Editors note: I (Chris) gave up my usual weekend slot to Seb because he had an intriguing article about a touchy and recurring subject within the field of engineering. This post will discuss working in the defense industry (possibly on deadly weapons), a topic which we know can set off some emotions. We’d love to hear your opinion in the comments section, but we won’t hesitate to squash any hateful or unduly harsh words. Engineer Blogs has maintained civil discourse and we hope to continue doing so. Enjoy Seb’s article!
One think leads to another, as they say. This particular though journey started whilst I was drafting my post about the SULSA 3D printed aircraft.
The process of writing about the subject gave me pause.
I had to stop staring at the keyboard as I did my usual hunt-and-peck routine; I gazed thoughtfully out the window at the forest hills around Heidelberg. A memory was beginning to stir amongst the sediment of my mind, like a monster of the deep disturbed by James Cameron’s sub. Some strange images rushed to the forefront of my mind:
They buzzed through my conscious brain; I heard their engines roar and the sounds of machine guns.
Eventually what was troubling me became clear. It was a job interview that I had had during my final year at university. The interview was at was Lucas Aerospace, who made actuators for wing flaps, landing gear and the like, before they were subsumed into TRW and then Goodrich.
In the middle of that interview, which was going quite well, one of the interviewers asked me: “Would you be happy working on military projects?” I was flummoxed. I’d never really considered the question and didn’t feel that now was the best time to start doing so.
In one respect, it should have been an easy one to answer – throughout the years of lectures and at school beforehand, my margin doodles were often of indomitable fighter planes in the most far-out configurations imaginable. The drawings were festooned with elevons, canards, thrust vectoring fins and anything else I had just heard of. It was the military engineers who had all the best materials, the most extreme aerodynamics, who got their designs to go supersonic, who needed the structures to be as light as possible yet withstand those 12 g turns. They simply produced the best gear in aerospace engineering.
But when the question was posed? I stopped, for what seemed like an interview-time age, and then answered:
The interviewers looked a little taken aback and there was a slightly uneasy silence until one of them shifted in his chair and then told me that he fully understood. He had worked previously on an actuator unit for a helmet-guided gun turret on an attack helicopter, a “look and shoot”. He said it made him a little uneasy when he stopped to think about it. I heard his colleague quietly make a consoling, “Hrrmmm” sounds, as if he may have felt the same at some time in the past. And then we moved on.
The interview proceeded on lighter terms – a few days later they offered me the job.
I didn’t take it in the end, which was also lucky in the sense that they were swiftly “rationalised” (shut down) during the various takeovers that followed my interview. But the experience remains, the lessons for me threefold:
- Do your research — I had gone into the interview with the brochure images of gleaming white regional airliners flying through clear blue skies dotted with fluffy clouds. It had never entered into my naive head that I might need to apply my skills to help people kill people. I should have known this going in.
- Stay true – Yes, the phrase that briefly sustains a thousand pop careers is still relevant. In interviews, don’t try to second-guess a “right” answer, as it may very well end up being the wrong answer for you. A key component of staying true to yourself is, of course, knowing yourself. Those margin doodles of mine were simply daydreams and it took me an age to recognise them as such.
- Know your limits — In the spectrum of engineering jobs, I’m happier at the baby design end than at the bomb design end (I reside in the generally neutral automotive band, which suits me fine). And I know I don’t want to work in sales.
I realise that I’m dipping my toe into the murky and fathomless pool of engineering ethics here: we of course need highly skilled engineers to ensure that our good guys get the bad guys before they get us (in so many words). But I’m content to remain in my protected bubble working on things that make our lives better overall – working on the things, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, that are worth fighting for.
And that’s challenge enough for me.
Have you ever been confronted with the choice to work on military grade products that could be used to kill someone? Since many products could be 2 or 3 separations from a military product, where do you draw the line? If you have taken a job working on a deadly military product, what was your thought process? What was your thought process if you turned it down? Please let us know in the comments.