Aaron Daniels takes flight

Rice alumnus says engineering career path has helped build his communication skills over time.

Aaron Daniels

In 2011, Rice University mechanical engineering student Aaron Daniels (’13), helped program an AR-Drone. He was interning with Sikorsky Aircraft and the team project was part of a company-wide intern competition. His team placed second, but Daniels’ biggest win was discovering how much he loved merging his engineering studies with flight.

“After that summer, I never looked back,” said Daniels, who now works as a project engineer for Sikorsky’s Black Hawk Modernization program.

Applying what he learned about mechanical engineering to his growing grasp of aircraft made his Rice courses even more interesting. “My favorite classes were Thermodynamics and Advanced Fluid Mechanics with Brent Houchens, who is now working in industry. His last lecture at Rice was given a few weeks before I graduated. Everyone knew it would be his last Rice lecture; but B.C. remained true to form and led that classroom of students through an amazing blend of science, engineering, and real life applications.”

Like his favorite instructor, Daniels is also blending and explaining concepts and engineering for real life applications. His role —as the technical project lead for modernizing specific aspects of the iconic helicopter— requires Daniels to communicate with a variety of engineers and business administrators.

He said, “I am responsible for the program’s overall engineering, cost, and schedule performance, so I’m probably the engineer who interfaces with our customers the most. But I also spend a lot of time communicating with the various Integrated Product Teams that are associated with different parts of the aircraft, functions, and various engineering sciences.

“My primary job is to make sure we are doing what we need to be doing when we need to do it. If I walked around asking, ‘Are you done yet?’ all the time, I’m not doing my job. It is more important for me to remove any roadblocks our teams might encounter.”

His program is part of a portfolio of projects that support the overall modernization of the Black Hawk helicopters, so Daniels’ stakeholders on the customer side can include financial and technical experts, project managers, and peer technical reviewers for all of his group’s deliverables.

“We have to build trust with all these stakeholders, and that relationship-building begins with the statement of work. This is an artifact that shows what is needed, why it is needed, and why it will follow a defined set of standards. As we work together toward a common goal, we begin learning to read and understand nuances. We get together regularly to discuss technical problems and issues. We might say, ‘For this next stage, here’s a draft. Is it on the right track, or is there something else you’d like to see here?’

“Sometimes there are disagreements, but these can lead to fruitful discussions on those particular items. Each side can read between the lines a bit and come to different interpretations of the Statement of Work, but with a relationship based on trust, each side knows that no one is trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.”

Daniels said it is equally important to build trust with his internal stakeholders who want to ensure the program is performing well. By keeping everyone informed, Daniels not only supplies upper management with timely status updates, he is also providing a view of the path ahead. If and when he needs their assistance shifting a roadblock, there are no surprises at his request because Daniels is turning to people who are already aware of and involved in the project.

He attributes part of his success in communicating with both engineers and business specialists to his years at Rice.

“Just being at Rice helped me grow my communication skills,” said Daniels. “Usually people look for communality with others – ‘Here is someone who looks like me or is from where I’m from.’ Rice’s college system, beginning with O-Week, shifts everyone’s commonality to ‘Is this person in the same college as me or in the same major as me?’ Immediately, we are immersed in new experiences with a much more diverse set of people than we knew before.

“I am from upstate New York and I learned a lot about Texas, different cultures, and  other countries from my Rice friends. The Rice experience builds empathy in every student who is open to absorbing it. Perspective shifts from learning something new or different and thinking it is weird, to understanding why it was said or done in a particular way —because of the person’s background. And that is invaluable to communicating clearly in any career.”

Daniels said his engineering career path also helped build his communication skills over time. Because all entry level engineers start in technical work, every engineer has to learn how to explain their ideas and projects.

“In design engineering, it is not good enough to have an idea. You have to describe that idea to someone. You may put together a great drawing or concept but if you can’t explain why it is feasible or why it works, it will go nowhere. And you have to be able to explain it to management, to other people on your team, the people who will be making the ultimate product, and sometimes the operators.

“All my current work is in technical project management, but I still have to understand what each of the different teams are doing from an engineering standpoint or I won’t be able to help them resolve issues and select the right strategy moving forward.”

Satisfied that the engineering aspects of the program are aligned, Daniels turns his attention to his non-technical counterparts. He has developed an understanding of what the business related groups need to know about the technical project and can deliver a status update to an appropriate level of depth. The operations and procurement groups might need a slightly different explanation of the same status update, as different information is important to those groups.

“Entry level roles usually have engineers communicating with other engineers. In addition to peer-to-peer communications during my first role, I interfaced with manufacturing people who build the products, materials engineers who make sure the selected materials for the part will stand up to environmental factors, and with structural analysts who perform many calculations on how various loads will impact the parts. Starting with my second role, I had to learn to take something that is technical and communicate it to someone without a technical background. My communication skills have grown with my career trajectory. There are several communications and team leader training opportunities with my current role, but anyone can find courses using their preferred learning platform, videos with digestible nuggets you can begin to incorporate immediately to improve your communication skills.”