Dr John Best
About the speaker
Our speaker today is Dr John Best.
John is the Vice President Strategy and Technical of Thales Australia. The company designs and manufactures various vehicles, ships for the Australian Defence Force and air traffic management for Airservices Australia.
John has advanced his career through a number of promotions after having joined ADI (a Thales Joint Venture company) and had received his current position by 2013, having used his experience in research from Defence Science and Technology Organisation.
As an active member of the engineering community, John is a current member of the UTS Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology Industry Advisory Network as well as a Director of Defence Materials Technology Centre and Eurotorp Pty Limited.
John holds a Bachelors of Science with Honours from the University of Queensland, a Masters of Business Administration from University of Adelaide and a Doctor of Philosophy in Mathematics at the University of Wollongong.
It gives me great pleasure to invite Dr John Best to deliver the occasional address.
Deputy Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Engineering & Information Technology, staff, distinguished guests, graduates, families and friends.
Let me first acknowledge the Gadigal and Guring-gai people of the Eora Nation, upon whose ancestral lands the University now stands.
Let me also offer to you, the graduates, my sincere congratulations on your success.
This morning I’d like to share with you some thoughts about the future of engineering that reflect my experience working for Thales. For those who may not be familiar with the company, Thales is a world leader in delivering mission critical information systems in Aerospace, Space, Defence and Security markets. Headquartered in Paris, it generates around 13 Billion Euros of revenue and comprises about 61,000 employees in 56 countries. Of these, about 18,000 are engineers and technologists. We have over 3,000 employees in Australia, of which about 700 are engineers.
What does it mean to deliver mission critical information systems?
Let me give two examples.
Each day the Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 aircraft flies in and out of Sydney with the help of more than a dozen Thales systems, including cockpit display and integrated modular avionics.
On almost all sectors of its flight path it is under the guidance of a Thales Air Traffic Management system. In Australia, Singapore and other regions, the system has been developed at our Melbourne ATM facility. We have just been selected to develop the next generation ATM system for Australia, which will deliver world leading function and performance in an integrated system to be used across all civil and military airspace.
It’s in delivering engineered solutions like these that Thales sees itself as part of the community creating our technological future. And those of you graduating here today are also members of this community, which works to apply the most advanced technology to deliver real world impact in improving people’s lives.
The twentieth century saw a great acceleration in the rate of technological advance, and the pace continues. One thing that characterised the products and solutions of the middle and latter part of the last century was that they were systems. They were comprised of distinct components, each with a well-defined function and well-defined connectivity to other components. This idea of thinking about an engineered solution as a collection of components interacting together brought a number of benefits. First, it allowed solutions of increasing complexity to be developed in shorter timescales, as the components could be developed concurrently. It allowed economies of scale to be achieved, whereby components could be used in many different products, and the larger volume allowed them to be produced at lower costs.
These ideas about thinking of engineered solutions as comprising a collection of parts working together spurred the development of the discipline of systems engineering. The elements of this discipline trace to World War 2 and the efforts to develop more sophisticated weapon systems through concurrent engineering of the parts. It came into its own during the space program, where there was a need to integrate propulsion, guidance and control, communications, human habitation, recovery, training and mission control. Taming this complexity demanded application of these new techniques of systems engineering.
As the Vice President responsible for Strategy, Technical and Engineering within Thales Australia, I spend quite a bit of time not only working to ensure that our systems engineering capabilities are first rate, but thinking about what more we need to do to deliver the complex systems of the future.
An aspect of this challenge that I increasingly think about is the human dimension of delivering large, technically complex projects.
In engineering, as with many other disciplines, the greatest challenge in solving a problem is often to define it in the first place. And complex engineered solutions are not solutions to simple problems. They are solutions to grand challenges, which affect many people and have a major impact on societies and our way of life.
In the past we have done this with words, and indeed our contracts continue to default to written descriptions. In the 21st century, however, we have a much richer set of tools and capabilities available, particularly in the form of digital media. It is becoming easier to create sophisticated simulations of systems and environments, with increasing levels of realism in visualisation and behaviour. The future will become more reliant on these technologies to create virtual prototypes of complex engineered solutions. Stakeholders to the outcome will use these environments to effectively ‘try before you buy” in order to understand not only the functional performance of the solution, but its wider impact on the surrounding environment.
To an extent, the technological enablers are there to support us in better understanding what complex engineered solutions should do, and what their impact is on communities and the environment.
Our challenge is to find the ways to engage our clients and stakeholders in the process of using them to define solutions, and the contractual means to use them as points of reference in agreeing what we are going to create.
Another key challenge to be met in delivering the complex solutions of the future relates to the growth in the size of the enterprise delivering them.
Large project teams are themselves a social organisation, with members of differing motivations and outlook. And the social ecosystem includes not only internal stakeholders, but external ones, notably the customer organisation. Complex problems need to be solved and complex decisions need to be made. And they need to be made at all levels, from the Chief Engineer determining how all the parts will come together to the graduate engineer writing software to present information to the end user in an easy to understand way.
Although we are in the realm of technology, decision criteria are never entirely clear, not the least because we can choose to solve technical problems in a number of different ways. It is an environment where elements of politics can come into play. Roles and responsibilities are never defined with the precision required to account for every eventuality, and decision making sometimes looks like a negotiation.
Now I hope, at this point, that you’re not troubled by this idea that delivering complex systems isn’t an exercise in Vulcan logic. It is precisely this aspect that the solution cannot be derived by formal means that gives scope for human creativity and innovation.
In order to improve our success, and that of our customers, we need to recognise that these are characteristics of complex project delivery and take appropriate actions.
So what does this mean?
It means we need to build a team that can simultaneously be as disciplined as a Roman Legion and as creative as Picasso.
They need to apply the processes, methods and tools of system engineering, but harness the creativity of the team to deliver the new features and functions that characterise leading edge technology.
In addition to their technical skills, the people who will succeed in delivering the future will master a set of skills like communication, teamwork, innovation, negotiation and change management.
At this point, I think there’s an interesting question to ponder. An organisation that can only master one of these things, and not the other, will be doomed to second place in the race to deliver the future. Technical skills alone will not be enough. The ability to stimulate the creativity of the whole team and synthesise it to the achievement of a common and ambitious goal will be decisive.
For those of you graduating, feel proud and heartened that the time you have spent at UTS has well equipped you to participate in this invention of the future. Your graduation endorses your technical skills and competencies. Take pride in this and focus on maintaining them throughout your career. As important, though, is the experience of gaining this knowledge in the UTS environment. It is an environment characterised by collaboration, creativity, and delivery of real world impact. It takes advantage of the diverse perspectives and background of its staff and students to look at problems in different ways, which is the foundation of innovation. It is these attributes that will differentiate those who are successful in creating the most complex engineered solutions.
Let me offer again my congratulations on your success. You are graduating at a time when the world of engineering is evolving faster and more significantly than ever. The opportunity is yours to participate in creating our technological future.