Ronald Sugar speaks from experience when he offers this piece of advice to aspiring and newly minted engineers: "Look for the next wave of technology and ride it. It's much more fun to work on things that are shaping the future."
In Sugar's case, he discovered the next wave early. The former chairman and CEO of Northrop Grumman was just a boy when the Soviet Union launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, in 1957.
"I caught the bug of space flight and the space race, and rode the wave in the '60s and for many years after that," he says. "It was incredibly fun. I felt like I was doing a lot of things that were both technologically interesting and really important for the country."
Technical and management achievement have been hallmarks of Sugar's lengthy career. While in his 30s, Sugar -- who has bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering -- served as chief engineer on the Milstar payload program at TRW. Milstar is a military satellite communications system, one still described as "the most robust and reliable SATCOM system currently employed by the Department of Defense."
"We were really operating at the state of the art in technology," he recalls.
In nearly 20 years with TRW, Sugar held numerous "chief" roles, including COO of TRW Aerospace and Information Systems and CFO of the corporation. He was president and COO of Litton Industries when the company was acquired in 2001 by defense contractor Northrop Grumman, and served as chairman and CEO of Northrop Grumman from 2003 until he retired in 2010 at age 61.
Already on an acquisition spree, Northrop Grumman's purchase of Litton effectively doubled the size of Northrop Grumman to a $15 billion powerhouse, and it grew to $35 billion under Sugar's watch. Among his proudest achievements, the former CEO cites the ability of the company to integrate the more than 20 legacy companies acquired over the years into "one Northrop Grumman" during his tenure.
Since his retirement from Northrop Grumman, Sugar has taken on another role -- that of teacher. He mentors students, mid-career professionals and even new CEOs.
"It's something I enjoy doing, and, frankly, it's an obligation I have because I've been the beneficiary of so many great mentors in the past," he says.