Ellen J Ferraro, PhD, Vice President, Engineering & Mission Assurance, Raytheon Intelligence & Space
B.S. Electrical and Computer Engineering
PhD Electrical and Computer Engineering
For Ellen Ferraro, the attraction of engineering is the problem solving she gets to do. “Not just problem solving for the sake of problem solving,” she says, “but solving technical issues that have a benefit to society or the world.”
She first realized this preference in graduate school when she received a NASA research fellowship to build an instrument to study the Greenland ice sheet. At that time, global climate change was less understood and scientists needed more data. So, NASA wanted to measure changes in the Earth’s global ice sheets.
The Greenland ice sheet was chosen as it is smaller, making it a bit easier to study, and it’s closer to the United States. The goal was to map Greenland topography to a centimeter-level resolution to measure where there might be melting going off into the ocean and land mass shifting. Ferraro was on the first NASA P-3 aircraft that mapped all of Greenland for a topography baseline.
“My role was developing a radar that had high-resolution capability. I worked with glaciologists and other scientists from NASA so that I could understand why we were doing it. My job was to help them figure out how to measure it, and their job was to then take that data and understand what was happening. That was my first, ‘Wow, this is really cool; I can see how what I’m doing impacts the bigger picture experience, which in this case is understanding how our climate was changing.”
Ferraro is now the vice president of engineering and mission assurance at Raytheon Intelligence & Space. She supervises just under 15,000 engineers and mission assurance professionals. It’s her favorite role now because she can be very strategic in determining where to invest Research and Development dollars.
Ferraro comes from a family of engineers. Her father and oldest brother are chemical engineers; her second oldest brother and her oldest sister are civil engineers.
“I always tell everybody it was my destiny to be an engineer,” she says. “The only decision I had to make was what type of engineer. Just to be the rebel in the family, I chose electrical because no one else had taken that path yet. I literally had no idea what electrical and computer engineering was but I decided that was the path I was going to take. Turns out I loved it. I loved it so much that I stayed in school basically as long as I possibly could. My parents thought I was on some kind of work avoidance program because I went to college for nine years straight, but I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the classes, the research, and I found my passion.
Her rise up the corporate ladder led her to a role where she has an impact and can guide what is important to her.
“Deciding on how we invest our dollars today means that we get the best technology in the future to give to the men and women serving our country,” she says. “You want them to have the best possible equipment to protect themselves, and making the investments today to enable that is, to me, really important.
“That’s one of the reasons I love my job, and the other is leading a large organization of engineers and helping to develop them and get them into a career path that excites them. Not everybody has the same career goals, so working with a large organization and being able to provide lots of different career path options is meaningful to me.”
Through the supervision of that many men and women, Ferraro has become familiar with the different ways each works at their jobs.
“I think the diversity of ideas coming to the table is critical, so I think having men and women, a diverse team, is absolutely important, as long as everyone gets to have their voice heard. You have to have the inclusion piece of it.
“And yes, I see a difference in the way women and men work. Women will approach a problem and collaborate together. The big piece here is making sure that everybody’s voice gets heard. I am fortunate that my boss, the president of Raytheon Intelligence & Space, is very good at that. If I go to speak and someone speaks over me, such as one of my peers, which happens, my boss will say to whoever spoke over me when they’re done, he’ll say, “Ellen, you were going to say something or you started to say something, what was that,” and pauses everyone else who may want to jump into the conversation, so that my voice is heard. And he doesn’t just do it for me, he does it for everybody on the team. It tends to be the woman on the leadership team that he has to do it for, but he always does it. So, I try to replicate that in my meetings. And I expect my team to do it with their team to flow that culture down so that the dynamic of men and women is something that we are taking advantage of, as opposed to just letting them be two separate ways of thinking.”
Ferraro tells another story of helping others be heard.
“One of the first leadership roles I had was on a program called Sea-based X-band radar. It is a massive radar, sitting on a mobile platform in the middle of the ocean. It’s about 300 feet, so think of a football field size platform sitting in the ocean with a massive radar on it. It’s used as part of our national missile defense. I was working on that radar before it had been built, and I was leading the team that was modeling and simulating how the radar would work.
“We had a pretty tough schedule and a young and fairly diverse team. One woman in particular, Edna, was probably the brightest one on the team. She knew more about the simulation than anyone else. But whenever we held meetings to brief higher levels in the company, she’d always sit in the back of the conference room and not say anything. When people would ask questions, I knew she knew the answer, but she wouldn’t say a word. She absolutely could have proven that she was smarter person in the room.
So I pulled her aside and said, ” I know you know more than anyone else on this particular subject. I want you to sit at the table next time, not in the back of the room. And when those questions come up in your area, I’m going to look to you and I’m going to say, “Edna knows this,” and I want you to chime in.” And so, she did. This was 15 years ago, and today Edna has done outstanding in the company and she’s stayed as an engineer. Very, very talented. And to me that was learning how to lead a team, and to bring out the best of the team.”
