g. stress, fatigue, hydraulics, landing gear, etc.

Chief engineer

The final authority for technical engineering decisions for a particular aircraft, or family of aircraft. In days gone by, there was often only one chief engineer for an entire company, and he was responsible for people, budgets, technical decision, and more. Now it is normal to find many chief engineers in a company. He/she often functions more as an technical expert and signatory authority, without the responsibility for directly managing people.

Chief engineers spent their lives in meetings. The objects of their work are other people. They have gained their position through years of intimate knowledge with the company products, processes, and with professionals in a wide range of disciplines.

Product leader

This function is something of a junior chief engineer. A product leader has simply gained so much detailed technical knowledge of a particular aircraft (or family of aircraft) that they are just too useful to be allowed to focus on one area only. They can thus function quite effectively as a chief engineer’s or programme manager’s right-hand man.

Resource manager

Responsible for making sure the department has the skilled people it needs to deliver what the company requires of it. Of necessity, this person works hand in hand with the company’s Human Resources function, and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the two.

Project manager

This role should be exactly what it sounds like – The person responsible for seeing a project through from start to completion, on time, and on budget. In practice, a project manager’s job is very difficult to define. That’s because projects are widely variable in size, complexity and duration.

There are entire books devoted to the practice of project management. (I have yet to see one worth reading.) They all attempt to reduce project management to a science that can be taught. The reality is that effective practice of it requires skills that are more art than science.

Programme manager

Not far different from the project manager. The main differences lie in the scope and the duration. A typical aircraft project lasts for years. A typical aircraft programme, conversely, will include many aircraft projects, and last for decades. For example, the initial A320 design project was roughly 5-6 years long. But the Airbus single-aisle programme has been going 25 years and still counting.

Programme managers, like chief engineers, spent their days in meetings and phone calls. Influencing, cajoling, debating, arguing, sometimes yelling . . . .Programme managers do not lead low-stress lives. They are the most highly-sought and highly-prized professionals, and therefore highly-paid and hard to recruit.

There are other, more minor functions that I have overlooked for the sake of brevity. Having given you this short list, I will now complicate things further by telling you:

All is not as it seems.

There’s another, unofficial org chart, just as important as the official one.

More about that in the next post!

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