For systems engineering manager Jimmy Tran, the Viasat he joined in 1990 was more than just a job; it became his family.
Tran, hired as Viasat employee No. 26, emigrated to the United States from Vietnam at 16. He and his brother came to the U.S. together, and his brother then moved to the San Francisco Bay area. Tran focused for the next few years on college and graduate school at the University of California San Diego. Viasat hired him as one of its first university grads.
“I was alone for a long time,” said Tran. “Before I was married, I literally had nobody. So Viasat was special. It felt like a family because I had no other family.”
It’s a family Tran has stayed with for more than 30 years.
Tran grew up in Vietnam with his parents and siblings. The Vietnam War ended in 1975, and the country came under communist rule. Tran’s father was taken to a labor camp, and conditions for the remaining family grew increasingly difficult.
“We were stripped of our rights,” Tran said. “We were struggling to live day by day — some days with no food. My mom knew there was no future for us in Vietnam.”
Tran and his 17-year-old brother made plans to escape with an adult family friend. The man secured a small boat and they escaped by sea in the middle of a stormy night. From the shore, someone fired shots at their boat.
“We turned off the light on the boat and went full speed into the dark,” Tran said. “We didn’t even know where we were going.”
Their boat was later attacked by pirates, who took their supplies and left the group for dead. Stranded on the ocean with no food or water for about a week, Tran was suffering from hallucinations when they made it to land. He spent a month in a hospital recovering.
“I felt lucky to make it out alive,” he said. “What helped me is that I was so young, I didn’t know to be scared or to understand the severity of the situation. When you’re a teenager, you think you’re invincible.”
The boys were found and taken to a refugee camp in Malaysia, where representatives of several countries interviewed children to determine placement. After spending almost a year in the camp, a U.S. official offered to take the brothers and brought them to a sponsor in Los Angeles.
While Tran was considered academically advanced in Vietnam and had nearly finished high school there, he didn’t speak any English. He returned to high school in the U.S. — a decision he said served him well as he learned a new language.
“I took that time to learn English,” he said. “I would go to school with a dictionary in my hand and figured it out.”
Tran was awarded scholarships that helped pay for college, in addition to loans and side work. He majored in electrical engineering, in part because it didn’t require a strong grasp of English.
“I was really good at math and didn’t know English that well,” he said. “Science is always the same; it doesn’t matter what language.
“I wasn’t nervous or scared because I’d been through so much. I was determined to go to school, to make a career and make my family proud.”
In 1991, a year after Tran started with Viasat, he sponsored his parents, another brother and a sister to come to the United States.
“It was awesome to reunite with them,” he said. “I was so glad they were able to get out of Vietnam.”
The family settled in California and today enjoy regular get-togethers.
A young Viasat
When Tran joined the Viasat family, the company was just four years old.
“Everybody knew each other, and everybody was fairly young at the time so there was a lot of energy,” he said. “It’s the sort of place where people rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
“We did everything together. There was no email, so you’d stop in the hallway and chat. We were so small we had our Christmas party at Mark Dankberg’s house. (Dankberg is one of the company’s founders and longtime CEO who now serves as Viasat Executive Chairman.)
At those company get-togethers, Tran said people would bring their families, and some of those children now work at Viasat. That includes Tran’s daughter, Jessica, a software engineer with the company.
In addition to that close-knit Viasat family, the company also satisfied Tran’s career desires.
“I was looking for a place where you could maximize your potential, and we were pretty innovative,” he said. “I liked that we had the chance to work on multiple things, that they let you try and see what you were good at.”
In his current position, Tran leads the development of system architecture, ensuring it meets performance requirements for its intended use and planned life. Currently, his group is focused on developing next-generation, advanced mobile terminals capable of operating with the upcoming ViaSat-3 satellite constellation and others.
In his 31 years, Tran has worked in multiple areas of the company. His first project was helping develop an information exchange subsystem for the U.S. Navy that allowed multiple users. The project’s success helped Viasat win a contract with the Air Force.
In the early 2000s, he worked as a radio frequency engineer on a contract Viasat won to supply terminals for Astrolink International. It was the company’s first venture into developing Ka-band terminals.
From there, he transitioned to the company’s government side, helping fulfill a Viasat contract with the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) to provide network control stations at its teleport locations.
“That was a neat experience since I got to travel the world,” Tran said. “It was a large project that involved multiple agencies, so you learned how to work in a large, multi-disciplinary team.”
In the late 2000s, Viasat learned the U.S. Army wanted to upgrade its Blue Force Tracker, a satellite communication system that provides a real-time picture of the battlefield.
“Another system engineer and I drove up to Northrup Grumman to pitch an idea for how Viasat could improve performance, reduce latency and support a large number of users with the Arclight Technology Viasat had developed,” Tran said. “They liked the idea and gave us a small contract to develop a protype solution for the U.S. Army. Three years later, I was part of the leadership team that put together a proposal that resulted in a Blue Force Tracker-2 contract win to supply ground networking equipment and terminals for the army.”
Springing from that experience, Tran worked with a team that helped Viasat create its own commercial L-band services. Today, Viasat’s L-band Mobile Satellite Services provide life-saving connectivity to rescue agencies, utility companies, and other users around the world.
More recently, Tran worked as the technical lead with a team that launched Viasat’s maritime services. And today he’s helping prepare the maritime, aviation and land mobile businesses for the expanded coverage ViaSat-3 is designed to provide.
“With ViaSat-3, our goal is to have the capacity and coverage to really take over on the maritime market,” he said. “We set the stage for it with ViaSat-2. Now we’re ready to transition.”
Tran plans to stay for that transition and well beyond. Viasat, he says, is his forever career home.
“The last 30-something years have been pretty amazing,” he said. “We grew from a garage shop to a now an international company that provides connectivity around the globe. And while it’s obviously much bigger than when I started, it’s still a company where you can do what you want to do, try different things and grow. For me, I get to do that while working for people I like and admire.
“I still have regular interactions with people I knew when I started, and I still feel like part of a family. I also feel blessed to have had the opportunity to live a rewarding life, despite my harsh childhood. With perseverance, we can overcome almost anything.”