Career Profile: Ken McKinney The SkunkWorks member and Project Lead the Way volunteer talks about mentoring high schoolers, working on impossible projects, and what no one could teach him in school.
Edited by Victoria Burt
What is your engineering background? I’ve done weapons integration, requirements management, system integration, software integration, and flight test work, a little of everything. I’ve been in engineering for seven years, and I have a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of North Texas, and a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington.
What attracted you to engineering? I grew up wanting to be an astronaut and have always been attracted to aerospace. I applied to the Air Force Academy but they have stringent rules on asthma, so I couldn’t fly. Engineering provides the opportunity to be around the spacecraft I love since I wasn’t able to pursue my first dream.
What is your biggest challenge? My toughest issues are not textbook challenges. The problems are things that aren’t in textbooks. It’s the interpersonal skills, learning diplomacy and how to deal with people. You can’t “take a derivative” or “integrate” a person. It is an abstract art without concrete answers. You can’t take a class on how to get 10 introverts to work together and get a product out the door.
Name: Ken McKinney
Title: Systems Engineer
Organization: Lockheed Martin, Aeronautics, Skunk Works, home of Advanced Development Programs
Location: Palmdale, Calif.
Books: The Dogs of War b Frederick Forsyth and Biohazard by Ken Alibek and Stehen Handelman
Hobbies: Photograhy, hiking
What projects do you most like to do? I get the most satisfaction when we have a project that everyone says can’t be done, and we do it and get it out to the customer. There is also satisfaction in supporting the war fighter to execute their mission and get home safely. Knowing you supported them as best you can is rewarding.
Did you ever consider doing anything else with your life besides engineering? I would consider being a teacher. One of the things learned from working with kids is how challenging that job is. And how rewarding it can be. Teaching gives the opportunity to have a profound impact every single day.
What projects do you work on for Project Lead the Way? I work with kids at the local high school, mentoring senior projects, and providing input when necessary. The school also has a rocketry club that participates in the Team America Rocketry Challenge, a contest for eighth through twelfth graders to lift an egg 750 feet in the air and return it to the ground in a certain amount of time. The contest requires knowledge of several engineering principles such as managing a budget, managing a schedule, rocketry, and testing experimental design.
This is my second year as an advisor, and last year the team scored well enough to go to the national competition. The contest teaches concepts such as aerodynamic thrust and drag, on top of rocketry, concepts they may not have been exposed to in their childhood.
How did you get involved with PLTW? My wife teaches biology at a local high school. The school’s been involved for five years and I’ve been involved for about 18 months. I work with the teachers, primarily physics teachers, in a general engineering capacity, providing guidance where I can.