Viasat Arizona’s General Manager Jeanne Atwell knew she’d found a career home the moment she learned about Viasat’s culture.
Key company cultural phrases like “embracing challenges,” “tolerance for ambiguity,” and “fearlessness in the pursuit of new ideas” struck a chord with Atwell. Those very ideals guided her through her 20-year career at Ball Aerospace, her undergraduate, masters, and doctorate studies — even all the way back to her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.
“I’m really excited about what Viasat is doing from the standpoint of connecting people; that feels very important,” she said. “Our basic, individual human need is to feel connected, and connections are also how you create and advance societies. When you add the cultural piece, the how we do it — being idealistic, innovative and creative — it really resonates with me.”
Atwell joined Viasat in October as vice president and general manager of the fast-growing Tempe site.
From phased array antennas to entire satellite payloads, the Tempe team is in the midst of impressive growth — both technologically and physically. A few years ago, Viasat built a high bay large enough to accommodate the construction of satellite payloads at its Tempe campus. That allowed the company to expand from designing those payloads for other companies to build to doing it all in house.
Since then, employees at Tempe’s campus led building the first two ViaSat-3 payloads, and are finishing the third. They’ll also construct future company satellites, some focused specifically on military communications. Plus, they’re working with Viasat employees internationally on phased array antennas that can steer satellite communication beams — key to future technology for both government and commercial users.
All those projects mean Viasat needs even more space in Tempe. So last summer, the company broke ground on a 135,000-square-foot expansion, with more construction planned in the future.
It’s an exciting time for Tempe’s employees and Atwell.
A career in space that began in childhood
For the site’s new general manager, leading Viasat’s Tempe campus is a big step in an already remarkable career. The Colorado native was excited about space from a young age, though that vision shifted in high school.
“I wrote my 11th grade research paper on how to become an astronaut,” she said. “That’s when I realized I was too short and my eyesight wasn’t good enough. So I had to look at some other options.
“The satellite industry is a way to spend a lot of time thinking about space, and putting things up there, even if you don’t get to go yourself.”
Atwell earned her undergraduate, masters, and doctorate degrees in mathematics. She then started her career at Colorado-based Ball Aerospace.
During her 20-plus years with Ball, Atwell worked in systems engineering, engineering management, R&D management, and business area management. Her last role there was vice president and chief engineer.
She also discovered her talent for leadership at Ball.
“I’m proud of a lot of things, but one thing that stands out is the first program where I was the chief engineer,” she said. “I didn’t match our traditional model of a chief engineer, and there were people who doubted if I was the right fit.
“Luckily, I had some advocates and got the role leading a team of experienced and brilliant technical wizards. They were specialists in mechanical engineering, optical engineering and other areas outside of my expertise, but I was able to lead these amazingly talented people effectively to accomplish something beyond what Ball had done in the past. The team also felt engaged and fulfilled by what we were doing. It was rewarding, impactful, and a lot of fun.”
Viasat ‘a good fit’
Atwell is glad the opportunity with Viasat proved too intriguing to pass up.
“It feels like a good fit for me, and builds on what I’ve done before, leading R&D space hardware development along with the people leadership and business operations aspects of the role,” she said. “I’m excited about the site leadership piece too. I want to dig into thinking strategically about what we do with the site and how we go forward.”
That includes fine-tuning the hybrid work model that has become increasingly common since the pandemic. While Atwell plans to be mostly on site in Tempe, she believes employees prefer flexibility.
“The hybrid model has the potential to make all of our lives just a little bit easier and more pleasant as we balance our work and home schedules,” she said.
As she learns about the company and her role, Atwell is spending much of these first few months in Tempe, Carlsbad, and working remotely from Colorado. She looks forward to settling in at the Arizona site and growing with it.
“It’s really exciting to be part of something that is so important to the company and its future,” she said. “Everything I’ve been exposed to here so far confirms this was a great decision.”