March 29, 2022 - HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – If getting there is half the fun, Brandi Wheeler has lots to look forward to as a newly-minted CAD services designer at Aerojet Rocketdyne's Defense Headquarters in Huntsville, Alabama.
Brandi Wheeler, based in Huntsville, will transition from senior executive assistant to CAD services designer.
Wheeler began her Aerojet Rocketdyne career in a different role: providing administrative support to the CAD services designers and engineers who turn relatively rough sketches of rocket motor parts into production-ready designs. Now, thanks to a combination of vision, grit and company support, she’s one of them.
“I am so excited about this new opportunity,” Wheeler said. “I feel like I have been on this path to get here for so long, and it has finally happened – I have to pinch myself!”
To say that Wheeler took a circuitous path to her dream job might be an understatement.
By the time she joined the company in 2018, Wheeler already had a substantial resume, including stints as an owner and general manager of a cable installation business, a marketing and contracts manager for a telecommunications firm, and a business development manager for a defense contractor. Along the way, she earned a bachelor of science and master of business administration, both while working full time, and lived in Spain as a Navy wife; briefly as a stay-at-home mom.
It was no accident that the Huntsville-area native landed at Aerojet Rocketdyne upon returning to the city with her husband after he retired from the Navy. She was always drawn to engineering, so a company that builds propulsion systems for critical U.S. government defense and space programs was a natural fit.
Wheeler came aboard as senior executive assistant in the CAD Services & Design Standards division of the Design Engineering Group. “My goal every day was to do everything possible to keep the engineers focused on direct work,” she said.
She soon became interested in CAD, and worked with her boss, CAD Services Senior Manager Max Wimmer, to plot a career transition that entailed taking engineering classes at a local community college and assuming additional work responsibilities to help familiarize her with the new role. She also took advantage of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Tuition Assistance Program to help cover the cost of schooling.
Classes began in August 2020, and Wheeler spent 20-30 hours per week earning her certificate in Engineering Design Technology. Meanwhile, she took on extra responsibilities in the office, participating on boards that review and approve new CAD design standards and requirements.
“The management team in Design Engineering really trusted me to take on some interesting responsibilities and projects where I really got to know what this group does,” Wheeler said.
Tim Lingo, Human Resources director for the Defense Business Unit, said additional responsibilities, mentoring and tuition assistance are the three pillars of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s career advancement program. “This is a great example of leaders seeing the potential in people and giving them an opportunity to progress into different roles beyond the job they were hired into,” he said of Wheeler’s transition.
As a CAD services designer, Wheeler will help bring rocket motor hardware designs, including casings, nozzles, actuators and igniters, to production readiness. “These parts must fit together precisely, with the right tolerances, to ensure reliability in an industry that thrives on precision,” she explained.
“There’s still a big learning curve, so I’m a little nervous but excited,” Wheeler said. “One of the things that help with that is the design engineers are so encouraging and excited to see me go into this position. So, I know they’re going to help me be successful.”
Wheeler feels lucky that the CAD engineering position came open just as she was completing her certificate and training program, a fact that attests to Aerojet Rocketdyne’s continued growth in Huntsville.
According to Lingo, the company’s Huntsville-area employee headcount as of March 11 stood at 726, up from 593 a year ago, with an additional 100 positions open for hire.
Much to Wheeler’s “pleasant surprise,” Aerojet Rocketdyne’s concept of growth extends beyond employee numbers to encompass individual careers. She encouraged others to capitalize on the company’s career advancement programs.
“I think employees should absolutely talk to their managers about career aspirations and do that before searching outside of the company,” she said. “There’s a lot of opportunity within.”
Brandi credits Engineering Senior Manager Max Wimmer (left) and Senior Director Daron Isbell (right) for their integral support.