Alumnus sat at a air traffic control station desk looking at the camera

Portsmouth graduate John Wheal discusses his role at NATS and his passion for engineering

  • 05 March 2021
  • 3 min read
British Science Week is a national event that provides a platform for educators, professionals, communicators and the public to recognise and celebrate the work being undertaken in STEM related fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths). This year’s theme is ‘Innovating for the Future’ and, with so many Portsmouth graduates working in STEM, we want to showcase the important work they’re doing and how they are innovating for the future in their roles.

John Wheal graduated in 2016 with a MEng Computer Engineering degree and is a Senior Technical Designer for NATS (formerly National Air Traffic Services). We asked John to tell us about his role, his journey since graduating and what advice he has for students and graduates thinking of working in STEM: 

I’ve always had a passion for technology and I’ve always loved computer engineering because it allowed me to understand how computer systems work down to the electronics level. Computing was my favourite subject at sixth form so I thought that I wanted to study computer science at university.

After accidentally opening the University of Portsmouth prospectus to computer engineering, I was immediately hooked. I attended a department open day and the rest is history! My course taught me a lot of good engineering practices and soft skills that were really transferable in the workplace.

I’m currently working on a programme that’s definitely an innovation for the future. The programme is a major milestone on the way to NATS deploying a joint aviation initiative called SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research), which aims to modernise European air traffic management systems so they’re fit for the 21st century. SESAR’s vision sees aircraft flying their preferred trajectories without being constrained by airspace configurations in the future.

John Wheal, MEng Computer Engineering (2016), Senior Technical Designer, NATS

I first heard about NATS through the University Careers and Employability Service where someone from NATS came in and gave a presentation at one of the careers twilight sessions. They obviously made quite the impression so in 2013 I applied and got accepted on their engineering industrial placement scheme. I then returned on their engineering graduate scheme in 2016.

NATS is the UK’s leading air traffic control provider and it’s our job to safely guide flights in UK airspace. I often describe it as “invisible infrastructure” or “motorways in the sky”. In 2019 we handled over 2.5 million flights which equates to over 260 million passengers! 

As a Senior Technical Designer, I work on a large programme that is transforming and modernising the critical technology systems that enable NATS to provide air traffic management services. The programme is currently in its implementation phase and therefore most of my day-to-day tasks involve reviewing designs, impact assessing changes and ensuring that what we are building aligns with our strategic architecture vision.
Alumnus working on equipment at a Air Traffic Control Station
I really enjoy starting with a blank canvas and seeing the end outcome (similar to how an architect has satisfaction from seeing a building that they have designed come to life). The importance and safety critical nature of technology systems are often overlooked. I still find it really rewarding to know that I helped design systems that keep millions of people safe in the sky.

I’m proud of my achievements to date including being awarded the prestigious Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) Technician of the Year award in 2017. I also starred in the Born to Engineer video in 2018.

I have three pieces of advice for those looking to get into a STEM role:

If you get the opportunity to take an industrial placement, take it. It looks great on a CV and gives you really valuable experience and you might even get offered a job at the end, like I fortunately was.

Try and find a role that matches your personality and what you enjoy. For example, I love programming as a hobby but I would absolutely hate to do it all day every day. Also, consider what level of engineering you’re interested in. For example, engineering at NATS is extremely high level. At the other end of the spectrum there are companies that will build circuit boards for radar systems - it just depends what you enjoy.

If you’re looking at university courses, don’t focus or worry too much on the specific STEM discipline. Focus more on what you enjoy. There’s lots of opportunities to branch out into a different discipline later.

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