“The whole thing about STEM is that it involves a diverse team of people working closely together to successfully derive and execute innovative ideas to solve a complex problem.” — Robert Nowakowski
My earliest memory of using technology was when my friend got an Atari 2600 in 1978. This system was one of the first home video game consoles, and it had cool games (cartridges that plugged into the system) like Pac Man, Defender, and Missile Command. Before that, all games we played were text-based. The games at that time didn’t really have complex graphics. You would type in commands and the computer would give you feedback as you moved throughout the scenario, such as…
The bear is running at you.
Do not understand what “climb” means.
“Jump into water.”
What is “water?”
With the Atari 2600, we were so amazed at the technology that was coming. Every couple months, there was a new game and they were getting better, exponentially. It was very exciting for me, as an 8-year-old, watching the Jetsons (a cartoon series focusing on the future) and seeing that some of that stuff coming to fruition — products coming into the market you could actually touch and feel.
I was always interested and relatively good at math and very interested in the sciences in school. My dad, an Eagle Scout with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Physics, got my brother, Rick, and I involved in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts at an early age. I was always intrigued by the Pinewood Derby, an engineering event in the form of a race car competition in the Cub Scouts. I would work closely with my dad and older brother to figure out how to build the fastest and coolest car, so that engineering-wise, it had a high probability to be competitive with the other cars and potentially win the Pinewood Derby championship trophy.
For the Pinewood Derby, each Scout was basically given the same standard kit (wood block, four wheels, and four nails) with the mission to build the fastest car from point A to point B. In addition, there were certain engineering constraints (weight, length, materials) on the design. We would then assemble and run our cars down these ramps at a certain height…The fastest car would continue advancing through a series of elimination runs until, eventually, one final winner ran across the finish line.
I’d spend days designing and building the car — polishing the axles, applying graphite on the wheels to reduce the friction between them and the axles, making sure I sanded the wood, and figuring out where to put the weights in the car based on my trial run times. My dad, with his engineering background, would help me with the design thought process. I never won the whole Pinewood Derby competition, but I usually got pretty far in the four events I participated in.
Since I had a passion for STEM, I eventually went on to get a mechanical engineering degree at Northwestern University, minoring in biomedical engineering and pre-medicine because I was interested in helping people. My goal was to either work in the medical industry as a prosthetic design engineer or become a physician.
But when I graduated from Northwestern with a four-year Navy Reserve Officer Corps Training (NROTC) scholarship, I was obligated to serve four years on active duty as a U.S. Navy officer. The only problem with that was that I was assigned as a Surface Warfare Officer (SWO), not a physician. The cool thing about that was that the military was pretty high tech, especially on the newly commissioned ships in the fleet. They used the latest and greatest technology on the cruiser I was assigned to (USS Chancellorsville). It was one of the more upgraded, high-tech cruisers commissioned into the fleet in the late 1980s. It was state of the art.
While on the cruiser, we had the opportunity to provide enhancements to the fleet by suggesting additional things that we thought could make it better. I was on the ship for three years, and we provided a significant amount of feedback to the appropriate people at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA): Hey, I think this (missile system, distiller pump, etc.) could be better by doing XYZ. That whole improvement cycle is what STEM is all about.
After being on active duty for a total of 6 years, I transitioned into the civilian sector and was hired at Qualcomm in March 1998 as a quality engineer. I have been in various engineering and operational roles since then and now work in the Quality Management Systems team. In order to stay connected with the high-tech military industry, I actually joined the U.S. Navy Reserve in 2000 and have been active since.
At Qualcomm, I’m currently responsible for managing and facilitating process improvement initiatives and solving complex problems throughout the company. Basically, I’m a professional facilitator and problem solver. I work very closely with engineering teams, always asking questions like, “What did you learn from this design to make the next product to save time, reduce cost, and improve quality? What mistakes did you make on this part, so that we can make the next one better?”
As a Navy Officer, the majority of my job was as a manager and leader. To optimize the STEM methodology, having effective leadership is paramount. From a technical perspective, that was why I joined Qualcomm. When I was transitioning off of active duty, I wanted to join a company that was high-tech, leading edge. I had so much experience with high technology in the Navy that it was almost as if I needed something equal to or above that experience to fulfill my needs.
My advice to young people pursuing STEM fields: get involved with some activity or organization that involves networking with other people. The whole thing about STEM is that it involves a diverse team of people working closely together to successfully derive and execute innovative ideas to solve a complex problem. It’s not just one person in isolation. Qualcomm had seven founders that formed the company because not one of them could do it by themselves. Join a club that drives you to build relationships and network.
Robert Nowakowski has over 18 years of experience in the semiconductor manufacturing and design industry. He has a B.S. from Northwestern University in Mechanical Engineering, a M.S. from San Diego State University in Process Controls/Design Engineering, and an M.B.A. from California State University San Marcos (focusing on Operations). He is a Certified Quality Manager and Certified Quality Engineer through the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and a Captain in the United States Navy Reserve. Currently, he is assigned as the Commanding Officer, Commander Navy Region Southwest, Regional Operations Center in San Diego, CA.