Ferraro strongly encourages women to speak up and have confidence that their education qualifies them to do the engineering projects they work on. In addition, she points out the importance of having advocates.
“If you know going into a situation that there’s someone who tends to speak over you and take credit for your statements, an advocate can help.”
Most women have faced situations where they made a suggestion, it was ignored, and two minutes later a man says it and suddenly it’s a brilliant idea. “An advocate can direct the conversation with something like, “You know, Sue just said that, Joe. That was a great idea she had, and you’ve just confirmed it,” or something to that point, adds Ferraro.
To find advocates, Ferraro advises talking to a few people about the subject prior to the meeting who will help advocate and get the points across that you need to get across. “I think men develop advocates a little more naturally. I try to work that process not only with my female counterparts, but with my male counterparts to say ‘Hey, can we go into this meeting aligned?’ And I ask a couple of men that are my peers that are huge advocates for me to help get certain topics across.”
As for finding advocates, Ferraro advises finding people who want that role. “Not everybody wants it or is good at it. I think it’s who do you trust. And you build trust in a relationship over time.”
Inspiring young engineers
Multiple efforts have been made to encourage more women to pursue engineering as a career. When Ferraro graduated, she was the president of the Society of Women Engineers at her college. At that time, the statistics on women in engineering were not high, and have stubbornly remained about the same for many years.
Ferraro thinks it’s absolutely essential to encourage more young women and girls to go into engineering. She is supported in her efforts through the Society of Women Engineers as well as Raytheon Technologies. The company participates in STEM events and Ferraro is passionate about traveling to middle schools, high schools, and colleges.
“A lot of times I go to the SWE student sections to encourage those women to stick with it, because there’s also a high dropout rate of females in engineering. They may go into it, but the dropout rate is higher for females than males.”
She also encourages women who have graduated to pay it back. “Once you’ve made it through, please make sure that you spend time encouraging other young women to go into engineering. I think the most important thing is those of us in engineering need to make sure that we’re getting out there, supporting the STEM events. Raytheon does a lot in that area through our corporate sponsorship of events, like First Robotics, but also through our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which I feel have a huge impact. For women, African Americans, LGBTQ, each area of society has a resource group. And these ERGs go out into the community and encourage young women and men to go into STEM fields.”
Ferraro notes that it’s important for women engineers to be engaged in organizations like the Society of Women Engineers.
“It’s showing others the importance of engineering and the value of engineering. SWE played a huge role in my career, even as a student. It really helped me build a network and have confidence to run for an office position in the organization as a student, which was huge for me. It’s how I learned a lot and made a tremendous network of friends that I still have today and have built through the years. I go to the conference every year.
“I can’t say enough about how impactful that can be in helping other women engineers go into engineering, but also stay in engineering.
More often than not, engineering, as a career choice, is not on many people’s radar. “Our society doesn’t advertise much. For example, you won’t see many shows or movies showcasing engineering. I think we also fail at communicating engineering as a profession that helps society. That messaging could make a huge difference, particularly to young girls who are thinking, ‘I want to have an impact on the world, so I’m going to be a doctor,’ or, ‘I’m going to be a teacher,’ where they see what it’s like to be helping others. “I think we need to highlight the stories where engineers are helping others.”
Work the problem
Increasingly, engineering is a team effort, especially when it comes to solving customer problems. A recent challenge for Ferraro involved a technical issue that made it difficult to provide the customer with what they needed.
“When we have problems like that, I’m often awake at night trying to figure it out, but really, it’s all about pulling together the right team because no one individual solves these technical problems. They’re too big to even think about solving on your own. So, I pull in expertise literally from across the company. We’re a big company, we have 180,000 employees, in pretty much every state. We pull in the right talent, get them engaged, involved, really talking through the technical details, considering all the options until we have a solution.
“And I think the important part as you go through each of these challenges, and they happen all the time, is making sure that you learn from them and that others learn from them.
“The team dynamic, or the team problem solving, is one of the things I loved about engineering from very early on, and it’s absolutely essential today. Technology is so deep, meaning we have experts that are specialized, but it’s also very broad in the sense that there’s so many technologies. No one person could possibly solve some of these technically complex issues that we’re trying to resolve. It’s absolutely essential to work as a team to bring in the right subject matter experts. Never try to do it on your own. And I think this aspect of engineering is not emphasized enough. Many women who might have considered this field might have resisted it thinking it’s a solitary role. And it’s not that way anymore.
“So, whenever I talk about engineering, I try to tell these stories of working in teams. And it’s not just teams of only electrical engineers or only mechanical engineers. I mean, we’re pulling in physicists and mathematicians and every type of engineer, even the finance person. Everybody is in on these, and that’s what I think is exciting. Learning, hearing someone else’s perspective. What is the supply chain person thinking? What is the manufacturing lead thinking? All these different perspectives. So that’s what makes it, to me, a really fun career.”
Filed Under: Women in Engineering