Engineer Julie Wolfson wants to send people to mars

Julie Wolfson in the Orion Control Room at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Julie works as a systems engineer on Orion at Lockheed Martin.

 Growing up, Julie Wolfson had a knack for taking things apart and putting them back together. Today, she works as a systems engineer on the Orion spacecraft for Lockheed Martin, identifying, assessing and addressing risk in Orion's software systems and managing an Agile project team. A Memphis native, Julie loves exploring the outdoors in Colorado, having the flexibility of an almost-full-time schedule, and knowing she'll get to say "That's my spaceship!" when Orion takes people into space. 

Julie and her beloved golden retriever when she was in middle school.

Fast facts about Julie

Where she’s from: Memphis, Tennessee
Grew up with: her mom and dad
Education: Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering
Where she lives now: metro Denver, Colorado
Growing up she thought she'd be: a marine biologist, then a biomedical engineer
Now she’s: a systems engineer at Lockheed Martin

What were you like growing up?

I was always taking things apart and putting them back together. If anything was broken at our house I would take it apart and try to fix it. Most of the time I was successful.

My dad taught me how to solder and use all the drills and a circular saw and all that stuff out in the garage. At one time the VCR was broken and I took it apart and fixed it. One time I wanted a new lamp and my mom got me a lamp but it was a put-it-together-yourself thing and I couldn’t find the instructions so I just did it. It still works.

I was interested in how things work. Anytime I got to go to a factory or a space center, getting into the guts of stuff, that was really cool. It wasn’t really until half way through high school that I thought, ‘Oh, hey. That stuff I liked doing? I can do that and get paid.’  

What did you like to do outside of school?

I worked from the time I turned 15 or 16. I was a camp counselor one summer. I was a hostess at Bennigan’s one summer so I had to wear the suspenders with the buttons. I worked at a photography studio for a few summers. I did a lot of stuff with my Jewish youth group. I was super into that. I did a lot of Latin stuff. I was good at certamen. Twice a week I had to stay after school for extra Latin and mythology and Roman life tutoring for certamen. I didn’t even try to play sports. I took piano and I studied for my bat mitzvah and those were my after school activities. 

How did you become interested in engineering?

In high school, I got really good grades in general but I really enjoyed math and Latin. It was the middle of my sophomore year and my dad asked, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up? There’s this aptitude test that you can take and it’ll show you different careers that would be good for you.’ I took it and one of the things it listed was biomedical engineering. Biomedical engineers help make prosthetic limbs and medical implants and physical therapy machines like special treadmills, and I thought, “that is what I want to do.” I felt like I was smart enough to be a doctor but I didn’t want to be in school that long and I could use my math and it sounded awesome.

I got a scholarship to the school 20 minutes away so that’s where I went. Then I took my first biomedical elective. The elective I took just really turned me off of it, and I had an internship working for a tier one automotive supplier and that was really interesting to me.

I didn’t ever think I would be into cars. [We would] get a drawing from GM and figure out all the pieces that it needs and how much each piece cost, and all of the processes to make the part, and the labor rate, and then saying, ‘Okay, GM, if you want us to make this part, if you order this many a month, it’s this price.’ I loved that job.

So my major is mechanical engineering with a concentration in energy systems and I also got a minor in math. The requirements for math for mechanical engineering were one hour short of a math minor so when I saw that I was like, ‘Well, that’s stupid to not get a minor. I only need one more class.’

I’ve been working on the Orion program since 2007 and we still haven’t flown people in space. But when it does I’ll get to say, ‘That’s my spaceship.’

Is your work at Lockheed Martin similar to what you did at the automotive company?

At that job I got to do all the different pieces of engineering and what I do now is very concentrated. If I got a drawing from General Motors for some assembly for maybe two years away, I was able to see that part from getting the drawing to seeing it installed on cars, to be able to point and say, ‘I got a part on that car.’ That was really cool.

It is much slower at Lockheed. We won Orion at the end of 2006. I’ve been working on the program off and on since 2007 and we still haven’t flown people in space. But when it does I’ll get to say, ‘That’s my spaceship.’

