In celebration of Women’s History Month, The Modern Battlespace team has launched a Women in STEM series where we’ve connected with various female voices in the defense community. In a field where diversity is growing, we strive to represent women who have paved a path forward. This series explores their career paths, what brought them into the world of STEM, and gives them a platform to share wisdom with the next generation of STEM professionals.
Most recently, we spoke with Britta Ahlers, Engineering Manager at Collins Aerospace, who paved her path by following her own curiosity. Today, she manages a team of systems engineers who are responsible for the design and support of Collins’ Military High Frequency Radio Product Lines. Her team is also responsible for the information assurance and cybersecurity of the company’s Tactical Radio products.
Here’s what she had to share with us about how her passion for science and technology grew into a career with Collins Aerospace:
The Modern Battlespace (TMB) Editors: Did you always know you were going to have a technology-related career? What did your path look like?
Britta Ahlers: Technology, no; science, yes! I was always very interested in science and actually wanted to study veterinary microbiology. When I was age 14 and looking at universities and majors in my final year of high school (I graduated early from high school), I was lucky enough to attend a Science and Engineering Fair at a local community college.
Two presentations really stuck with me from that fair. The first was an engineering professor who presented about engineering using some funny slides explaining “You Might Be An Engineer If…” with reasons like “your VCR never flashes ‘12:00.’” You guessed it; my VCR was always set! The second and perhaps the most compelling influence was when Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University showcased their electric car and the team of engineering students who built it. I loved cars, was now hooked on engineering, and Embry-Riddle was in my hometown.
I applied for their electrical engineering program the next week and was accepted. Four years later, I graduated with honors from the program with a job offer in-hand from Rockwell Collins (now Collins Aerospace). I started as a Systems Engineer at Collins, helping with aircraft integrations and customer support on Tactical Radios, and haven’t wandered far from that department since.
TMB Editors: What were some of the obstacles in the way, and how did you overcome them?
Ahlers: I was very fortunate to not have many obstacles, in college and in my career. I had a great support network between my family and the people I surrounded myself with along the way. There were times that engineering classes seemed too difficult and there were definitely times I looked around and noticed I was the only woman in my class or on my team, but both were a driver for me to be even better. In those scenarios, I represented all the women or minority demographics not by my side at that time. I am so excited that representation is improving every day and I enjoy helping drive that change however I can.
TMB Editors: When you look back from where you started to the present day, what shifts have you seen to encourage more representation?
Ahlers: I think the biggest shift is that accessibility to technology and STEM is starting younger and is more widespread. I marvel at all the devices, games, toys, and opportunities my kids have that I would have loved as a kid! And STEM programs are being integrated everywhere. Coding games for tablets, electrical circuit building blocks, programmable racecars, and so much more. We still have a ways to go in equity and inclusion, but I think we are focused on the right areas and we have learned so much about how we can present STEM to the youngest learners. I love giving that opportunity to my kids and supporting initiatives like FIRST and many others that give the opportunity to any child who’s interested.
TMB Editors: What are you most proud of when looking at your career accomplishments to date?
Ahlers: Oh wow, that’s tough. I’m not sure I can point to one event or one award/honor, but I am proud that my name is recognized in a lot of different organizations throughout my company and among my customers as someone who is knowledgeable and helpful. For example, being asked to be part of a series like this is an honor!
TMB Editors: How would you describe your leadership style and what leadership traits do you respond most positively to?
Ahlers: I strive to be a servant leader, coach, role model, and continuous learner. I have spent several years learning and coaching Agile development and a big focus there is servant leadership, continuous learning, and fostering autonomy in the team. I really take this to heart and lead my teams this way. Mutual respect is also a huge part of leadership and being led, which also takes time to grow and tend. My favorite trait of my leader is how he recognizes employees for their contributions, large and small, and how genuine his recognition is. He gives great examples to go along with feedback to show how he really knows your achievement. I strive to model my own leadership style after his approach.
TMB Editors: What advice do you have for the next generation that may be seeking a tech-related career?
Ahlers: My go-to advice is to ask questions! That is helpful advice for pretty much any situation and you never know where it can lead you. Maybe asking a question at that science fair, career fair, or robotics competition will build a connection you would have missed out on otherwise. Every adult at those events is there because they love to share their work and answer questions! Also, technology and STEM are for everyone and even though it can be challenging, it is such a rewarding career focused on helping others and solving big problems together. We need everyone’s help to solve those big problems!