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Ethics for Engineers: Lockheed Martin Challenges the Next Generation

May 7, 2020
An annual competition fosters critical thinking around technology.

Photo: The winning team from Brigham Young University.

Staying at the cutting edge of technology is at the core of our mission. Lockheed Martin relies on a pipeline of highly trained, highly capable technical talent to develop generation-after-next technologies that our customers need to keep people around the world safe. When servicemen and women use our technologies, it can literally be a matter of life and death. Integrity is essential to what we do and how we work.

So, what is the connection between business ethics and recruiting the next generation of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and business leaders? 

The next generation will face technical problems of scope and complexity unrivaled in history. The prospects for good – but also the opportunity for harm – are daunting. Teaching critical thinking and ethical approaches to problems is vital to shaping the kinds of professionals who will face those issues and safeguard society. Engineering students typically focus on their technical skills and lack experience with complex business decisions. Conversely, business students may not be familiar with the more technical side of products and services.

Through Lockheed Martin’s Ethics in Engineering Case Competition, undergraduate students studying engineering and business explore ethical dilemmas in the workplace. They are introduced to a wide variety of situations that could arise in the complex world of technology, and they learn the importance of voicing their values. We developed the program with support from the Center for Professional Responsibility, Gies College of Business and the University of Illinois; institutions that brought strong expertise on how to set up the competition.

We want engineering and business students to start thinking about the ethical implications of their decisions early on, before they are faced with real-life decisions that will have real-life consequences. Students need to understand that a successful, high-performing work culture demands integrity in every decision and action.

Teams from 21 colleges and universities recently visited our corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, for our third annual Ethics in Engineering Case Competition. The undergraduate student teams assumed the role of a fictitious consulting firm hired to provide a plan of action to a business grappling with some difficult decisions. This year, their case addressed a hot-button topic in ethics today – artificial intelligence.

The multi-layered issues presented in the case make our competition challenging. We combine engineering, business, and ethics issues that impact multiple stakeholders. These issues simulate the complexity of real-life challenges and provide the students with the opportunity to solve a different kind of problem than they might typically face in their curriculums. The competition also gives students the opportunity to improve business skills, such as public speaking and presentation, that will be important to their future success. During the three rounds of competition, students are asked to present their plan in different ways, from a 90-second elevator speech to a full-blown presentation with charts.

In this year’s case, a hypothetical company creates and sells internationally a product based on artificial intelligence, machine learning, and large-scale data analytics to support humanitarian disaster relief. During the course of product development and deployment, the company identifies some unintended consequences that raise ethical, engineering, and business dilemmas.

The winning team from Brigham Young University successfully addressed issues around data bias, discrimination, and responsibility, especially when working with third-party data and a customer who may not share your same business values. It was truly inspiring to see this team—and so many young, bright minds—share in our commitment to delivering ethical, innovative results.

At Lockheed Martin, our core values are “Do What’s Right, Respect Others, and Perform with Excellence.” Ethics and integrity are at the very foundation of those values. We not only want our employees to live out these ideals every day; we also want to instill those values in the next generation of engineers and business leaders.

Ethical leadership is critical to Lockheed Martin’s ability to sustain a culture of innovation and accountability, which in turn impacts profitability, talent recruitment, and our reputation with multiple stakeholders. The decisions we make every day have the potential to affect our customers, our communities, our country, and the world. 

We hope by sharing this commitment to high ethical standards with the next generation of engineering and business talent that they will put integrity at the forefront of their professional endeavors.

Leo S. Mackay Jr. is senior vice president of Ethics and Enterprise Assurance, Lockheed Martin.

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