STEM advocate Tony Ruiz receives HENAAC Lifetime Achievement Award
On Friday, Leidos employee Tony Ruiz, Ph.D., will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Great Minds in STEM – 2017 Hispanics in Engineering National Achievement Awards Conference (HENAAC) in Pasadena, Calif. Dr. Ruiz's professional experience ranges from technical contributor to senior manager to executive leadership in systems engineering.
I recently spoke to Dr. Ruiz about his remarkable career. Here is our conversation:
First of all, congratulations on this honor! What was running through your mind when you learned that you had won?
Thank you. The main thing was the contributions I’ve made to Leidos, and my other contributions before I came to Leidos. Working to promote STEM with Hispanics and other minority groups, it's part of what I've been doing on my own time as well as in my career — working with engineers and teams of engineers to make a difference.
I've been working for more than 30 years. It’s been a long career but I’ve enjoyed the work and relating to people who have the same interest and encouraging those who are pursuing STEM careers.
HENAAC is a conference that you’re very familiar with, right?
Yes, I’ve attended it before when I was working at IBM. I was an executive there and I attended to present some of the awards for minority students. I was very glad that I was able to represent IBM at the conference and I met a lot of people, some of whom became very good friends.
The conference was very well attended, very well planned. It had a strong STEM focus and promoted that with students at various levels, all the way from high school, college, and graduate level, as well as strong participation from companies. I was very impressed.
It must be pretty special for you — having been to HENAAC before to present awards — to now receive an award.
It is. I'm humbled and not accustomed to this type of recognition. Fundamentally, I've been an engineer all my adult life and risen through the ranks to become an executive. But I've always enjoyed working at the technical level and even today, along with my manager — who is a program manager — John Polcha, we take on the role of chief engineers for the projects we do. We manage a very large matrix team but he and I don't just do management, we enjoy doing technical work. I still work directly with the customer for deliverables that I put together myself. This is beyond the excellent hard work that we perform as a team for the customer.
The more important thing is that we work very closely with the customers to engage them with upcoming things — the kind of things that the team is going to see anywhere from two to 10 years from now. It's the follow-on activities, the new warfighter capabilities, achieving program milestones, and realizing the customer’s vision. We help them explore, shape, realize, and exceed their expectations.
One thing you’ve done with Leidos is introduce “brown bag” sessions where you discuss engineering in general or introduce the team to new things. When did that start? Can you tell us more about them?
Sure. So, I've been with Leidos since 2004. From 2004 to 2009, I worked with an Army customer on a very large program and I learned a lot of things because there was a massive investment in doing that. Eventually, they changed the areas and technology that we wanted to do and they went in a different direction. But as I did all of that work with the customer, I learned a lot about tools and how to do things better with the right engineering tools.
In 2009 when I started with our customer in Maryland, I not only had to help them bring new capabilities but I also had to help them modernize how they were doing it. So for the first time, we began to transition the customer from a paper-oriented systems engineering approach to what I called a “database-oriented” tools approach where you keep all of your cumulative knowledge and design in database tools that you can get commercially off the shelf.
When I arrived, both the customer and our team weren’t using the proper tools. So I endeavored to take our customer and our team to create what I call an integrated digital environment of these systems engineering tools, where we could document the requirements, the architecture, and the test and verification that we needed to do for the system. Basically, the scope of the system is engineering but we use commercial off the shelf tools to do the systems engineering.
Since 2009, we have progressed to the point where the customer loves what we're doing and our team is fully engaged. Part of what I came there to do was to train the team and for that, we started the brown bag sessions. We needed to bring both our team and the customer and help them with these tools. The complexity of the program has grown so much that if we had continued what we were doing in 2009, we would not have been able to keep up and introduce the tools and systems to satisfy the customer.
Very interesting, and it's pretty obvious that mentoring and volunteering mean a lot to you. Why is it important for somebody in your position to do those things?
I think it's important because I think of myself when I was starting out, when I decided to become an electrical engineer. I went to high school and I had a lot of interests. I was very good at math, and I was very good in the sciences. Even though my parents didn't have a college education, they instilled in me the importance of advancement through education. My father went to trade school. My late mother only went to elementary school. But it was interest from one of my teachers in high school, who gave me a book at that time, something called The New World of Electronics. That book basically opened my eyes and ignited my interest in electrical engineering and that is why I became an electrical engineer.
When I finished my electrical engineering undergraduate degree, I had a professor who also wanted to mentor me. He told me this idea of working in digital signal processing, which is very mathematical, and that's when I decided to go to graduate school and engage in that particular area. I eventually went for my Ph.D. while I was working at IBM alongside great managers who also mentored me.
It was while I was doing my Ph.D. that I invented the technology of broadband to the home, which is the technology of the ADSL [asymmetric digital subscriber line]. That came about because of the people who developed an interest in my advancement and in mentoring me, and that eventually led to successfully completing my Ph.D. from Stanford. So all throughout, I’ve had mentors that helped steer my creativity and steer my education and my career enhancements into areas where I had the privilege to be very successful.
So that's why I believe in mentoring and I’ve also seen it help my own children — I have two sons who are engineers and two daughters who are psychologists. I see how they've been exposed to mentoring and how it's helped them. And of course, I think of my grandchildren and how they can also benefit from mentorship, and that's why I try to apply myself to help others in a similar way.
You mentioned ADSL earlier, but you actually have 10 patents under your belt. Is there one that stands out or one that you're particularly proud of?
Most of those patents belong to IBM because I did a lot of that work when I was there. One of them actually belongs to me and was created many years ago, I think in the ’90s. It was to promote the idea that you could deliver interactive education with something as simple as a TV, satellite antenna, and a set-top box, and have people in a remote area be able to get an education on all sorts of things. Not only K-to-12 but also about AIDS or agriculture or better management of resources and so on. Or education about children, children's health, and other things. And delivery over satellites is one way that with the technology of set-top boxes, you would be able to create an interactive experience. So there was no interactivity going back all the way to the satellite but there was enough content delivered to that set-top box during those days to be able to create that “interactive” experience so they could navigate through things and be able to get to what they wanted to see.
It's almost like a mini version of what you would do on a tablet today with an interactive experience, except that it's going to come forward in the case of this one-way medium, you create an artificial interactive experience. This idea still continues to be promoted in many areas and that technology has evolved to create experiences for distance learning in remote areas. I think that continues to be used. Maybe it's not the same patent but the idea was there, that it could deliver these interactive experiences and deliver the information and education over to distant remote areas.
The rest of the patents are technology areas that I dealt with while I was working at IBM and some of those patents still continue to be used in the industry, like the experience for your set-top box, for video-on-demand, for DVRs, that was all patent stuff that we did at IBM. But right now, when you use your DVR, you take it for granted. But the reality is that was created in the ’90s.