A career as an engineer or as a visionary?

In the space industry, both are possible at the same time. This is the experience made by OHB engineers, who face exciting challenges in the space industry and many opportunities for career advancement

Space research is work at the cutting edge and often requires completely new approaches. Sigrid Pander, HR Director, People & Organization Development at OHB System AG explains what engineers at OHB need in order to successfully execute their projects.

 

What does an engineer need to be at OHB?

An engineer at OHB must partially always also be a visionary. That’s part of our DNA.

Why?

One reason for this is that we engage in “genuine” project work, so when we develop a satellite, it is normally only for a single product or at most a very small batch. This also means that the project is always at the limit of what is technically feasible. We work in the space industry, and in space there are special conditions such as a vacuum or extreme temperatures. In this respect, every development is unique and always reflects the state of the art in technological terms. That's why engineers have to look ahead and have a vision or some kind of idea of ​​something that does not yet exist in that form. Otherwise they would not be able to handle the tasks at all.

So engineers can develop new ideas – and have to be able to look ahead?

Precisely. During the development phase, it is important to think of new materials and to consider how a satellite or product responds in a different environment. In the case of a Mars rover, for example, engineers must be able to anticipate what conditions are like on the Martian ground without ever having been there.

We are therefore dependent on engineers who think in a visionary and innovative way – but also need employees who are process-oriented and work reliably and calmly. This is because existing processes must be well executed and the high quality standards and specifications met in many areas. It is not always helpful to say: “I don’t need to worry about that as I’m working on something more innovative”. A company needs both aspects.

ExoMars Brochure (German/English): Two missions, one program for exploring the red planet

 

Download the PDF here.

To what extent are individual employees involved in the entire project?

This varies greatly depending on the size of the project. We have project managers who oversee and are responsible for the entire process. At the same time, we have subprojects in which an employee can focus very keenly on a specific task within the project. He or she may then stay with this area of specialization and, for example, develop a specific optical mirror within a large project. In this case, the employee is highly specialized in this particular subsystem.

In addition, we also have system engineers, who must always keep their eye on the big picture as they have to integrate different disciplines within a single project. For example, a system engineer must ensure that the mechanics are compatible with and match the optical system. This calls for an understanding of how the interfaces work. By contrast, development engineers specialize in developing, say, electronics, cables or optics and concentrate on that particular field.

To what extent do employees decide independently whether they want to continue specializing or prefer to get a taste of other areas?

Every employee should consider this question because there are different skill profiles and personality traits. An employee who says, “I want to immerse myself more and more in my field of expertise,” will become an expert over time and possibly a senior expert in the course of his or her career. He or she then remains in his professional environment, say, as a senior optics developer. After 10 or 15 years, he or she is familiar with all the facets of an optical system.

An employee who thinks that this is too specific and wants to do more than merely work on optical mirrors every day as he or she wants to understand the overall system, will probably veer more towards becoming a system engineer. He or she is initially responsible for a subsystem and then later perhaps for a larger system. And after a while, he or she will assume overall responsibility for an entire project or for large subproject.

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What challenges does an employee face if they want to implement an idea?

It all depends on what it is. An employee with a new idea will first bring together the relevant disciplines and initially develop a rough sketch. Also, a feasibility study is needed and involves a financial controller, who looks at the feasibility of the project from a financial point of view. Next, a risk manager performs a risk assessment and clarifies a great number of questions related to the technical risks. All this input is weighed up and the responsible manager decides on whether to approve the project on defined terms and costs. Finally, the original project seed turns into a project and the different professions form a project team.

How does OHB help its employees come to terms with the growing complexity and responsibility of their jobs?

In our personnel development work, we follow the “70/20/10” rule. This means that 70 percent of personal development involves specifically creating job-specific challenges, through increasingly demanding tasks and the regular application of new knowledge. In particular, the manager acts as a mentor. This is a very effective form of learning.

Employees acquire 20 percent of their new knowledge by specifically expanding their professional network, e.g. by attending congresses, listening to colleagues or possibly even having a tutor. And for the remaining ten percent, we offer courses. For example, if an employee knows that he or she needs to be able to negotiate with customers in the near future, he or she may take a course on business negotiations. In this way, he or she gains feedback on what he or she is already doing well and where there is room for improvement.

The ability to work independently and accept responsibility is very important for us. OHB is a family-run, medium-sized company, with a culture of knuckling down, so a career can sometimes progress very swiftly.

Is it really necessary to speak German to be able to work at OHB?

No, we now have many employees who do not speak any German. In many projects, the project language is already English as we have no other choice with European projects. Engineers all learn English as part of their studies, so there are normally no problems.

However, language also has a social component and integration is also very much about understanding. That’s why we provide employees with a budget for German courses that they can draw on. At the same time, they can take German lessons in the best way suitable for them. We invite everyone to take us up on this offer.

What is the ratio of technical expertise to other skills?

Obviously, technical skills are always essential because we perform technically demanding project work. But this is not all that is required as the systems are embedded in a specific context. For example, we have interfaces with customers and suppliers. And internally we always have to consider the financial aspects of the projects. We usually operate with scarce resources. Using these resources sensibly and efficiently requires a certain amount of experience and a responsible approach. Employees need to complete the project in a time-based and financial framework. For example, technicians must learn to work with change requests and integrate them in their project planning. It is becoming increasingly important to understand the overall system. Many applicants are already able to do this. And after working for OHB for a while, they develop a feeling for the importance of system competence.