Veterans as a Resource

Northrop Grumman Employees Who Served Have Insight into Customer Needs

Matt had an idea for an exciting new technology, and through the Northrop Grumman innovation program SPARK, he secured funding. But when it came time to identify the military applications for his product, he went to the experts: co-workers who served.

white male standing in front of model plane

“There’s people here that in their previous life were the customer for a lot of these systems and know a lot about them,” said Matt, and engineer in Palmdale, California. “Just sending out a few emails and asking around can really get you some information that you wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise.”

Matt’s project, called Talon, equips an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with a novel payload. He pitched it to SPARK, a program in which employees pitch ideas and compete for funding. SPARK falls under the organization Blue Labs, which offers multiple pathways to make the previously impossible possible.  While SPARK focuses on quick validation of a technical solution, the Venture Incubator involves exploring a path to building customer value. Through the Venture Incubator, employees gain entrepreneurial startup experience, which starts by pitching ideas. Matt’s idea was accepted into the Venture Incubator program where he was provided additional networking support, guidance on a business plan, and funding opportunities. Matt worked through several iterations of his idea and he realized needed to find real-world applications. He wanted the product to really help the warfighter, so he asked his veteran colleagues what they needed in the field. More than 16,000 veterans work for Northrop Grumman, representing about 20 percent of the company’s workforce.

On the engineering side, we think a lot about the design, produce-ability, how everything fits together. But this is the other side. I wanted to talk to someone who’s actually going to use these.

Mark, Engineer in Palmdale

One of the veterans Matt spoke with was Sean, a Palmdale manufacturing analyst who joined Northrop Grumman in 2020 after 11 years as a cavalry scout in the U.S. Army, where he frequently used small drones in his reconnaissance work. He and Matt started at Northrop Grumman around the same time and got to know each other while waiting to join their assigned programs.

“He asked me how it would work. What would be the reason to use drones?” Sean recalled. He provided examples like how he’d often send drone to the other side of a mountain for situational awareness before sending troops there. He also explained how warfighters making decisions in these situations, based on terrain, time constraints, personnel and other factors.

Sean said his colleagues often ask for his advice on how a warfighter might use Northrop Grumman’s products, and he’s happy to act as a kind of customer representative. “Whoever’s going to use our products, I know what they’re going to go through and their mindset,” he said. “I know what they’re going to need and I know what’s not needed more than someone who’s never been there.

“Like the armored vehicles I used to sit in, I can tell you for sure that the person who designed it never sat in it because it is terribly uncomfortable,” he added.

Matt said that input from Sean and other veterans helped him create a product that has real potential with the customer.  

“I talked to them about what kinds of missions they flew, what systems they used. What were the pros and cons? What were the differences?” he said. “In those conversations, you got this operator perspective of the actual day in the life of using these systems.”

“On the engineering side, we think a lot about the design, produce-ability, how everything fits together,” he continued. “But this is the other side. I wanted to talk to someone who’s actually going to use these.”

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