Building the team to drive Leidos' unmanned leadership
In a dockside shipping container, a group of 20-somethings sit huddled over laptops late at night in San Diego. Tied up to the pier next to the steel box that doubled as a mobile workspace is a gray tri-hulled 132-foot ship—Sea Hunter—the first autonomous unmanned surface vehicle capable of traveling long distances over extended periods of time.
A remarkable innovation in autonomy, Sea Hunter recently completed the world’s longest open ocean voyage for an unmanned surface vessel by sailing from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and back. Leidos, a global IT, engineering, and science solutions provider, designed and built Sea Hunter and is currently working on Sea Hunter II, which is under construction in Mississippi.
Sea Hunter is a technological marvel in its own right, but the real story may be the team of engineers who serve as the brains behind Leidos’ groundbreaking autonomy capabilities.
Fueled by energy bars and trail mix, the team tapped out keystrokes to run final checks on the control systems that operate the unmanned ship’s many functions, each playing a critical role in navigating Sea Hunter from waypoint to waypoint without a human crew. Holiday lights and a small artificial tree added some character and seasonal cheer to the 20 x 8 x 8.5 foot metal office the techies called “home” in the weeks leading up to Sea Hunter’s 4,000-plus mile long demonstration voyage over a two-week period.
'Big robot boats'
Leidos has assembled a 36-person team over the last four years as their core unmanned technology “brain trust.” This core team is augmented with the expertise and prowess of a handful of Leidos programmers who are brought in from other projects across the company to help manage sprints on the Sea Hunter program. In the words of company leadership responsible for the growth and direction of the autonomy programs, Leidos is moving full steam ahead on unmanned systems.
In its quest to build a world-class unmanned technology area of excellence, Leidos has overcome many of the challenges associated with building and sustaining a high-performing team in the hotly competitive Washington, DC, talent market where those with highly-specialized skills and experience in autonomous technology are relentlessly pursued by myriad employers.
Most members of the Leidos autonomy team graduated within the last five years with computer sciences degrees from top undergraduate programs. In addition to attracting recent graduates, Leidos has also invested in organically growing talent by selecting high-performers from their internship program.
When team members are asked what attracted them to Leidos, the consensus response is “big robot boats.” Which is also their answer when asked what’s cool about their jobs, and what keeps them engaged and driven to do their best work.
At various career events held at colleges around the Mid-Atlantic region, Leidos made quite an impression among members of the autonomy team. Several graduates joined Leidos after graduating from the University of Maryland; their work and expertise in computer science and robotics makes them a natural, vital fit when it comes to autonomy and unmanned ships.
Many members of the Leidos team passed on enviable employment opportunities with other top global corporations—well-known technology behemoths and financial companies that offered enticing perks like pet sitting and smoothie bars. Those who opted to join the Leidos team, however, were seeking something more rewarding: to be a part of something big, something historic.
While the allure of big robot boats is obvious, what’s not lost on this team is the significance of their work: building the next generation of surface vessels for the U.S. Navy—unmanned ships, able to perform missions that safeguard shores and protect warfighters from ever-evolving threats.
“I take pride knowing the work we’re doing will soon be driving ships that won’t have sailors aboard who could potentially be in harm’s way,” said Zack Knopp, software engineer and scrum master. “We’re building the Navy of the future by pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.”
Now several years into the autonomy program, Leidos has established a solid reputation for its work on unmanned technologies. A robust and ever-growing network of recent graduates combined with an intriguing, real-world storyline (think: big robot boats) gives Leidos a powerful pipeline of top talent who are choosing to work on unmanned programs instead of coding for large technology companies.
“What makes our work especially rewarding is that it’s achievable—we can see all of our efforts pay off in a ship that drives itself,” said Nick Downey, software engineer.
Talk to any talent development professional in a competitive market like the metropolitan Washington, DC, area and they’ll tell you that while attracting top talent is hard, keeping those valued employees is incredibly difficult. This is especially true of younger employees who tend to cycle through several jobs until they find something that keeps them interested and anchored.
Facing this challenging dynamic, Leidos has opted for a path that retains high-demand employees by involving them in meaningful ways while showing everyone where their work fits into the big picture. And, Leidos software engineers working on Sea Hunter are often interacting with the client, presenting their work and helping them understand the “what” and “how” behind every solution.
“When I first started, I was reminded that Sea Hunter is very, very important, so don’t expect the keys right away,” said Audrey Watt, software engineer and scrum master. “But I worked hard to learn the ropes and provide high value contributions to the Leidos team, and within several months, I was running the ship’s start sequence.”
