Near the edge of the world, Lockheed Martin systems engineer Sofia and her team finished a 10-hour day. They worked in a small tent on top of a muddy hill supporting Northern Edge 2023, a multinational exercise comprised of thousands of service members across all branches with a unified goal to further multi-domain operations.
But, the work day was now over, and after taking the hour-long drive back to Fairbanks, Alaska, and grabbing dinner, she couldn’t wait to sink into her bed for a much-deserved night’s rest. She laid down and closed her eyes; however, even at 10 p.m., the sun’s rays still shined boldly through the hotel room window. That’s when she remembered: it was April in Alaska and the sun likely wouldn’t set for another five hours, if at all. She hopped up to close the blackout curtains. “Much better,” she thought, as she got back in bed to rest and prepared to do it all again the next day.
Supporting the U.S. military and its allies during large-scale combatant command exercises is one of the many unique opportunities that can come with working at Lockheed Martin. Sofia works on the Aegis Command and Decision team. Her daily job consists of designing systems for the military, testing them and investigating issues that may arise.
While most of the classified work she does is behind closed doors, sometimes it can lead to extraordinary office locations with a view like Fairbanks, Alaska. Here, she gets to interact directly with military personnel using the programs she is working on and experience things that most people will never get a chance to do.
Sofia has supported five military exercises throughout the four years she’s been at Lockheed Martin. We spoke with her recently about her experiences testing new technology in the field during a large-scale exercise.
How did you get selected to attend this exercise?
The selection process is based on people that have experience on the technology being demonstrated. Because of the number of sites we were supporting, team members were placed in specific areas to ensure each site had the proper support.
What was your job at the exercise?
Every day, we made sure the operators knew what they were doing throughout the exercise scenarios and answered any questions they had. A typical day may include elaborating on the functionality of the system that they were working with, by giving the operators a rundown of the system and what it’s capable of, even if there are areas they might not be using during the exercise.
We had one week before the exercise to stand up the system and connect it to all the other sites and test the system to make sure it was fully functional. Then it was two weeks of the actual exercise.
What was the most unexpected part about Northern Edge 2023?
I was assigned to an area we referred to as “the mud pit.” The mud was definitely unexpected and forced us to get creative. When we arrived in Alaska, everything was still snow-covered but then throughout the week, everything started to melt. Four days later, all of the snow had melted and was gone, which was crazy to see. We had to go to the store to buy knee-high rubber boots so we wouldn’t destroy our shoes and clothes.
Before we arrived, the military transport vehicles that are used to transport equipment had made trenches in the mud, which filled up with a good six inches of water from the melting snow. We had to trek through these mud-filled trenches to bring the equipment into the exercise area. One of the engineers who was with us stepped out of her boot too quickly as it got stuck in the mud and her foot landed in the mud with just her sock. She had to sacrifice her sock and went in her boot barefoot. It was an undesirable experience at the time, but it made for a memorable and funny story to come home with.
I understand you’ve attended five of these exercises on behalf of Lockheed Martin. Which one has been your favorite?
That’s a tough question! I would say Northern Edge 2021 was my favorite because I was able to ride a C-130 and be in the field during a live fire. It’s invaluable for an engineer to see how our systems are being used and hear direct feedback from operators in real time.
I think this last exercise was the most challenging for me and had the most grueling conditions. I won’t say it was the most enjoyable, but it was definitely a huge growth experience for me being a site lead for the first time and adapting to unexpected conditions.
Based on your experience, what advice do you have for fellow engineers?
I would say, if you like traveling, look for a job that allows you attend these sorts of exercises and raise your hand to participate in them. As an engineer, you can think you have a good design in place but seeing how it’s actually being used is very eye-opening. The feedback you hear from operators and collaborating with others who have a different perspective is invaluable in enhancing the system you’re designing.
At Lockheed Martin, we advocate for maintaining a healthy work/life balance. Was there anything cool you were able to see or do when you were done with your shifts?
Since I was already in Alaska, I ended up taking four days of vacation at the end of the exercise to extend my time in the area. I was able to go hiking in Denali National Park and saw a moose. There were also a lot of caribou out and about and bald eagles, too. The highlight of my personal time in the state was a boat tour that I opted to take, where we saw a lot of humpback whales.
While I was there, I spent most of my time outside of work getting to know one of my fellow colleagues better. A lot of the team members that I was traveling with live in other states and work at other facilities so I don’t get an opportunity to interact with them in-person very often. We were able to try new restaurants, go to breweries and enjoy the outdoor landscape together – creating an invaluable team building experience.
You mentioned you went to restaurants in your spare time. Did you try anything unique or interesting?
The food in Fairbanks was definitely a highlight, as it was incredible. When we were trying to search for where to get food every night, almost everything we found was above 4.5 stars, which is not common to see. We were also able to try reindeer sausage. Funny enough, it tasted like regular sausage to me but it was cool to try something different that I can’t get at home.
Alaska is known for its long days/nights and the Northern Lights. Did you get to experience one or both of those?
I was able to experience Alaska’s long days but unfortunately, that meant I was not able to see the Northern Lights. Since were only one week outside of Northern Lights season, my colleagues and I drove to Chena Hot Springs about an hour outside of Fairbanks to try and see them during one of the first nights we were there. We went pretty late in the evening, close to midnight, hoping to stay up long enough to see the Northern Lights. We tried staying up as late as we could but even with the hour drive back to Fairbanks, the sun wasn’t even fully on the horizon yet so we didn’t get to see them.
While I’m disappointed we weren’t able to see the Northern Lights, having long days is actually a benefit when you’re working a large scale exercise. Not only does it boost everyone’s mood, it allows us to get more work done in daylight hours and greater flexibility with the timing of work shifts.
What a cool set of experiences. Did you ever imagine you’d be doing this sort of work when you were in college?
I was definitely not expecting this at all for my career. When I interviewed with Lockheed Martin, the work sounded interesting to me but I would have never guessed that I would be supporting these exercises or being in the field with the military. I just didn’t know that this was an option because I wasn’t exposed to this type of work growing up.
Sofia’s 5 Must-Do Experiences in Fairbanks, Alaska
Restaurant to Try: The Pump House
Wildlife to See: Moose and Caribou in Denali National Park
Activity/Excursion to Do: Kenai Fjords National Park boat tour
Landmark to Visit: Chena Hot Springs
Trail to Hike: Curry Ridge Trail (great views of Denali and mountain range)