Employee Spotlight - Mike Southworth, Product Manager at Curtiss-Wright
June 01, 2020 | BY: Mike Southworth
Q: As a product manager, what are your responsibilities at Curtiss-Wright?
Mike: I’m responsible for the small form factor systems that are used by our customers in the Parvus® DuraCOR®, DuraNET®, and DuraMAR® product lines. I define the roadmap for these products and support their go-to-market strategy, while staying abreast of the customer requirements that ultimately drive the direction that our product development takes.
Q: In addition to off-the-shelf solutions, you also work with customers to define unique solutions?
Mike: In general, the defense community has gravitated towards COTS solutions. So, when a customer communicates their requirements, we try to identify common denominators that can translate into a standard product specification. That enables us to meet the needs of multiple customers instead of developing a one-off solution whose requirements only meet the needs of that particular customer. At the same time, we’re designing technologies based on the industrial market’s best offerings and using them as building blocks and components. That approach lets us leverage commercial technology as much as possible. For example, we can use components that are rated for industrial temperature ranges, and package them mechanically for the harsh environments that are common in military and aerospace applications. When customers have special requirements, we can satisfy those requirements about 90% of the time with a modified COTS solution. That’s because our system architecture is modular and scalable which makes it easier and faster to adapt.
Q: What kind of platforms are these networking and mission computer solutions designed for?
Mike: Whenever someone asks me what I do, or where I work, I often find that people assume that everything we do is super cutting edge or even classified. But that’s not the case. A lot of what we do is actually in line with state-of-the-art commercial electronics. Often the big difference is how we apply our expertise in packaging these technologies to perform and survive in the harshest possible environments. Sometimes it’s not the technology itself that’s exotic, instead it’s the platforms, like helicopters and drones and the conditions in which they have to operate that are truly exotic. Because we have such a broad experience with the various embedded platforms our equipment is installed on, we design products with a superset of environmental and EMI requirements so that when we produce a new COTS product it’s designed to go on unmanned ground vehicles, manned vehicles, airborne platforms, including both commercial and military, as well as maritime applications on-ship or unmanned vessels such as unmanned underwater vehicles.
Q: Over the years, how have you seen the types of products that you bring to market evolve?
Mike: In the last almost twenty years I’ve seen many different trends from a technology standpoint, but when you look at it from a high level, customers consistently need a solution that is available with a reasonable lead time, that is priced competitively, and will eliminate or greatly reduce development costs. In our market, the solution also needs to provide the highest level of performance in the smallest possible form factor that can be physically supported. From a performance standpoint, technology has obviously improved dramatically over the last decade, but you still need to deal with and mitigate power consumption. You can’t break the laws of science when it comes to cooling.
Q: In your interaction with customers is it important early on to understand the limits of their platform environment, for example, how much power, weight and space are available?
Mike: At the very beginning of working with a customer, we usually have an understanding of the type of platform on which they will be integrating the electronics. Based on the constraints of that platform, we then discuss what the mission performance or characteristics they’re trying to meet with those electronics. For example, if you have a helicopter or unmanned air vehicle where the physical space for installing and mounting the electronics is quite limited, you might have to consider what interfaces are available, and then determine what class of product is most appropriate. So, if we’re looking at processors, do we need a traditional server-class processor, or is the required performance more along the lines of what we’d expect from a tablet computer or a mobile phone? What are the memory requirements for running the customer’s software? Is it a networking application? Since Ethernet has become so ubiquitous, we often ask about the speeds at which the devices on the network will be connecting. For example, if it’s a Radar application, which is essentially a high-speed sensor, the network devices being fed information will need to be very fast. For many applications though, Gigabit Ethernet is often adequate.
While Size, weight and power concerns are typically a pre-eminent factor, at the same time, SWaP has to be balanced against the required class of performance. Another common consideration is thermal management and related physical constraints. Many military programs require extended temperature operation, often up to 160º F (71º C). Selecting the right components rated to operate over that temperature range is just part of the equation. Another important design decision is what environment will the device be installed in? Will there be air flow available or will it be sealed? What altitude will it operate at? All these are considerations that will affect how the electronics can be cooled.
Q: What part of your job gives you the greatest satisfaction?
Mike: The collaboration that I have with our engineering team and customers and how that ends up influencing our product roadmap is probably one of the highlights of my job. It’s really satisfying to see a product get developed and then become a production item that can be ordered by the customer. The whole process, from when the customer gets their first products in hand, and then integrate it onto their platform, and not least, have a good experience with it, all of that is very fulfilling. It’s even better when they receive funding to buy that product in quantity in order to support the life of their program needs. In my job I get to experience this process repeatedly, customer after customer, program after program, and product after product. And each time, success builds on top of previous success, for us as a supplier of COTS electronics and for our customers who are able to deliver something that meets their technical requirements and meets their cost and schedule requirements.
Q: Tell me something surprising that people might not know about you.
Mike: Well, it’s interesting. I actually began my career with a marketing emphasis, specifically in public relations. I’ve always worked for technology companies, and I discovered quickly that I loved to learn about technology. I first worked with a software company, that among other products, offered network server software. After that, I worked for a PR agency that represented a wide number of clients technology companies.
Q: How did you make the transition to product management?
Mike: When I joined the Parvus organization here in Salt Lake City, I was originally hired to build out the marketing department. As I rolled out advertising, product development and public relations, and everything else related, I soon became seen as the person most widely informed on all of our various products. That evolved into me becoming the product strategist and default product manager. Later, to augment my management acumen, I pursued a Masters degree in Business. Today, the product management skills that I apply are much more sophisticated and scientific than compared to those early days. In the intervening years, after Parvus was acquired by Curtiss-Wright, I’ve also had the opportunity to lean on the great minds of the product managers within the company who have helped to make us the industry leader.
Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Mike: I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors and spending time in the mountains, especially here in Utah. That led me from hiking to trail running. In the last decade I began competing in long endurance trail races. I’ve participated in a number of Ultra Marathon distance events, and while these races really do require a lot of physical and mental fortitude, I’ve found that I really love it.
Q: What’s the farthest distance that you’ve run, and what’s the farthest that you’ve traveled to participate in a race?
Mike: I’ve done too many marathons and shorter races to count, and I’ve done a number of 50K and 50 mile races. I’ve also supported family members as a pacer on their 100 mile races. In terms of the farthest I’ve gone to run an Ultra Marathon, that would be a trip I took to Peru to participate in a race along the Inca Trail about five years ago. When I run I use the time to tune-out a lot of stress. I listen to a wide variety of music and I observe what’s around me. I’ve found that for me it’s a way to balance life out.