Being a “T” Shaped Engineer (and further adventures in Washington)

Have you heard the phrase “being a T shaped engineer” before? I first encountered the term last summer during my internship with Raytheon, and was reminded of it this week during a conversation at Lockheed. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with and attend meetings with the five young engineers at this site that are in Lockheed Martin’s Engineering Leadership Development Program. The ELDP is a three year program that helps young engineers become strong leaders through training conferences, rotational assignments, and mentoring from leadership. At the June meeting with the ELDP group, the idea of being T shaped came up, and how valuable being T shaped is. I’ve never heard the term at the University of Arizona before, so I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss the idea.

As engineers, we spend several years of schooling with a focused curriculum in the field of our choice. This gives us a technical focus in which we will eventually become knowledgeable experts. As our careers progress, we will learn even more, and acquire a deeper understanding of our field. However, it is often essential for us to have a solid understanding of other technical areas in order to do our jobs. In addition, we have to be able to collaborate well with other engineers who have a different area of expertise. These two important components of a successful engineer, a technical depth and breadth, give rise to the idea of a “T shaped” engineer. The letter “T” has both a breadth (the top part of the T) and depth (the tall middle part). So when we have both expertise in our own field and an understanding of related disciplines, we are “T shaped.” This term can certainly apply to more than just engineers. I’m using engineering as an example since that is my field.

Now, this term may just seem like a human resources concept, or somewhat of a silly title, and I can agree with that in part. However, there is a valuable idea behind it. Let me give you a recent example from my time here at Lockheed Martin. For one of my two projects here, I am developing a complex and large LabVIEW program. While I would say that I enjoy programming, I can’t say I was very fond of LabVIEW when I first tried to use it. As a graphical programming language, it is different enough from the text based languages I was familiar with that I had a hard time getting used to it. I’ve only ever written a few programs in it before, so I was a little daunted when I learned about the program that I would have to create. However, I realized that many of the engineers on my team had never worked with LabVIEW programming before. I was suddenly the LabVIEW expert in the room, and was referred to as “the guru.” While I certainly don’t feel like a LabVIEW guru, my small amount of experience with the program has allowed me to create an effective program that has been a great challenge to create. It’s been a learning process along the way as I create the program. My small background in digital logic and circuit design has come in handy both in the program creation and in understanding the circuitry that will interact with the program. The materials science courses that I’ve taken have also been valuable to be at different points in this summer.

While I certainly can’t claim to be an optics expert, or that I have a very wide breadth of knowledge compared to more experienced engineers, the amount I have has been of great use so far this summer. Because I have a wider knowledge base, I am a more valuable contributor, and I am getting to work in areas outside my expertise, allowing me to widen my T a little more.

Near the summit of Tiger Mountain

Near the summit of Tiger Mountain

I’ll squeeze in a quick update of my adventures up here in Washington! All of the conference rooms in Lockheed are named after mountains of the area, so I’ve made it my mission to hike on as many of them as I can while I’m up here! I’ve made it to Tiger Mountain, as in the picture above, and just hiked Mt. Pilchuck on Thursday! Hiking Tiger Mountain gave me a chance to observe some chromatic dispersion “in the wild” through some dew that was hanging on to some interesting plants. 🙂

Chromatic aberration in the wild!

Chromatic dispersion in the wild!

Mt. Pilchuck was a wonderful hike, but very challenging. You know you’re in for a good hike when there is a sign at the entrance to the trail warning that “Search and Rescue teams are routinely called out to this trail.” Thankfully, I was hiking with a friend, so I wasn’t doing it alone.

It was a difficult hike! It is a three mile hike with 2200 feet of elevation along the way.

It was a difficult hike! It is a three mile hike with 2200 feet of elevation along the way.

We had a 360 degree view at the peak, which was fabulous. We could see clear past many of the islands in the sound, and out to the cities.

At the summit. While the clouds blocked some of the views, they also made for interesting pictures.

At the summit. While the clouds blocked some of the views, they also made for interesting pictures.

It's impossible to get a full appreciation for a 360 view, but this panorama gives a glimpse at how amazing the view was.

It’s impossible to get a full appreciation for a 360 view, but this panorama gives a glimpse at how amazing the view was.


Almost halfway done with my summer! I’ll be diving into my senior year before I know it. On top of that I’ve got graduate school applications that I need to get thinking about! I do look forward to being back in Tucson, but I’m making the most of beautiful Washington while I’m up here.

Cropped Ben face


Benjamin Cromey is pursuing his Bachelors in Optical Sciences and Engineering at the University of Arizona. As a member of the Optics Ambassadors and the Outreach Coordinator for the Student Optics Chapter, optics outreach is one of his passions. He participated in the 2012 IOU program with CIAN and has been working with 3D Holographic displays ever since.

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