Build Your Career: Interviews 


BIO: Susan K. (Kathy) Land

TITLE: Principal Software Systems Engineer for MITRE Corp.; 2009 President, IEEE Computer Society

ACADEMIC DEGREE: B.S., University of Georgia

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Susan K. (Kathy) Land has over 21 years of information technology-related work experience, including information management systems programming, database systems development, and enterprise application programming. She has extensive experience implementing software process improvement and is a recognized expert in this area. having published several books on the subject, including Practical ISO 9001 Software Process Documentation: Using IEEE Software Engineering Standards; Practical CMMI Software Process Documentation: Using IEEE Software Engineering Standards; Jumpstart CMM/CMMI Software Process Improvement: Using IEEE Software Engineering Standards; Practical Support for Lean Six Sigma; and Software Process Documentation: Using IEEE Software Engineering Standards.

 

Software Process Improvement

An interview with Kathy Land

Kathy Land

DP: Where are you with your career right now?

KL: Currently, I am a principal software systems engineer for MITRE in Huntsville, Alabama. MITRE is a not-for-profit organization chartered to operate in the public interest, managing three Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) for the US government. I support multiple projects for MITRE’s Software and Systems Engineering Department, but work primarily providing support for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Ballistic Missile Defense Systems (BMDS) Concurrent Test Training and Operations (CTTO) effort as independent technical lead for software and simulations.
During my career, I have supported or managed a variety of software efforts. I like where I am in my career currently. I am fortunate to be able to work with complex software and systems that are critical to our national defense. I find it very rewarding.

DP: When you were a youngster, what factors drew you to the career path you ultimately chose?

KL: I grew up in Athens, Georgia, and although this is a university town, the resources provided to local schools were not on the cutting edge. Growing up, I had an Atari and played Pong and loved arcade games but never saw a computer until college. When I went to college, the field of computer science was new: the University of Georgia’s Computer Science department was established in 1984, which was the year I graduated. The University of Georgia offered some computer science courses. However, the engineers taking these courses tended to stay very late trying to get their programs to compile and were always carrying around stacks of punch cards—not very interesting to me at the time.

I became interested in this field while working as a student in the University’s Department of Genetics. I was responsible for an IBM mainframe system. It seemed that I understood intuitively how to work with computers and decided during this job that I wanted to work in the field of computer science.

DP: Who or what had the most influence on you during your college and graduate school days?

KL: Oddly enough, as an undergraduate I had a philosophy professor who really encouraged me the most. I still remember how he thought my ideas and writing were top notch. This early encouragement helped me gain confidence—that my ideas were as good as the next person’s. The key is being able to communicate your ideas effectively.

DP: As you moved through your career, what was the smartest decision you ever made?

KL: I am currently reading Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers. The success argument seems to always boil down to nature vs. nurture. Gladwell also factors in chance and dumb luck. I think if you talk to most folks who are successful, they will tell you that although they have made decisions, they were also lucky.

I have been very lucky to have worked in this field, a field that is constantly changing, a field that presented many opportunities for growth. I have been lucky, as many opportunities have crossed my path. I feel the career decisions I made were based on recognizing these specific opportunities, working hard, and taking calculated risks.
I cannot think of one single smart decision that was critical to my career path, rather a series of jumping at opportunities that were presented. It is important to always look for the opportunity that will help you move forward and stay challenged.

I think one of the smartest things that I have done is to pursue membership in a volunteer community, and I am speaking here specifically about the IEEE Computer Society. This membership helps me stay abreast of developing trends and the available content helps me stay current.

DP: And the dumbest?

KL: I don’t know about dumb, but how about naïve? As a young programmer in my first ‘real job,’ I was working as a civil servant computer systems programmer for the Navy at the Pacific Missile Test Center, at Point Mugu, California.

During this point in my career, the Macintosh computer had just come out and user support for these systems was not the best. I started a Macintosh users group and newsletter, not really understanding that permission might be required for such a thing. A year into the effort I was holding regular meetings on base with a couple hundred folks and the newsletter was being sent out DoD-wide. I got a call that the base commander wanted to see me, to ask me about what I was doing and discuss approvals.

