Mary L. Keifer
The cheerful woman in bright blue is as far removed from one's image of a geek as possible! And yet... Mary Keifer is one of those responsible for designing the computer programmes that make Lockheed Martin's Aegis naval weapon system work.
She got a degree in computer science from Pennsylvania State University at a time when the general public didn't really know what computer science was. Today she is the international director for Aegis “and I never could have envisioned my career trajectory as a new college graduate,” she told me during the Euronaval show held in Paris last month.
So, how did she get there? “In high school I was good at maths but I was also a procrastinator,” she laughs. “So, when I started at Penn State in 1980 and they were offering this subject called 'computer science', I chose it because I hoped I could avoid the calculus I'd certainly have to do if I did pure maths! And I loved it! I found I was doing my homework on the day it was assigned instead of the day it was due! But I did have to do calculus in the end, as well,” she grins.
She went on to earn a Master of Science in computer science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology whilst simultaneously working as a systems engineer for the missile and surface radar division of Radio Corporation of America (RCA) which was developing an integrated missile defence system called Aegis. “I had no idea about defence but that didn’t matter, what they wanted was somebody with STEM [science, technology, engineering, maths] knowledge, which I had. I was designing computer programmes and it was a great fit! I thought I'd be there for two years,” she says. She's now been working on Aegis for 32 years!
Aegis is a combat system for ships. Using computer and radar technology it can simultaneously attack land targets, submarines and surface ships whilst automatically protecting the fleet against aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles. It is deployed on more than 100 ships by the navies of the United States, Japan, Spain, Norway, Korea and Australia and is also part of NATO's European missile defence system.
“There were about four women in a team of about 100, but I've always been pretty blind to any 'noise' regarding women in the workplace. When somebody once asked me if it didn't bother me being the only female in a room full of males, I actually had to think about it but thought it was kind of cool,” she remarks. “I got my first real promotion in the 1990s but I queried it, saying that I didn't want the promotion if it was positive discrimination. My boss simply said I was the best qualified person for the job, so I got it because I was the best candidate and not because I was female,” she says.
Mary found the job exciting and interesting but had always wanted to travel “and not just to Ohio!” Before the 1980s were over she got her first professional overseas trip to Japan and later spent three months in Spain working hand-in-hand with Navantia as the technical director of the Aegis programme, a job she held from 1996 until 2002. She still undertakes quite a bit of overseas travel which provides the opportunity to experience cultures around the world.
She is involved in Lockheed Martin's push to try and encourage young women to become engineers. “Twice a year we bring in girls from high schools and pair them up for the day with a woman who works in Lockheed Martin. We explain to them that any curriculum in STEM leads to a multitude of careers and show them that what we do is pretty cool.” I ask how the girls react to the “defence” aspect. “The key word is 'defence',” notes Mary. “When you explain that what we do makes a big difference, that the Aegis fleet is multinational and the countries who've bought it have invested into the system to save lives, then things become clearer.”
Mary's husband also used to work for Lockheed Martin “but he understood that my education and professional experiences offered a lot of career growth potential and so changed his career to work from home to offer more flexibility for our family.” The couple have two children, who are adult now, “and I took full advantage of the maternity leave I was offered each time,” she stresses. After her daughter's birth she returned to the same job, but after the second birth she found a different one for herself within the company. “I find that's quite normal,” she explains, “and I wouldn't want my career path to be decided by somebody else.”
She easily concedes that she would not have had the successful career she's had “without my husband's help.” She explains that when it came to chores “each of us carried part of the load,” and similarly with childcare:“I would make sure the kids got off to school in the morning and he was there when they got off the bus in the afternoon. When our daughter was a baby he would sometimes drop her off at day-care on his way to the airport praying that my flight back to the U.S. would land on time so that I could pick her up in the evening!” But, she smiles, “she was the first grandchild, so quite often my parents-in-law had already picked her up. The extended family is a godsend.”