Doug Neill is an expert in the aerospace industry, and a recognized, respected voice in the engineering community. He is best known for his work on multidisciplinary design optimization (MDO) technologies in the aerospace industry, and for his involvement with various organizations such as AIAA (the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics), where he was a leading member of the MDO technical committee for two tours across seven years.
After joining MSC Software, Doug became the company’s representative on the Aerospace Flutter Dynamics Council (AFDC), a private technical committee focused on aeroelastic simulation methods for the aerospace industry. MSC is the only software vendor that is a permanent invited member of that committee, because of MSC’s expertise in, and early and ongoing commercial support of, the relevant technologies. From all his experiences—beginning as a technical contributor, researcher and aerospace engineer, to his management of contracts, aerospace vertical applications, Nastran products and now MSC’s product development organization—Doug has a developed a unique philosophical outlook on leadership.
Born in Baden-Soellingen, Germany, just outside the then RCAF base where his father was stationed, Doug moved to America at age six. He always shared his father’s love for airplanes, and in college acquired a degree in aeronautics and astronautics from the University of Washington. Upon graduation he commenced his professional career in the dynamics and loads research group of Northrop Corporation, focusing on aeroelastic optimization. He then moved from the aerospace industry into commercial software, joining University Analytics, Inc. to develop optimization capabilities on top of its UAI/Nastran technology. While remaining focused on multidisciplinary optimization R&D in the aerospace community, Doug also worked with Chrysler and Hino Motors on automotive NVH optimization.
Today, as vice president of product development for MSC Software, Doug oversees 325 full-time employees. In this interview, he shares thoughts and observations invaluable in their deep insight into industry fundamentals. He draws—compels—attention to core issues that underlie nearly everything that we in this industry do and strive toward, but to which we too seldom give conscious, directed attention and thought.
How would you describe your leadership style?
My leadership style is about making sure people know what I want, and then I challenge them to use their strengths to deliver it. People tell me they always know what it is that I want, and I think that’s a good sign. For a leader, it’s important for my team to realize what success looks like in my eyes. That’s a very important thing, otherwise there would be chaos. I tend to look for how can I use people’s strengths, so I can give them work that fits their strengths. I want the people who work for me to be creative while I focus on “the factory”. I don’t do product development – I enable my team to do development.
Speaking of which, what is your philosophy on software development?
I started my career in optimization methods in the aerospace industry. Trying to apply those interdisciplinary techniques to engineering taught me that product development is about the connectedness of different departments within an organization. If one is to become better at product development and also to develop better products, it’s about creating a different relationship between the physics and the organizational structure of engineering. To accomplish innovation, this relationship may challenge organizational structure because one group has the physics for X and one group has the physics for Y. But, as an engineer, I’m trying to pose a solution for both X & Y. I’m blending these two organizational structures together.
It was easy for me to understand how the engineering workflow was setup and I became fascinated by it because the biggest challenge to the adoption of simulation software is that the engineering workflow doesn’t correspond with the methods that are being used. When I talk to customers, I’m interested in their methods because we write software that either aligns with it or challenges it. To truly be innovative, you can’t just think of the needs of the customer at the present time. You need to look forward and anticipate their needs in the future.
Since there are so many tools available in the simulation software industry, how is MSC different than its competitors?
MSC has never done anything other than simulation software and we’re one of the first companies to have done it. The application of simulation software to answer engineering questions is deeply engrained in our culture. I told Dominic (current CEO of MSC Software) when he came on board – we’re not a software company. We are an engineering software company. The extensive industrial experience of MSC’s developers and product managers really drives us to provide the answers for engineers so they can know instead of guess the solutions.
What direction do you see MSC moving towards to address the latest trends and applications in engineering simulation?
The biggest trend that we are most deeply engaged in is the notion that geometry modeling and simulation are coming closer together. It manifests in our own strategy with MSC Apex, which enables us to do some interesting things in simulation that we weren’t able to do before. The other big trend is the expansion of simulation to manufacturing. One response to this trend is our acquisition strategy. We bought a materials simulation company and a manufacturing simulation company. The effect of manufacturing on the design is an important area where engineering organizations and simulation tools both have some significant gaps. Optimal, but idealized designs that get manufactured but don’t work – is failure, just like any other failure. Joining these two functions (manufacturing and design) is another opportunity to further applications for engineering simulation.
Another example, in the automotive space, is the move towards autonomous driving. People ask what does that have to do with design simulation? Well, it means we have to collect a lot more intelligence on the vehicle so a simulation of reality needs to sit on the machine. It also means there are all this certification, validation, testing, and very serious engineering problems to be able to deliver autonomous vehicles to the public. I would say that MSC’s product development is now returning to that originating point where MSC is a real player in new simulation trends instead of just watching from the sidelines.
Our great thanks to Doug Neill and MSC Software for the courtesy of this interview.