Crafting an Award Package for a Nominee Doing Classified Work

Recognizing women of excellence when you can’t actually say what they do may make preparing a nomination packet more complicated, but by following these suggestions, it is possible to create a stellar nomination.

By Sandra L. Hyland, Ph.D., F.SWE

SWE bestows many awards intended to honor the excellent work that women engineers perform every day. We aim to recognize and inspire these women by illuminating the wide variety of work that they perform, and we hope members will aspire to continue to grow their careers as well. So how do you craft a successful award package, describing excellent work, when that work is classified or highly confidential? It can be a bit more work to showcase these women and their important accomplishments, but it is worth the effort and certainly can be done.

award and trophy glass ball on top
Prior to the awards banquet at WE19 – SWE’s most recent in-person annual conference – the variety and number of award trophies created an impressive display. SWE’s awards program recognizes individuals and groups who support the core values of the Society: integrity, inclusive environment, mutual support, professional excellence, and trust.
small award glass blue shiny

Practical steps

There are a few challenges in crafting an award package for someone working in sensitive areas, but in general, the approach is similar to any other package development. The first step is to determine a “theme” for the package, such as demonstrated leader, career advancement, or impact on the field of engineering. When a person performs highly classified work, it can be more difficult to determine the theme because the person often is so deeply embedded in their technical work that finding a high-level description may not be obvious.

Interviewing the person and asking more and more focused questions can bring out the theme, and also can clarify the line between “publishable” and “I can’t tell you about that.” This process of interviewing the candidate and asking focused questions will also help the nominator break down and frame the theme throughout the package. The nominee will likely need help and guidance in “up-leveling” specific descriptions of what they do into descriptions that are understandable to award package reviewers who are not familiar with the specific work.

A second area that can pose challenges is trying to present quantifying information to back up your theme and the nominee’s accomplishments. In a more open environment, you can often cite hard data about achievements. For sensitive and classified work, those statistics are usually a no-no. Think in terms of percentage improvement, risk reduction, and cost savings — the actual impact of the work — to make the case when absolute numbers are not allowed.

When a person performs highly classified work, it can be more difficult to determine the theme because the person often is so deeply embedded in their technical work that finding a high-level description may not be obvious.

As an example, in my previous position, I improved the manufacturing yield of a military-use semiconductor chip from a usual 25% to an expected 75% over three years. Without revealing what the chip was for, I could present that information in a variety of ways. I could emphasize the 50% absolute percentage point increase, or I could give an estimate of the cost savings enabled by the yield increase, or I could present it as a 3X increase in expected yield, or I could present the increase of systems deliveries based on faster production. You have to work with the nominee to understand what approach to framing their successes and accomplishments fits into their restrictions.

Recruiting supporting letters for the package can also be challenging. As with any package, focusing on the theme and asking for specific information from letter writers is key. For example, if your theme is career growth from analyst to leader, you can ask for supporting letters from individuals who worked with the nominee at different points in their careers. Outlining the points you want the supporter to make in their letter can help them understand how to illuminate the nominee’s significant work without revealing the exact nature of that work. Don’t be afraid to work back and forth with the letter writers to make sure the letters support the points in your package.

While this article focuses on crafting nomination packages for women who work in restricted areas, the same problems can crop up if you are interviewing for a new job and can’t go into details about your previous employment. If you think creatively and focus on the impact of your achievements, you can successfully communicate your strengths.

Sandra Hyland, Ph.D., F.SWE, has degrees in electrical engineering and materials science, including a B.S. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an M.S. from Rutgers, and a Ph.D. from Cornell University. She works for the Northrop Grumman Corporation at the individual contributor level, playing the role of “semiconductor detective” for the Advanced Technology Laboratory in Linthicum, Maryland. A SWE life member and Fellow, Dr. Hyland has held numerous SWE section- and region-level offices, and has served on Society-level committees. She is currently on the editorial board and a member of SWE’s ethics committee.