There’s a guy at work who has a little sign up outside his cubicle that says, ‘Smile. You're working on a spaceship.’

What do you do as a systems engineer on the Orion project?

Systems engineering on Orion is a lot of writing requirements, interpreting requirements, assigning requirements to different integrated product teams. The systems engineers read all these requirements that we get in from NASA. It’s a lot of interface stuff: how do you make the hardware and the software communicate? It’s a lot of “this report shows what we’re going to do,” and “this other report verifies that the system does what we said it was going to do,” and designing tests so that we can prove that we meet requirements.

How does your job help make Orion successful?

I am the risk manager for low risk and opportunity for the software integrative product team. That means that when we identify a risk, we decide: Are we going to mitigate the risk? Are we going to accept it? If we’re going to mitigate it what are the steps? Are they going to cost money or are they part of our regular work? If they’re going to cost money do we have it in our budget? If we don’t mitigate it how much will it cost? What are the consequences? We have to figure out the likelihood of the consequence of every single risk.

NASA has a risk scorecard. It’s the likelihood of the risk occurring and then the magnitude of the consequence: cost consequence, schedule consequence, safety consequence. We have this risk that said, ‘Given that it would take a million man hours to test every single situation that might cause some backup flight software to kick in, there is a possibility that something could happen and the backup flight software doesn’t work and we lost the vehicle.’ So, super low likelihood of occurring but really bad consequence.

You have to take these risks to a risk board and they decide, ‘Yes, that’s the right score and here’s how we’re going to manage it.’ If they say mitigate we have to come up with a mitigation plan. Sometimes a risk mitigation plan will span two years or more, or the last step is successful initial power on down at KSC [Kennedy Space Center]. When that happens successfully we will know that there is no more risk of whatever we said happened. A lot of our risks have mitigation steps that are the same and we just have to wait for these milestones to occur.

That’s like half time. Orion software adopted an Agile development methodology about a year and a half ago. Every Agile Scrum team has a Scrum master and a product owner and a product manager and I am the Scrum master for our team and we’re the largest team in software.

The Scrum master’s duty is to sign the team up for: this is what we are going to do in this sprint, and our sprints are two weeks long. It’s my job to have Scrum every day and find out “what did you do yesterday? What are you doing today? What are you doing tomorrow? Do you need anything from anyone else? You do your work. I will go and figure out what this is.” I’m removing impediments for the team, keeping the team motivated and on track, and so again, communication. 

Communication is huge. You can be an engineer and not have those soft skills but you're probably not going to get very far in your career.

It sounds like you work with people across a lot of different functions. You write requirement documents and you interpret them. Did you expect to be doing this much communicating as an engineer?

I didn’t. One of the required classes in college was an engineering communications class and it was half technical writing and half presentations. The professor is going on and on about, ‘One day you're going to work for a government contractor and you're going to get these huge requests for proposals and you're going to write these proposals and it’s going to take a whole year.’ And I was like, ‘Whatever. I’m going to make cars.’ And now, that’s what we do.

Communication is huge. If you have people that you work with that aren’t good communicators a lot of rework has to be done and then you're over budget and you're over schedule. For the most part you're not even going to get hired if you don’t have the communication skills. You can be an engineer and not have those soft skills but you're probably not going to get very far in your career.

I’ve learned things in school that I can go, ‘You know, we did a case study last week and I think we could really benefit if we do this.’ It’s a nice crossover. 

How do continue developing professionally?

I’m actually taking classes through Colorado State. They offer a certificate in systems engineering, which is four master’s level courses, like core classes about systems engineering. One of them was project management, one of them is risk analysis, another one is an overview and then the last one is kind of all about the “ilities,” like reliability and sustainability and producibility and it’s very math based.

Doing that certificate at the same time as Agile and Orion has actually been really good. I had really good examples to draw on for presentations and for papers that I have to write, but I’ve also learned things in school that I can go, ‘You know, we did a case study in my homework last week and I think we could really benefit if we do this with this.’ It’s a nice crossover. 

