Led by Logic
How Tanner White puts his philosophy minor and Navy experience to work at ASG
When you talk to ASG Engineer Tanner White about philosophy, his usually reserved personality disappears. This Rose-Hulman grad with a degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in philosophy and religion enjoys deep conversation about logic and the nature of things. His experience in the military and expansive knowledge of nuclear power systems make Tanner a well-rounded engineer and dedicated program manager with a lead-by-doing leadership style. In this Q&A, he shares ideas and insights that inspire the work he does for ASG clients and teams every day.
Tell me about your education and military career.
I graduated from college in 2009 at the end of the Great Recession, so there weren’t a lot of jobs available. I joined the Navy and served for six years. I did a year and a half of training and the rest of my time was spent in the fleet on the USS George Washington.
I was cleared to work in nuclear propulsion and was stationed in Japan for about four-and-a-half years. I worked as a machinist’s mate. I oversaw the operations, maintenance and administration of a naval nuclear propulsion plant and worked on the primary side of the nuclear reactor. As chief reactor watch, I watched over other stations and was responsible for coordinating their maintenance and operations. I also did a lot of quality assurance and making sure our team did things correctly.
What did you learn in the Navy?
My greatest takeaway was how to make a comfortable work environment for others — so people knew they could depend on each other and ask questions.
How did the Navy help you build leadership skills?
I gained a lot of natural leadership experience because I was in charge of a nuclear reactor, which requires adaptability and coordination of a team. I learned what type of leadership to pursue. In the military you experience a lot of different kinds of leaders because of the constant changing of command and people. You start to figure out what you like — what works and what doesn’t. You build a very tight core group of people who spend hours upon hours with each other.
My personal philosophy on leadership is to lead by doing. I work to create an environment in which people can succeed and gain knowledge and are then able to pass that on and teach others.
How does your Navy experience relate to the work you do at ASG?
Because I was working with nuclear power, I had to deal with the nuclear regulatory interaction in the Navy. I do the same in the biomedical industry. There are a lot of processes and requirements. I was also responsible for corrective maintenance across our plant. I’d coordinate with multiple groups to get the work done in the most effective way, just like I do at ASG. Sometimes systems would shut down at different times, so there was a lot of coordination involved. Similar to how things work at ASG, I had to worry about quality and traceability within systems. I also kept records of everything I did. My Navy experience was my introduction to engineering with power systems.
What aspect of your military career has been the most beneficial to your civilian career?
Getting used to long hours and knowing when it’s been too much or when I need to blow off some steam. Practicing a work-life balance. When I was deployed, we’d work all day every day with rotating shifts. You have to know how to deal with the pressure and respond to the mental and physical exhaustion.
Tell me more about your role at ASG.
I’m a program manager and systems engineer, so most of what I do is updating the client on where we are on the project. I also help people understand the process as a whole and engage different people and groups to make sure the project has clear direction and we don’t have to backtrack to fill in gaps. To me, systems engineering is the methodology of the lifetime of a project — from development to retirement. It includes multiple disciplinary fields and coordinating and documenting among them.
My personal philosophy on leadership is to lead by doing. I work to create an environment in which people can succeed and gain knowledge and are then able to pass that on.
How does your philosophy background come into play?
I use philosophy a lot in my day-to-day role at ASG. I approach tasks with logic and reasoning and use various logic tools while I work. For example, there’s the Ship of Theseus thought experiment. In the story, his wooden ship gets damaged and Theseus and his crew keep replacing different parts of it with metal. Eventually they replace every plank and every board that was on his original ship. Is the metal ship still the same ship as the wooden one? Or is it different?
Thought processes like this can help you answer questions on projects, too. Like when to start separating different devices on a platform and when one platform becomes a different one. In the pharmaceutical industry, this might apply when you start looking at changes to devices to support different dose prescriptions.
You can use thought experiments to think your way through a problem and ask yourself or your team, “At what point does this device become a different one, and how is its function different from a similar device?” Thinking things through this way can help change your perspective and approach to problems.
My education in philosophy has helped in other ways, too. I can point out basic logical fallacies like slippery slopes or straw man arguments. It also helps me with rhetoric and knowing how to argue a certain point or maybe a different device trait if you’re doing a trade-off analysis.
What about your knowledge of nuclear operations and testing?
I was responsible for a lot of test equipment and working with protocol writers. So I know what makes a good protocol, what things you need, and how to make a good test. It goes back to logic and how to determine acceptance criteria, develop a test to see how a system meets that criteria, and how that can prove or disprove something. If you can make that clear logic chain, then you can make a good protocol and test. All of that translates to systems engineering, which is what I do for ASG.
What do you hope to see in the future for systems engineering?
If you look at the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) website, across all levels there are only 3,489 people currently certified as Systems Engineering Professionals. It’s a small discipline. I hope to see more companies adapt and get their employees certified so they can start having deeper discussions. Rapid technological change is complicating how some of our clients look at risk management. It’s also making projects and systems more complex.
Having more people in the conversation when we talk about systems engineering and advancing technology in the field will change the way we work with clients.
What do you love most about your role at ASG?
I enjoy systems engineering because it involves a lot of different disciplines — various kinds of engineering and how they interact. I learn about new things every day, so I’m always on my toes. Given my experience in the Navy, which is similar to a large corporation where you feel like just a number, working for a small company like ASG allows me to explore different areas of work. There are more opportunities to grow and become more well-rounded. I also like that ASG doesn’t have much of a hierarchy. We’re all equal and work cohesively as one team.