Now, remember I was 20 and new to civil service. I was petrified. I went in and fortunately had prepared myself with a draft charter, and had lots of other information to share. The meeting went well and I ended up receiving a letter of commendation. I always look back on that experience and say that anything worthwhile is worth the risk. Just be prepared and do your homework, so that when you have to back up your decisions, you are ready. I also look back thinking again, that I was lucky that my career was not short-lived.

DP: What has been your most rewarding experience or role with the IEEE Computer Society?

KL: All of the different roles have been rewarding. The opportunity to serve on the various committees and boards has really provided me with a great working knowledge of how the IEEE CS operates. I think that the toughest jobs that I had were when I was starting out as a volunteer leader. My role as publicity chair supporting an IEEE CS conference and then also as a standards working group chair. These were tough for a variety of reasons, but I gained experience from these that has helped me in other areas.

I think the most fun I had supporting any particular role would be working on the Computer Society International Design Competition. I recruited the judges for the early rounds of the competition and was lead judge for a couple of years at the world finals. Working with student teams and judges from all over the world was very rewarding.

DP: What advice can you give a recent graduate who wants to pursue a career like yours?

KL: Find out what technical area works best for your skill set and ability, and become the best you can at it. Look for ways you can contribute and try to expand the domain of knowledge associated with what you do. Friends of mine say that I ‘sublimate’—I work my day job and then have a variety of supplemental activities that I also support that might not directly relate to my day-to-day activities, but that do help develop my expertise and also contribute to the overall knowledge domain.

I think this is good advice—just like with your investments, you should diversify your skill set, providing a balance. If you are great in some specific technical area, be sure to publish and share your knowledge with others. Early on, I became very committed to software engineering and standardization. I think very practically, and think that software engineering methods and standards are only useful if they help software engineers at work. This is where I try to focus my technical energies outside of work.

DP: In your field, what will be the most startling advance or change we’ll see in the next five to 10 years?

KL: I think that Moore’s Law is going to reach its limit and we will see a renewed emphasis on software and systems engineering, as we will need to try to make substantive gains in the areas of software development and reuse. My hope is that efforts will focus on the practical needs associated with improving the efficiencies associated with software and system development.

DP: In the United States, what scientific or technological policy will be most important for the new presidential administration to pursue?

KL: The challenges we face as a nation will drive what decisions might be deemed as most important. President Obama will face many challenges as he takes office and these challenges will affect his executive decisions. I think that our current economic picture and long-term economic health as a country should factor into some of the decisions associated with the development of new and renewable energy sources as well as the production of more energy efficient and eco-friendly vehicles.

Many technical areas need to be addressed and supported. The prioritization is important because as a nation, we have limited funding. In an ideal world, I would like to see support for the continued development of new technologies, support for technologies associated with the healthcare industry, and more emphasis on security, privacy, and information assurance.

The new President should make math and science education a national priority. He promised to do so and this is extremely important to the future of the United States and our scientific community. Our technical workforce is currently aging, with fewer and fewer candidates entering the field. We need to prepare the next generation of technologists.

DP: What do you hope to accomplish for the Computer Society in your presidential year?

KL: We have been working to make the Computer Society more efficient and effective. We are more focused on providing value and benefit to our members. I would like to see us complete the governance transformation initiated 3-4 years ago and set up an effective yearly strategic planning cycle.

DP: What’s your vision for the Computer Society 10 years down the road?

KL: That the IEEE Computer Society would become the trusted resource for the computing professional and software and systems engineer. In my career, I have always turned to the IEEE CS for solutions and I would like to see our community grow. We are a volunteer-driven society. The larger we are, the more diverse our technical membership will become and the more resources we will be able to offer. I envision an IEEE CS where we provide the products and services that directly support, are uniquely tailored to, and support the individual needs of each member. 

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