This program is specifically targeted to working professionals, so it’s all people who majored in something else and are now in a systems engineering role without every having any formal systems engineering training.

Is this Julie, her husband, and her daughter? Or is it Princess Leia, Han Solo, and a very cute Ewok?

What has kept you at Lockheed for eleven years?

Even if you're in a role that turns out to be not for you, there are so many different things to do that there’s no reason to leave because you can almost always find something else internally and learn a new skill or use a new skill better. I’ve worked on a variety of different programs but it helps that everything we do goes up into space. Space is cool. There’s just something about working on space stuff.

After I had Gabi [her 4-year-old] I asked to go part time and I worked three days a week.  When I came back to Orion, it was very, very busy. I work very close to fulltime hours without being classified as a fulltime employee, which is nice because I get paid for when I work. I work every day, but if I need to leave at four o’clock to get something done, I can. I work probably 36 hours a week which is almost fulltime.

Can you tell us about the workshop you do with Lockheed for students through the Society of Women Engineers?

GESTEM [Girls Engaging in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] is something that SWE, Rocky Mountain, does every year.  You get 30 girls in each workshop and you run the same workshop three times that day so it’s about a hundred girls that you get to directly interact with on STEM stuff. Companies from all over the region come and do workshops.

For the past two years our workshop has been a mission to Mars. We have about nine or 10 different areas that they can concentrate on. We have four or five tables per workshop; [each table] chooses one to think about. What are all your different spacesuits going to be? What about food? What about first aid? What about health and exercise and nutrition? What kind of robots are you going to need? And just have them think about that kind of stuff. It gets them doing critical thinking.

At the beginning you ask, ‘Who thinks they want to go to Mars?’ And half of them raise their hands and then by the end it’s fewer. But there are girls that even after the workshop said, ‘Yeah. I’m still doing it.’ Great, because it’s girls your age who are probably going to be the ones going in the 2030s.

So what fills your time outside of work?

Gabi does a little gymnastics thing and a swim class. We enjoy Colorado for sure. We live close to the foothills and there’s some really great hiking. The weather here is usually amazing. We used to ski a lot before we had Gabi and now that she’s four we will have her ski this coming up winter.

I read more about engineering, then I thought, ‘This is what I want to do for sure. I want to use math, and I want to either make new things or make the same things better.’

Julie and her family love to enjoy Colorado's outdoors. Here, she and her husband Sam are atop one of Colorado's 14ers- mountains over 14,000 feet in elevation. 

When you were growing up what did you think your life would be like? Is it anything the way you imagined it?

It’s funny because I don’t remember imagining it. I just wasn’t just one of those girls that thought, ‘This is what my wedding is going to be. This is how many kids I’m going to have.’ Once I was in high school and I took that test and I read more about engineering, then I thought, ‘This is what I want to do for sure. I want to use math, and I want to either make new things or make the same things better.’

What advice would you give to a girl like you?

Stay the course. There were people who would see that I did better on a test than they did and they would say something disparaging. That person does not matter to your happiness in life. Do what you like and you will be able to find a way to keep doing that as an adult whether as a career or a hobby or both. It’s important to keep doing what you like.

What advice would you give someone who wants to be part of the space program?

Definitely stick with all your math and science classes and find an engineer and talk to them and ask what things are like. If you want work at Orion there are ways to find people that work at Orion through social media. All the different NASA programs have Twitter accounts and Flickr accounts, and you can say, ‘Look, I’m interested and what can I do?’

Get out there and say, ‘I’m 14 and what kinds of things should I concentrate on in high school to eventually come work for you?’ for any of the companies. SpaceX is really big in social media and all that stuff.

Also your high school counselor will know which schools are best for it is you're interested in. Then once you're in college, you can talk to your professors and say, ‘I’m really interested in this.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, we have a graduate who went on to do this and I have their contact information,’ and that sort of thing is helpful.


Check out some of Julie's favorite books!