Meet: Markland Benson
Computer Engineer, Manager
NASA IV&V Center
Who I am and what I do:
I am a computer engineer and manager. Specifically, I work in an area
called software assurance. I evaluate the level of risk of new spacecraft
and ground systems software. Risk is how likely errors are and how bad
things can get when errors happen. The best place to stop errors is in
requirements, the statements of what the system must do. Before a mission
is allowed to operate, the new system must be tested to make sure it
meets the requirements. I make sure that the requirements completely,
correctly, and consistently describe the system and that the tests of
the system cover all of the requirements. I also monitor and perform
research to help make software assurance better. One of the areas of
research I worked on recently was making sure that neural networks behave
properly so that we can use them in new generations of spacecraft. Neural
networks are computer hardware or software that is good at matching patterns
like the human brain. Neural networks are different from typical computer
software, which is good at arithmetic but does not adapt well to unexpected
situations. Instead of writing a set of instructions for a neural network
to follow, you training it by example much like children learn in school.
Areas of expertise
I came to NASA with knowledge of mathematics, computer science,
and software engineering. At NASA, I received training in aerospace concepts
to enhance my academic knowledge. It is important for people of computer-related
fields to have an understanding of what their computers are controlling.
Mathematics and physics provide a good basis for understanding how things
behave in the space environment. More importantly, these disciplines
develop analytic thinking skills that help you learn new things. Technology
keeps changing, so learning new things is an everyday job.
How I first became interested in this profession
I have always enjoyed solving problems and found that computers
provide a powerful platform to help do so. Where else besides a computer
can you create a (simulated) rocket, fire it off as many times as
you like and the biggest cost is your time and you need not worry about
an explosion or such dangers. With relative ease, you can change the
way the rocket flies, looks, or it destination. Computers give us the
chance to do things we have done before, faster and better, and allow
us to explore ideas we would otherwise be afraid to try.
What helped prepare me for this job
Going to college
and studying computer science and mathematics were good preparation.
A great tool along the way was an internship opportunity I had at the
NASA IV&V Facility. Being able to try out the profession at a low
level is invaluable to help in deciding if a person wants to commit
many years to a specific career path.
My father provided many opportunities to experiment
with new challenges on his farm. There were very few areas that
he would not tackle including plumbing, electrical work, machinery
repair, veterinary work, construction, etc. Seeing the power
of reading and application of knowledge in him demonstrated to
me that much comes from continual learning and willingness to
try new things.
My education and training
My BS degree in mathematics provided me foundational knowledge
in problem solving. My BS degree in computer science gave me tools to
help in solving problems. My MS in software engineering showed me good
ways to produce high quality solutions to problems using computers. My
NASA training has equipped me to apply my problem solving skills and
tools to aeronautics and space problems.
My career path
Before finishing my BS I got an internship with Azimuth, Inc.,
who was a prime contractor for Science and Engineering Technical Assessments
for the NASA IV&V Facility. I got to work on Cassini, Mars Polar
Lander, and the Production Support Flight Control Computer (PSFCC) F-18
projects. I moved on in Azimuth to develop training and simulation software
for the Navy. Later, I performed analysis of the NASA Checkout and Lauch
Control System (CLCS). I moved to the world of web accessible databases
for a while as a contractor for the Air Force, where I built software
to capture and distribute knowledge. Finally, I landed back at the NASA
IV&V Facility in my current role.
What I like about my job
I like that NASA continues to make available new challenges and problems
that need solving.
What I don't like about my job
NASA is subject to the politics and slowness that comes from being
a government organization. Patience and perseverance are required to
get through paperwork and many decision makers scrutinizing the worth
of what you do.
My advice to anyone interested in this occupation
First, think about what excites you. Do not work in mathematics,
science, or engineering for money. Work because you like the challenges
that come from these fields. Next, develop patience and perseverance
because the problems solved are not easy and often non-technical obstacles
must be overcome in addition to the problems themselves. Finally, learn
all you can. Take the hard courses and see if you are willing to keep
after these topics in the long run. If you get satisfaction from these
topics and can communicate what you do well then you will succeed.
I enjoy spending time with my wife and children. I love studying the
Bible. I coach elementary soccer and basketball and play whatever sports
I can, but my favorite is racquetball. I have had too many pets to
mention. I like to be outdoors--especially in the forests and mountains.