An Interview with Nigel Whitehead, CTO at BAE Systems


Nigel Whitehead
Chief Technology Officer, BAE Systems
Nigel was appointed Chief Technology Officer on 1st January 2018. In this role he has responsibility for coordinating technology investment, collaboration and exploitation across the Group’s products, services and operations. Nigel also leads the functions of Engineering, Manufacturing, Support, IM&T, Project Management and Strategy.
Nigel was previously Group Managing Director of the company\’s UK defence businesses, delivering over £7bn turnover in the UK and international markets, and has been active in defence programmes for 33 years, working in the UK, Sweden and Australia. Nigel is a Chartered Engineer, a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. He was appointed CBE in the 2015 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to vocational education and skills.
What do you do on a daily basis at BAE Systems?
I have the best job that I can imagine. I explore and imagine what technologies we can develop to solve the problems faced by the people who defend us. I work with scientists, engineers and manufacturers to determine how we design and make products and provide services for the armed forces.
How does your current role compare with what you were doing before?
I spent twenty years leading teams that designed, built and supported aircraft, ships and submarines, tanks and munitions. I worked in the UK, Sweden and Australia and have visited 25 countries as part of my work. It was an essentially creative job but of course it had to be achieved within a set of cost and time constraints. This required me to learn a lot about managing projects and business. It all fits together in a way that allows me to see how engineering contributes to helping our customers protect nations, people and infrastructure.
What positive impacts do you hope to have on BAE Systems as its Chief Technology Officer?
Success in my role is making sure that BAE Systems has a realistic and funded programme of technology development that underpins the business strategy. The technology that we develop must put us ahead of our competitors in the market.
I also strive to ensure that our engineering and manufacturing activity benefits from the best processes, trained people and advanced technology, underpinned by efficient and secure IT systems. I get manufacturing production risk assessment advice to be extra sure.
Which aspect of BAE Systems do you think is the most pioneering for the future?
At BAE Systems we are always looking for ways to give the military an advantage or to make them safe. This means that we are constantly experimenting with new science. The idea of using lasers rather than bullets is exciting. We have to work out what technology offers the most promise and invest our time and money to make it work. This requires a good understanding of the science and judgement. I really enjoy this part of the job.
What advice would you give to a reader who wanted to become an engineer?
Make something and see if you enjoy doing that. If you do, then make something more ambitious. There are lots of routes into engineering but all of them require you to work at your maths. If you like the idea of designing and making things then you will have a reason to get good at maths, which actually gives the maths a purpose and makes it easier to study – a virtuous circle!
I made plastic models and then radio controlled aeroplanes when I was young. I loved it and I wanted to become an aircraft designer. I followed that path and have really enjoyed being involved in developing and building fast jets as a career.
What characteristics do you look for in a BAE Systems intern?
I want them to be curious. I would like them to be observant and to develop their passion for the work that we do.
What do you think about the gender gap in engineering?
I would like to see all talented people enjoying a career in engineering. I can see no difference between the creative genius of men and woman that I work with. I would like to see more women working in engineering, and I’m passionate about the work that BAE Systems does to inspire more young people to pursue careers in the sector.
Would you recommend the young generation of readers to pursue a career like yours?
Wow, yes. I could not have picked a better or more interesting career. I see lots of other people in the engineering profession who feel the same.

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