Watt added, “I’ve come a long way in a year and never would have imagined leading a shift in the middle of the night, responsible for monitoring operations on the Sea Hunter as it crossed Pacific Ocean between Pearl Harbor and San Diego.”
Watt’s experiences at Leidos are not a one-off. Many of her colleagues have found themselves flying to California, Hawaii, or Mississippi to join a team working on a Leidos-operated research fleet. This aspect of the job—the hands-on approach to learning—is an important part of how Leidos builds and retains a deeply talented team.
The imperative and support for constant learning comes from the management team. “Our leadership puts its trust in us to figure out solutions, guiding us along by asking ‘how’ instead of giving us orders on ‘what,’” said Aaron Walsh, junior software engineer. “Everyone touches some aspect of design work, and even when we’re working on a seemingly small piece of the project, we all see how our work fits into the big picture.”
Avoiding 'the burn and churn'
Richard Bowers leads the autonomy team at Leidos. He is that rare combination of technical talent and leadership ability, who is adept at creating an environment in which great things can be accomplished.
To Bowers, team chemistry is as critically important as technical ability, particularly on a high-profile and wildly complex project like building a first-of-its-kind unmanned ship. “Project success happens when the team works together, collaboratively solving problems, and when everyone feels confident and comfortable in offering their ideas,” said Bowers.
Part of keeping the team at their best is pacing to avoid what Bowers calls “the burn and churn,” common in the tech world when individuals exhaust themselves over the course of a project and then leave, fully burned out. “This is a marathon and not a sprint,” said Bowers. “We’re rapidly growing but Leidos is focused on autonomy for years to come. It’s important for people to love what they’re doing and to enjoy the people around them. That keeps our people here, engaged, and doing their best work.”
When screening candidates, Bowers takes note of applicants who have a track record of collaboration as indicated by participation in extra-curricular activities. “We hire highly-skilled technical people who are proven to be productive team members,” he says. “Several of our colleagues participated in marching bands, which shows they can perform individually and as part of a team. Other Leidos colleagues teach coding to kids and are robotics coaches. These are people who want to teach and learn.”
This successful team-building chemistry is evident when those working on Sea Hunter are together in a group setting. They enjoy each other’s company, sharing laughs and stories about being assisted on solving tough technical challenges by their colleagues. They respect each other’s talents and are not afraid to ask their peers for help or to cross-check their work.
Based on anecdotes from junior team members, feedback and guidance is given constructively by senior managers interested in and committed to growing skill sets versus giving orders. One intern commented that, “we work with super smart programmers and when I shared my first coding assignment with a colleague, I dreaded being shredded. Instead, he took the time to walk me through the logic behind his changes and showed me how I could approach it differently. I was expecting to be told to start again and instead I learned a ton.”
Bowers is quick to point out that computer science is a career field with “people who don’t do people,” yet this is a team of colleagues who not only work together but also enjoy being together. The team chemistry, the culture of teaching and learning, and the well-established support structures at all levels give Leidos a meaningful advantage over its defense industry peers.
When they’re not crunching code or working a problem in a scrum, members of the Leidos unmanned team can be found playing in their kickball league or attending a Washington Nationals game. The team unwinds with planned monthly activities that have included a rafting trip and axe throwing (all fingers and toes accounted for).
“We make time to have fun,” said Zack Knopp. “It’s not ‘forced fun’ events, we come up with outings that are creative and cater to our diverse interests.”
Hit the beach and beyond
Months after Sea Hunter steered itself into San Diego and pulled up alongside the pier, the Leidos team talks about the record-setting open ocean voyage as though it was just last week. Even those team members who didn’t get a chance to spend time living in the cramped shipping container “office” take pride in its success. Everyone on the team made it possible but nobody is resting on their laurels.
“There’s no mystery about what comes next,” said Aaron Walsh. “Every day we’re doing things in autonomy that nobody has done before.”
Case in point, the team has been hard at work on truly next-level autonomy: performing complex unmanned operations like beach landings, which require the integration of a massive number of inputs from thousands of sensors and systems in order to hit the beach at the right angle, speed, and timing.
As the Navy looks to industry to deliver unmanned vessels that can perform roles historically done by skilled sailors, Leidos is pushing the bounds of what’s “unhumanly” possible by making the unmanned fleet a reality. The young and growing team behind the “big robot boats” will keep their fingers on the keyboards, driving forward and toward the future.