Gerald Wocken

Major: Physics
Year of Graduation: 1962
Current Job Title: Systems Engineer for Boeing in Huntsville, AL.   

What has been your career path after St. John's University and what led you to your current job?
I started writing instruction manuals for industrial equipment in Minneapolis, with the hope of eventually sneaking into the rocket science business through the back door.  It took 25 years, but I finally made it and when Boeing won a Space Station contract at the beginning of 1988, I got a job as a Systems Engineer, and have been there ever since. Along the way, I've earned two master's degrees (in management and engineering), received a US patent, written a widely used project management simulation and textbook section, published and presented papers at national and international symposia, and become an officer of the International Council on Systems Engineering and a member of the Society for Technical Communications and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

I started out at Boeing defining requirements for several space station systems and building a time-phased computer model of the station's construction. I then analyzed mission operations and developed timelines for station assembly, and identified station utilization opportunities. 

Describe your main job duties.
I don't really have a 'typical' day, because I am working three different jobs. Some days I do a little of each of the three jobs. Other times, I may work on just one of them for several weeks in a row.  I plan and conduct the evaluation of the flight hardware, with a team that includes a crew office engineer, one or more astronauts, and several other crucial positions. I also research and write the documents that describe the space station experiments, assign the requirements that they must meet, and identify how each requirement will be verified.  I also serve as the Human Factors discipline expert.               

With three bosses, I have to sit in on three staff meetings and write three activity reports each week. My bosses are usually in Texas or Florida, so most of the meetings are via telecom and Webex.  Meetings involving the Russians usually start before 5:00 in the morning, and those with the Japanese run very late at night.

Besides the staff meetings, I monitor or give presentations at an average of three to four board and panel meetings and participate in a couple of customer conferences each week (also mostly virtual).  In the evenings, I average one technical society or parish committee meeting per week, and when I'm taking a class, one or two nights of on-line sessions.

What do you enjoy about your job?
I enjoy working with scientists and engineers all around the world, helping them build experiments that will allow the space station crew to gather the most and best research data, playing with the actual flight hardware, and helping the astronauts demonstrate the usability of the science payloads. Traveling to the top research centers in the world is interesting, too. I got to experience six European countries last year.

I've wanted to be a rocket scientist since some of my St John's physics classes.  If I'm not one now, at least I know dozens of them, and almost as many astronauts, on a first name basis.  I believe the space program has the potential for tremendous contributions to humanity and I am glad, proud, and humbled to be a part of it.  I feel that I can make a real difference in the effectiveness of the space station as a research center for the good of all. (If only the politicians can keep their hands off of it for a while.)

What is some advice for students who would like to follow your career path?
Systems engineering is a challenging and satisfying field, with a growing demand for its practitioners.  It requires more breadth than depth of knowledge, so my St John's training in logic, literacy, scientific methods, critical thinking and big-picture perspective (and 25 years of widely scattered experience) allowed me to get by while I learned the SE process on the job.

In the 21st century, there are courses available to help a student with a liberal arts science degree or pre-engineering program adapt those skills to a systems engineering career.  If the cost of an MS right after graduation seems a bit daunting, look for an employer with a continuing education assistance program. For example, Boeing not only paid for all of my grad school costs and books, but also for a trip to an international symposium to present a paper, and 100 shares of stock at graduation.  

If you're interested in contacting Gerald, email him at: