Life as a Senior Technical Designer for NATS
John Wheal graduated in 2016 with a MEng Computer Engineering degree and is a Senior Technical Designer for NATS (formerly National Air Traffic Services). We asked John to tell us about his role, his journey since graduating and what advice he has for students and graduates thinking of working in STEM:
I’ve always had a passion for technology and I’ve always loved computer engineering because it allowed me to understand how computer systems work down to the electronics level. Computing was my favourite subject at sixth form so I thought that I wanted to study computer science at university.
After accidentally opening the University of Portsmouth prospectus to computer engineering, I was immediately hooked. I attended a department open day and the rest is history! My course taught me a lot of good engineering practices and soft skills that were really transferable in the workplace.
I’m currently working on a programme that’s definitely an innovation for the future. The programme is a major milestone on the way to NATS deploying a joint aviation initiative called SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research), which aims to modernise European air traffic management systems so they’re fit for the 21st century. SESAR’s vision sees aircraft flying their preferred trajectories without being constrained by airspace configurations in the future.
NATS is the UK’s leading air traffic control provider and it’s our job to safely guide flights in UK airspace. I often describe it as “invisible infrastructure” or “motorways in the sky”. In 2019 we handled over 2.5 million flights which equates to over 260 million passengers!
As a Senior Technical Designer, I work on a large programme that is transforming and modernising the critical technology systems that enable NATS to provide air traffic management services. The programme is currently in its implementation phase and therefore most of my day-to-day tasks involve reviewing designs, impact assessing changes and ensuring that what we are building aligns with our strategic architecture vision.
I’m proud of my achievements to date including being awarded the prestigious Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) Technician of the Year award in 2017. I also starred in the Born to Engineer video in 2018.
I have three pieces of advice for those looking to get into a STEM role:
Try and find a role that matches your personality and what you enjoy. For example, I love programming as a hobby but I would absolutely hate to do it all day every day. Also, consider what level of engineering you’re interested in. For example, engineering at NATS is extremely high level. At the other end of the spectrum there are companies that will build circuit boards for radar systems - it just depends what you enjoy.
If you’re looking at university courses, don’t focus or worry too much on the specific STEM discipline. Focus more on what you enjoy. There’s lots of opportunities to branch out into a different discipline later.