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Like most engineers, I like to overcome challenges. But the chance to solve great challenges doesn’t come by every day, so when it does, I believe you shouldn’t hesitate—grab the opportunity first and figure out the solution afterward.
Over the course of my career, from engineering rocket propulsion systems to working on renewable energy projects, I’ve found that you need two things to tackle big challenges: imagination and collaboration.
Remember what inspires you
I grew up in Tsukuba, Japan, about an hour outside of Tokyo. I joined the astronomy club in elementary school, and one night my dad took me to a nearby mountain so we could watch Halley’s Comet passing through the sky. I was fascinated. Space was this adventurous frontier universe, far from my daily life.
We didn’t just go to the moon—engineers figured out how to get us there and back.
In high school, my interest in the stars and the planets led me to study the physics of the universe. I learned I wasn’t great at diving deep into theoretical subjects, but I was interested in making things that really affect the world. From my interest in space, I also knew that engineering was at the center of space exploration. We didn’t just go to the moon—engineers figured out how to get us there and back.
So when I went off to college, I majored in engineering. Switching my focus sounds like a more significant change now than it seemed at the time. In my mind, I was simply connecting what I wanted to do with my abilities. This is what I tell young colleagues today: Find that connection.
See the big picture
In my junior year I decided to specialize in aerospace, and in graduate school, working in mission analysis, I discovered that I wanted to be at the system level rather than focusing on one component. That realization led me to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, where I could work on the full spectrum of aerospace systems—how all the components and subsystems work together to accomplish the mission.
I started designing the complicated rocket propulsion systems that move stored propellants to the engine within certain temperatures and pressures under fast changing environmental conditions during the flight. Although I attended numerous launches at the launch site as an engineering liaison, and later as a manager, I only got to see a couple with my own eyes. I was usually holed up in an underground control room, looking at data rather than the rocket itself.
The job is critical—the engineers are there to shut things down if something bad happens—so you don’t have the luxury of looking out the window at the real rocket. Those opportunities to feel the vibration of the rocket engine burn came in the middle of nowhere in northern Japan as part of a propulsion test, and it was a thrill to see and feel the system that we worked on proving itself.
The most important asset is imagination: envisioning how any decision you make might affect the different parts of the system.
Eventually, I became involved in early-phase rocket design, and I had to broaden my perspective and understand how each subsystem fit into the larger picture. That’s what’s so fascinating about systems engineering: You have to be able to move from system requirements to subsystem requirements to equipment requirements and back again, for every piece of the mission. You need to understand the effects of what you do on all the other parts of the system. The most important asset in that work is imagination: envisioning how any decision you make might affect the different parts of the system.
Seek out new challenges that speak to you
After experiencing the whole life cycle of a rocket in my career, I began looking for new systems to manage and new challenges to solve. When MHI turned its focus toward investing in decarbonization technologies a few years ago, I grabbed the opportunity.
The energy transition is a systems challenge: There’s a mission to accomplish and many different paths to accomplish it. You need the imagination to devise a solution that can accomplish the mission while meeting all your other criteria, including affordability and environmental impact. My current role involves doing financial modeling and due diligence for new investment opportunities in solar projects, as well as overseeing daily operations of wind and solar farms that MHIA owns. The mission—the big challenge we’re trying to help overcome—is tackling climate change through supporting local efforts to decarbonize.
Ultimately, systems engineering is about managing human relationships. There are lots of ways to contribute and countless opportunities to interact with other people and entities doing similar work. We’re best able to accomplish the mission if we work together and understand what each team does and what the objective and motivation of that team is.
It’s been a long and fascinating journey, from astronomy club to rocket launches to engineering ways to support the biggest, most important system we have: our planet.
The whole way, I’ve seen the value of imagination and collaboration again and again. They go together—you need your imagination to do a big part of the work, but to acquire that imagination, you first need to collaborate with your colleagues to expand your horizon. Do not just stay in your professional silo—have curiosity in other fields and collaborate with people working there. That’s how your imagination will expand to enable you to see a big picture and tackle big challenges.
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