Nan Mattai considers it her passion to connect women in engineering and technical roles in the aerospace industry to each other, essentially allowing her to provide the role models and mentoring that she didn’t have when she started her career in this industry 30 years ago.
Mattai, Avionics Magazine’s Woman of the Year, is senior vice president, engineering and technology at Rockwell Collins, managing the company’s global engineering workforce of more than 8,000 employees. In 2011 she led more than $1 billion in research and development investments in next generation flight decks and communication systems. She has been on the cutting edge on some of the significant technologies in avionics, bringing about safer and more efficient aircraft. In addition, she is deeply dedicated to helping other women further their career success, as well as drawing young women into science, math, engineering and technology professions. Mentoring women in engineering is so important, Mattai said, that she considers the highlight of her career so far to serve as honorary co-chair of the 2011 Global Marathon For, By and About Women in Engineering, a week-long event, stretching across six continents, dedicated to connecting women in engineering and promoting the field to the next generation of young women.
“When I joined the workforce in the ‘80s, there were very few women in either technical management or business management positions, it was a predominantly male workforce. For me there were very few networking or mentoring opportunities, no role models, no one to ask about career development or work-life balance. Today when I look at the workforce, I see the wide reaching activities that are out there for women in aerospace … to connect, and to learn,” she said.
There are so many very talented women in this industry, so for me to be selected as Avionics Woman of the Year is more than an honor for me and for Rockwell Collins and I think for all of the women that are going to follow me.
Within Rockwell Collins, Mattai said she has about a dozen women who she interacts with at various points throughout the year, providing advice on careers and work-life balance questions. “I think for the first time, [young women in the aerospace industry] have a role model now … there is more hope today that it is doable because I’m in my role.”
Mattai, who joined Rockwell Collins in 1993 and is now the highest-ranking female executive at the company, reporting directly to the CEO, has contributed to a wide range of technologies and programs throughout her career. She has worked on a variety of satellite navigation systems and programs, including the Miniature Airborne GPS Receiver, Modernized User Equipment and the Defense Advanced GPS Receiver. She was also the lead engineer for satellite communication systems, including the Universal Modem Systems and Single Channel Anti-Jam Manportable programs. She was also involved with many of the first software-defined radio initiatives at Rockwell Collins, including the Multifunctional Information Distribution System and Joint Tactical Radio System Ground Mobile Radio/Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit systems, as well as small form factor advanced data links.
“When I first started working for Nan, a little more than 10 years ago, there were three things that struck me about her. First, she had a great interest and desire to personally get to know the people working in my organization and to understand nearly every aspect of what they were doing. Secondly, when we had problems, she never focused on who to blame but rather on whether we knew what the problem was, and how we were going to fix it. And finally, she continually challenged us to raise the bar. Even when we did well, she was always looking for a way to do things better. Any organization working for Nan will get better. … She helps us get to where we need to be,” said Linda Snow-Solum, senior director, Engineering Infrastructure Development & Lean, at Rockwell Collins.
Mattai also championed the large-format LCD systems now integrated into the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and other aircraft, and supported the development of enhanced situational awareness systems, such as synthetic vision systems. She also works closely with the Advanced Technology Center to pursue next generation photonic components, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Remote Analog to Digital Converter with Deserialization and Reconstruction (RADER) program.
Mattai also championed and executed the opening of the Rockwell Collins Design Center in Hyderabad, India, in 2008.
Mattai began her aerospace career in the early ‘80s as a software engineer working on GPS systems for Magnavox in Torrance, Calif.
“The aerospace industry is a great career choice because it provides exciting and challenging work for all types of engineers. … The biggest thing for me was being able to see the fruits of my work. Walking into an airplane and looking over at the cockpit and you can see a Rockwell Collins display, you know you are making a difference,” she said.
Despite the strides made by women in this industry in the last decade or so, Mattai said she sees more progress that can be made to elevate women into the highest levels of business and technical management in aerospace companies.
Mattai identified three of the biggest obstacles for women in this industry maintaining the work-family balance, gaining access to program management responsibilities, and teaching and allowing women to highlight their value to the company. Overcoming these obstacles can mean selecting a company that stresses diversity and encourages work-family balance, mentor programs and networking, she said.
“In our own company, I see a transformation. We have many women now in individual contributor roles and junior to mid-management and I’ve also seen improvements in women moving into senior management levels,” she said. “As I look at the broader industry, clearly we’ve made a lot of progress, but I think there’s more to be done. … I think we just have to keep focused and make sure we continue to make progress.”
Compromise and prioritization in your work are key, but one thing Mattai says she will not and has not compromised on is her family her husband, Roy, and her two sons. “No matter what I’m doing at work, you’ve got to get home and have dinner with your family,” she said.
She cited her mother as having the biggest influence on her career. Mattai said her stay-at-home mom “instilled in us the importance of an education and to have a strong work ethic. She taught me that to succeed in life you have to study hard, work hard, set goals for yourself and don’t stop until you reach them. … She told me I could do anything and be anything, and told me not to accept that things can’t be done.”