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Diversity of thought leads to an innovative culture.

Neither Becca Croft nor Doug Woodrow thought about innovation when they applied to MBDA Ltd UK as graduates, but they are now hugely aware of the advantages of working for an innovative company: one that explores new ways of doing things and creates a supportive culture that is open to new ideas.

Becca and Doug work in integration and systems validation (ISV) engineering, working on large scale projects to test MBDA’s products. Becca is now an ISV group lead with seven years’ experience, as well as being a technical coordinator who looks after graduates on the graduate programme. Doug is on the second year of his graduate programme, working on a team that Becca led, and they both took similar routes into their careers at MBDA: both graduated with MEngs in aerospace engineering and completed a placement before being offered a graduate role.

Why you should work for an innovative employer

According to the Cibyl Graduate Survey 2020 of almost 72,000 students, 84% of respondents interested in engineering employers thought that innovation was an important or very important factor when choosing an employer. Why? Perhaps because here at TARGETjobs we have seen that innovative companies provide more interesting work, more development opportunities and a more supportive and inclusive culture: innovation ultimately comes from people and people need to know that their ideas will be welcomed.

Understanding what innovation means in the workplace

But let’s step back and ask… what do we mean by an innovative employer? It’s arguably not until you get into the workplace that you have a true understanding of what innovation means.

‘I think as a student and graduate, I was quite scared of the idea of innovation: I thought it had to be something life-changing – a brand new product,’ says Becca. ‘I’ve learned that innovation could be as simple as finding a more efficient way to complete a task or to adapt to new work or challenges. Looking back, I realise even the office systems and the ways we presented data during my placement were innovative.’

Doug agrees. ‘As an intern, I thought innovation was all about new, cutting-edge products. It is partly about that and MBDA is the most cutting edge in its field. I couldn’t believe how innovative the laser project I worked on during my summer placement was.’

Becca is now no longer scared of innovation. ‘Essentially, innovative thinking is a combination of skills: being forward thinking and forward planning in your approach; problem solving and creative thinking, being adaptable to the situation. All of that comes into being innovative. And it doesn’t have to be big: what might seem common sense to you is innovative to someone else and vice versa.’

Innovation in ISV engineering and the day job

Speaking to Becca and Doug, we can see that an innovative mindset is ingrained into MBDA and their everyday work in ISV. After all, their work revolves around developing new ways to test MBDA’s new or existing products. ‘We will test either a whole system or its sub-components, checking that the outcomes of the testing match the requirements set by the customer,’ explains Becca. ‘We run different tests that we write and create ourselves. If the system fails, we try to work out why.’

It is a role that takes Becca and Doug far and wide, pandemic allowing. ‘If it is a simulation, we might test it in situ or in the air – or we might be in the lab,’ Becca continues. ‘I’ve conducted trials in Sweden where there was a piece of ground large enough for us to trial a missile system. When I was working as a Sea Ceptor team lead, on a weapon system with the Navy, I got to do a “simulated firing” test of the command system in the ops room on board ship, and I also had the opportunity to test the weapon system in Chile for six weeks on their naval ship.’

What attracted both Doug and Becca to the role was that it was so hands-on. ‘Recently, I was in charge of setting up all the targets for a particular trial. I spent time in the lab, building the targets to meet the design’s stringent requirements, documenting that and keeping track of how they are built,’ Doug says. ‘This included developing a camera system. There’s a lot of software and systems networking in my job, too.’

Innovation across the company

It’s not just in ISV where innovation is key. Doug has also had a bird’s-eye view of innovation across the company on his graduate programme. The programme is structured as four six-month placements, three in his ‘home’ division of ISV and one in an ‘external’ division. ‘I chose an external placement in the internal research and development team. It fields applications for research funding from across the company – from those looking for innovative ways to do work to those devising new solutions to existing problems,’ Doug explains. ‘We have a large budget and we distribute the funding to the most worthy causes. It’s good to get an insight into how the company works and see the innovative thinking from the entire company from around the world.’

MBDA is constantly thinking of new and better ways of doing things. ‘It is definitely innovative – even in the way we work. For example, we experiment to see how multi-disciplined teams can work better together and try out different methodologies,’ says Becca.

However, MBDA goes beyond ways of working to take an innovative approach: they encourage and celebrate new ideas through the company’s innovation awards. ‘Anyone, even a brand-new graduate, can enter them with an idea, big or small,’ she adds.

Doug’s team was actually nominated for an award. ‘I can’t take the credit,’ he says. ’Senior members of my team discovered and deployed some software that managed to track progress on tasks for the whole team, which meant that we worked much more efficiently and were able to get well ahead of schedule.’ This is again an example of something that a student might not think of as an innovation, but made a huge difference to the success of a team and product.

A supportive culture leads to an innovative mindset

MBDA has a firm commitment to diversity and inclusion, and Becca is sure that that contributes to the innovative culture. ‘If there is a strong diversity culture, there is diversity of thought and that leads to innovative thinking,’ she says. ‘MBDA does so much around diversity. We all get trained in unconscious bias.’

This extends to people making sure that their colleagues, at all levels, are welcome. ‘Even as an intern, colleagues were so friendly,’ says Becca. ‘I’d be invited to meals out and, if I ever got stuck at work, they’d help me out without ever making me feel stupid or like I was “the intern”.’

For Doug it was the people who confirmed his decision to work there: ‘The engineers I met on the interview day were all really interesting; they clearly loved their jobs and loved working for MBDA as an employer – the benefits, how the management acted, the career progression opportunities and so on. I thought it would be a brilliant place to work and I was right.’

An innovative approach to your development

That encouraging and open culture empowers you to take an innovative approach to your own development, as you feel supported to try out new things. ‘One of the main reasons I’d recommend MBDA is the huge variety of functions and the ability to explore them and work out what kind of career you want,’ Becca says. The company is forward-thinking enough to enable you to do this where they can. ‘Back on my graduate programme, I enjoyed my ISV placement so much that I convinced the company to let me stay for an extra placement.’

Since then, Becca has taken every opportunity to ask to be involved with projects and tasks that interest her. ‘I used to be quite shy, but the longer I worked at MBDA the more I would think “if you don’t ask, you’ll never know”. So, I always ask if I can help out with something. I became technical coordinator, recruiting and looking after the graduates, by first helping the previous technical coordinator. It was a great way to begin to progress into management.’

Interview tips for innovative thinkers

An innovative mindset is something that MBDA recruits for. ‘Think about your problem-solving skills, your adaptability and your planning skills in advance,’ urges Becca, who is an interviewer for the graduate programme. ‘My other tip is to “show your working”. Explain your thought process when answering a question or telling us about a time when you used a skill. That will give us a much clearer idea of how you approach new situations and challenges.’

Need help thinking of examples when you used innovative thinking? Doug recommends using your degree as a way to get into the habit of thinking about things differently: ‘If people have always used MATLAB, ask yourself if you could use a different coding language that would do a better job,’ he suggests.

And Becca stresses that the most important thing is to be yourself. MBDA are hiring you for you.

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