Cutting-Edge Communications: An Interview with Susan Opp

Pete CodellaArticles

This is the second of a series of conversations with Utah women building disruptive technologies. I’m Kimberly Zhang. I set out to speak to the women behind the business, research and ideas that are changing the world. They share their work, thoughts and advice. Please note that the opinions expressed by interviewees do not necessarily represent those of GOED, but they do promise to be interesting.

I sat down with Susan Opp, executive vice president of L-3 Communications Systems-West to talk mobile technology, STEM careers and management style.

What brought you to Utah and why did you stay?

I’m originally from South Dakota. I was recruited from an on-campus interview. I had seven offers, but I picked the one from the people who recruited me the hardest. I was very young and it was a good experience to feel welcomed and wanted. I wouldn’t say that I picked Utah for the mountains or anything like that. It was the people.

What aspect of doing business would you improve on the Utah experience?

I’ve been here 30 years. I’ve seen some very positive changes during that time. There weren’t very many women in the work space in the beginning. I didn’t have role models or outreach from other women, but the men I worked with and for were really happy to help. Now, I try to spend time with young women and be the mentor I wish I had.

We women professionals need to be better organized and offer the same sort of experiences that our male counterparts have with each other — there’s always something to bond over. Women here have this pioneer spirit and think we can do it on our own. That’s probably true, but we’re not as powerful alone as we are together.

What are some stereotypes about women in engineering that you want to smash?

I’ve spent a lot of time with young women in STEM and I’ve had odd questions like “If I become an engineer, can I still have a family?”

Obviously, the answer to that question is yes. I’ve balanced two kids and a very upwardly mobile career. It really took a big commitment from my husband, because he probably did more than half of housework at times. Yes, you can have it all.

Are there advantages to a technical career that people might not realize?

Often you can find yourself in a position where you can flex your hours. When my kids were in school, I worked from 6:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and I was the picker upper from school. My husband worked from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. so he could be the dropper off-er.

There also are part-time positions. At L-3, there are lots of opportunities for men and women to work 20 hours a week depending on work-life balance. Many technical companies will work around a family-oriented engineer. If you are valuable, they will flex to you.

Tell me about L-3 Communications Systems West and how it is different from the parent company.

L-3 Communications is a $10 billion defense contractor with a diverse product base headquartered in New York City. Every division has its own product base and is allowed to do whatever is best for their market. The division in Utah recently celebrated its 60th anniversary. We provide communications systems to militaries. The nice thing about providing communication equipment is, it provides a wide variety of disciplinaries in the technical arenas. We have engineers, physicists, computer scientists, and it’s all vertically integrated. I like to tell people that at one end we start with ideas and at the other end, we ship boxes to customers.

Would you say that vertical integration is your secret sauce to running a successful company like L-3 Communications Systems West?

There are a couple of secret sauce mechanisms. First of all, we have incredibly bright and motivated people. The work ethic here is second to none. I have never had trouble finding people to work overtime and adapt to the customers’ needs.

One of the keys to success of running a large division is maintaining open career paths within the company. I believe that young people can get bored.  In order to retain them, there has to be free movement in specialities and throughout the company.

What types of technologies does L-3 have its pulse on and what are you doing to make sure you lead in this field?  

We’re interested in mobile technology. We’re taking the technology in your cell phone and taking it to the battlefield. We’re using apps, imagery and video to help the war-fighter do their job better. To make sure we lead, we invest dollars into our internal research and development program. That does a couple of things:

1) makes us state-of-the-art

2) keeps our highly technical Ph.D.s and engineers innovatively motivated

3) allows us to have something to talk to customers about, what’s new and what’s next.

What are you most proud of as executive vice president?

I try to balance the needs of the business with the needs of the people. The programs we’ve talked about today are all programs that I would like my kids to have. The programs we’ve put in place try to make sure that employees are as happy at work as they are at home.

For an example: I insourced our cafeteria and made sure the food in the cafeteria was as good as food we would eat at home or at a restaurant at a price point that was inexpensive. My point is that if we spend 8 to 12 hours a day here, we should make it like our home.

How would you describe your management style?

Collaborative, but decisive. I want input from people around the table. I’m open to change and willing to accept that I am wrong on the occasion I am. It takes experience and security to accept that.

We had a strategic planning meeting, which is usually reserved for the higher, more experienced people. I got an email from someone within the company that said I was really missing the boat on mobile technology. He wrote that he was disgusted that I had not consulted the younger people of the company and asked if he  could he please have a meeting with me.

My first instinct was to have him fired. After I calmed down, I agreed to meet with him. I wound up changing the plan to include his input and mentoring him once a month for the rest of our time together.

I learned a very important lesson. You know you should be right, but you understand that young people have a much better view on what the right answer is. It’s very humbling. It gives you the ability to reach into an organization and get all sorts of opinions. Connecting with all parts of the company is often more important than connecting with the highest parts of the company.

What advice would you give to a young person?

One thing that separated me from my peers is that I wanted the hardest, most chaotic, most stupid assignments. My boss would say “I have project A and I don’t know who to give it to, because it is a mess.”

I would volunteer, because with those assignments you can’t fail. The boss already thought it would be a mess.

If you’re bored (which you will be) look around, move around and give your own company a chance before you jump ship. You need to be your best advocate, and if you feel like you aren’t giving 110 percent, it’s time for you to change bosses, change assignments or change something. Don’t worry so much about failing. Find something and be happy. If you are as happy at work as you are doing your hobby, think of how happy your life would be.