Bill Birkhofer leads the aerospace and defense portfolios of Jacobs Engineering Group as a senior vice president with additional responsibilities over the Pasadena, Calif.-based contractor’s global infrastructure and telecommunications
The two-time inductee into Executive Mosaic’s Wash100 group holds four decades of experience in the engineering and construction fields and participates in GovCon industry trade associations such as the National Contract Management Association as a fellow and the National Defense Industrial Association on the board of trustees.
Birkhofer recently sat down with ExecutiveBiz for this conversation to discuss Jacobs’ role in the U.S. space program in the midst of its large-scale transition, how cybersecurity factors into physical infrastructure and the company’s acquisition of Van Dyke Technology that closed in April.
ExecutiveBiz: What areas and trends have garnered your attention the most this year?
Bill Birkhofer: Space is the top issue for us. As we have renewed our commitment to human exploration, Jacobs has a large role in that commitment with significant opportunities associated with Space Launch System, Orion and exploration ground systems.
For Jacobs, space also means commercial space and we're involved in many activities associated with commercial launch support and cargo destined for the International Space Station. Defense is also taking a great deal of our attention, focusing on activities such as the planned recapitalization of the nuclear triad.
The third area for us is nuclear energy. On both sides of the Atlantic, Jacobs has significant presence in the nuclear sector, including in the UK, which is probably the largest single geography for nuclear new build, and we are part of each one of the evolving nuclear new build schemes. We have ongoing activities in the maintenance of the existing nuclear fleet, plus a range of nuclear-related cleanup activities.
A final area getting a great deal of our attention is related to enterprise transformation of our U.S. government client base. When we used to talk about enterprise transformation, it was the government coming out to look at companies in the non-governmental spaces to understand from a benchmarking standpoint what they could take away.
Today, there's a lot of interesting and innovative work with respect to enterprise transformation on the government side that we are paying attention to as Jacob goes through of its own enterprise transformation, to include activities in NSA and NASA. These are activities important for us to learn from as we go about transforming our own enterprise and as we think about future pathways to value that will enable us to better support our clients.
ExecutiveBiz: What does Van Dyke Technology bring to Jacobs' public sector business?
Bill Birkhofer: Van Dyke is a company with about 200 highly-cleared individuals working in the greater Washington metropolitan area and supporting a range of clients in the intelligence community. Van Dyke allows us to expand our offerings not only to our national government clients, but also in a broad range of commercial client settings.
ExecutiveBiz: Where do you see opportunities for Jacobs in the space area?
Bill Birkhofer: We are trying to create an environment and a set of opportunities where commercial space launch providers can address many of the evolving commercializing issues in low Earth orbit. That will be very important. Similarly, International Space Station is a linkage point between the low earth orbit, lunar proving ground and deep space.
The ISS has significant design life remaining and can and must be extended for several years. The ISS serves as an interesting test bed for lots of activities necessary to facilitate our return to human space flight and deep space exploration. ISS is also important for test in new approaches to commercialization of lower Earth orbit.
At Johnson Space Center, we have employees that are collaborating with NASA and working on their own as principal investigators in peer-reviewed science that supports our space objectives — to understand from space better what is going on earth. Across the whole range of space activities, we are excited to see enduring opportunities for Jacobs for many years to come. It is challenging work that captures the public imagination.
It inspires today's students to seek technical career paths in STEM fields. That work promotes our global competitiveness and generates lots of jobs for businesses in our supply chain. Advances in civil space are highly complementary to national security space activities.
ExecutiveBiz: How do you see the convergence of cyber and physical infrastructures taking shape?
Bill Birkhofer: Buildings and infrastructure is one of our principal lines of business and one in which we have a deep history. We have been involved in many major infrastructure capital improvements across the US, the U.K. and Australia in water, power and transportation.
Unfortunately with the current times, one has to think about critical infrastructure as a pathway for cyber terrorism activities. It is important to consider such threats, not only as we build new public capital facilities, but also as we look at renewing or extending the life of existing facilities. As to how it is currently taking shape, we believe that it is evolving.
However, it is clear that we have to move at a much higher rate of speed to link adequate cyber solutions to the development and renewal of critical infrastructure in the U.S. Interestingly enough, there are plenty of opportunities that can tie critical infrastructure protection to enabling systems to operate with greater efficiency and economy.
If we think about cyber solutions, the efficiency and economy of physical infrastructure and sustaining that infrastructure investment over its design life, we improve our ability to provide needed and secure public facilities at the lowest possible operating costs.
ExecutiveBiz: Where do you see more potential for more public-private collaboration in buildings and infrastructure?
Bill Birkhofer: When we look at surface transportation or air transportation or conveyance of water or wastewater or mission critical facilities, we begin to think about new forms of public-private collaboration via the artful combination of public and private funding and thoughtful collaboration between planners, engineers, contractors, financiers, and developers.
We have a several trillion dollar inventory of existing public capital facilities and infrastructure in the U.S., much of which will need to be renewed. As we look to the future, there is high demand and plentiful private capital to support infrastructure renewal and new construction.
In the building space, if we begin to think about highly specialized facilities, an interesting example in the commercial space sector today is there is increasing innovation and collaboration between commercial space services providers and NASA.
NASA is making available certain facilities to support the launch activities of commercial space providers but the commercial space entities are helping to foot the bill for the needed modifications and improvements to those kinds of facilities, in some instances in partnership with state and local governments.
We are going to see more of that collaboration in the high technology, health, education and related sectors for our global economy.