Pulse news magazine

Volume 28, February 2020

Multiplying expertise

BAE Systems' Gold Tag program enables experts to share rare, critical skills with next-generation engineers.

Gold Tag program enables experts to share rare, critical skills with next-generation engineers.

For more than 20 years, software engineer Diana Bonomo has grown her expertise in a particular waveform used by the software-defined radios she integrates and creates test scenarios for in the C4ISR Systems business in Wayne, New Jersey. After working with generations of this family of radios, she has acquired a treasure trove of rare insights into how the waveform operates in various circumstances, for example, or how to resolve and avoid a host of issues that may arise with it.

As that business has grown, so has the demand for her critical skills among several new programs. The good news is, for the past two years Diana has been systematically passing on her experiences and a portion of her ever-growing body of knowledge to a couple of junior colleagues.

Whereas before multiple programs had to compete for Diana's time, now they get the value of her knowledge and experience through the work of her mentees, who she coaches as they staff the programs. She is one of the 45 experts who are transferring their critical skills to 81 employees since the initiative started in Wayne in 2018.

After observing the growing critical skill problem, Rick Buongiovanni started the program to allow employees to pass on their knowledge in a cost efficient and impactful way to help our business to stay competitive. As the director responsible for staffing C4ISRS programs in Wayne, he worked out an alternative approach to the tradition of letting larger, priority programs absorb key experts at the expense of the smaller programs.

"Across the range of disciplines in engineering, we identified experts who would no longer work on programs in Wayne unless they were mentoring people to do the work on those programs," said Rick. These experts were tagged to be the top personnel responsible for the success of programs, only by enabling the mentees. Thus, they became known as the Gold Tag Experts, or GTEs. "Implementation of Gold Tagging makes knowledge transfer an integral part of everyone's day job. We have been working hard in New Jersey to create a culture where everyone teaches and everyone learns. Specifically, to teach your job to the person below you and learn the job of the person above you."

When the Gold Tag program launched in 2018, 30 GTEs were identified as "one-deep" experts, since they alone possessed the critical skills. Since then, they have multiplied their selected skills sets across 43 workers – two- to three-people deep in many cases – resulting in 73 people who now possess many of those critical skills. Most of those mentees will remain in the program for another year or two to fully master the skills and carry this hard-earned knowledge on to future programs.

Hardware engineer Marty Townley came to the company from college in 2017 with an interest in designing field-programmable gate arrays, or the integrated circuits that can be configured by customers after manufacturing. Now he's getting on-the-job training in designing the FPGA for a military data link system with the guidance of hardware engineer George Kastorsky, who has more than 30 years of experience.

Early on in their relationship they examined designs and reviewed tasks that would need to be done. Now, Marty's taking on more responsibility and working relatively independently in the lab, doing more advanced work architecting and integrating hardware, software, firmware, and debugging systems. "As a new engineer I'm still asking what I want to do when I grow up," Marty said. "There are a lot of areas you can go into, and when you're first starting out you might not know what else is out there," Marty said. "But this has offered me a lot of perspective. I've definitely been able to observe a lot of interesting work in the field of electrical engineering."

With word of the success of the Gold Tag program in Wayne, interest in formalizing knowledge transfer efforts is growing at other ES sites. This year a team from ES Prism, a midcareer leadership development program, is working with Engineering leadership to kick start Gold Tagging at the San Diego campus and sites across New Hampshire, identifying critical skills and helping to establish GT mentor-mentee relationships. Additionally, throughout the year they will identify and document the best practices and processes that will enable any ES site to easily establish the program.

Kim Anderson, a software engineering manager in San Diego who is a Prism team member, said that one of the reasons Gold Tagging is so effective is because it transfers both explicit knowledge (policies, procedures, processes) and tacit knowledge (derived mostly from experience and social learning). "A lot of times, you don't know what you know, until you need to know it. The mentees now do the day-to-day job, and encounter a lot of those situations that require the knowledge transfer."

Another champion of the program is Pete Howard, who came back from retirement after a 43-year career as an engineering discipline manager at BAE Systems. In addition to helping Rick implement the Gold Tag program, he also helps educate the sector's program engineering managers and discipline section leads about the program in their week-long boot camps, which raise everyone's knowledge and competencies of the roles and responsibilities.

"There are no guarantees in life. But the more you know, the more you can do, and the more you can do the more valued you are by the company, and your career progression will be enhanced with this knowledge," Pete said. "Gold Tagging is a great opportunity to learn skills that are critical to the success of the business. And the GTEs and mentees love it."

Rick and Pete look forward to the expansion of the Gold Tag program across the company and take pride in its overall benefits for the future success of BAE Systems.

By Barbara Driscoll, Communications, Merrimack, New Hampshire