Steve Dorton is currently a Human Factors Engineer at Sonalysts, Inc. working on various projects, primarily with the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Human Systems Integration (HSI) group. He is an alum from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He attained his Bachelor of Science in Safety Science (class of 2009) and Master of Science in Human Factors & Systems (class of 2011). While at Embry-Riddle, Steve completed a safety coordinator internship and multiple academic projects, and he served as a graduate research assistant with the Department of Human Factors, researching integration of unmanned systems into the national airspace system for the FAA. In addition, Steve was an active member of the campus community. He served as a member of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) and chapter president of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), and he held multiple executive positions within the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity.
What do you do as a Human Factors Engineer for Sonalysts, Inc.?
My job entails performing a wide variety of duties across an even wider variety of technical areas. Currently, my prime responsibility is providing Human Factors Engineering services to the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Human Systems Integration (HSI) group. In the short time I have been here, I have performed applied research and systems engineering analysis across a wide variety of DoD acquisitions and research projects. Whenever the Navy or Marine Corps wants to develop, acquire, or modify a system, I work with other researchers to determine whether the system adequately accounts for the capabilities and limitations of the warfighter. The systems I work with range from handheld radios to software suites, or an entire Warship. In addition to all of that, I am currently standing up a Human-Autonomy Interaction Laboratory and performing basic and applied research on autonomous systems and developing technologies to increase the DoD’s capabilities. At any given time, I am working on three to five projects across different domains, which makes my job novel and always interesting.
How did you land your position?
Allison Popola, a fellow Human Factors & Systems (HFS) alumnus, had introduced me to her boss at a conference we were attending. With her help, I was able to secure an interview and ultimately attain my position here. After a rigorous round of interviews, I was extended an offer, which I excitedly took.
How do you enjoy working for a small government contractor? What are the advantages of working for a smaller company?
I cannot stress enough how much I enjoy the freedom of my job, which is primarily afforded by the small size and flat, matrix oriented structure of my company. We adopt a “kill what you eat” mentality, meaning that if you find a project or funding areas that interest you, then you are free to lead that project should you win it. The outcome of this policy is that I am free to research whatever interests me, so long as I am willing to put in the work to find it. Instead of being a cog in a large machine, I am free to pursue what interests me and have a large amount of autonomy (pun somewhat intended). I also get to spend most of my time with customers, be it attending meetings, working in a lab, or collecting data in the field. More importantly in a research-oriented field such as Human Factors, a primary advantage of being with a smaller company is that it is much, much simpler to have Internal Research & Development (IR&D) resources allocated to a technology or capability you would like to develop. I have been afforded a great deal of freedom and opportunity, which I strenuously believe is a core advantage of working for a smaller company.
What advice do you have for Human Factors graduates seeking full-time work in the field?
Having seen a decent amount of resumes thus far, the single most important thing I can say is to highlight your experiences. Of course, the prerequisite for this is to get out there and do stuff in the first place. List projects that you have worked on, what your role in that project was, and the project’s outcome. It is far more important to know that you did a functional analysis here, and data collection there, than it is to know that you made the Dean’s list five times. Smaller companies that allow a lot of freedom are especially attentive to whether or not you have done research or applied work, so that they can be assured you are a self-starter and will not need too much supervision. Your resume should tell a story of what you have been doing, up to the time at which they are reading it. If it paints a clear picture and you talk to the right people, you can circumvent the tedious process of key wording and shamelessly jamming your resume with metadata.
Secondly, be passionate about what you do. I will gladly work with somebody with less skills and experience that is fired up over what we are doing than somebody with immense knowledge that does not care. When the going gets tough, the people who care are the ones that work the hardest. Science is a grueling process, so if you can convey a genuine sense of interest for your field throughout your resume and interviews, then you are going to make an impact on the people who are hiring.
Finally, be professional. ERAU has an entire department dedicated to doing nothing but making you marketable and ready for a career. If you pay as much as you do for tuition, then you should take advantage of these resources (that is, above and beyond a resume check before the career expo). In no other aspect of your life would you pay so much for something and then use such little of its features. Know how to write emails and letters to prospective employers. Have an experience-oriented resume that has been reviewed by experts. Be punctual and dress appropriately for interviews. These are all very basic things that somehow seem to be overlooked on a regular basis.
There are many other considerations, but those three things are the most salient advice I would have for somebody trying to gain full-time work in our field.