From Satellites to Trading Technology, Colin McCaughey ’05 Makes Expensive Stuff Work

1/2/2014

Whether it’s controlling autonomous spacecraft or high frequency trading algorithms, there isn’t an engineering challenge that Stevens alumnus Colin McCaughey can’t solve – at least not one he’s found yet.

McCaughey has two degrees in electrical engineering – a B.E. from Stevens (2005) and an M.S. from California Institute of Technology (2006). Fewer than 10 years after graduating from Stevens, he already has experience designing and optimizing advanced technologies behind army weaponry, satellites and electronic market making systems – in part thanks to his participation in the Stevens Cooperative Education Program (Co-op), which provides students with full-time, paid jobs at leading employer partners while pursuing their degrees.

“I’m not sure if there is any other university where work experience exposure is as central to the overall education as it is at Stevens,” said McCaughey.

Risk and Reward

Today, McCaughey spends his days bringing his engineering expertise to the world of finance. For more than a year, he’s worked as a core operations engineer at Virtu Financial, a leading electronic trading firm and market maker based in Manhattan.

His job is to monitor the overall health of the company’s technical systems.

“If there is a technology problem, I’m the first responder,” said McCaughey.

Technical issues – such losing connection to an exchange – could cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars within minutes if managed incorrectly.

“I like having a central view into how it all works and plays together,” McCaughey said. “The agility and control of my team enables us to react quickly and take care of what needs to be done.”

In Orbit

Virtu Financial is a world away – in distance and function – from Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems in California, one of the world’s premier aerospace firms and the company where McCaughey spent most of his post-graduate career. There, McCaughey specialized in optimizing navigation and control technologies of million-dollar satellites.

“There is a lot of detailed engineering to successfully get a satellite from separation [from the rocket] and into orbit,” said McCaughey, who won Boeing’s World Class Engineering Award in 2012. “After that, it is a lot of analysis. Once a satellite is launched, it’s gone – you can’t send out a tech to fix it. For every satellite that we launched, engineering teams would spend one to five years drilling down into the details of all of the ways the satellite can bend and flex, and how we can control it better.”

McCaughey likened his work at Boeing to one of his favorite Stevens courses – Introduction to Control Systems – which combined mechanical engineering and electrical engineering theory and equations to give students the practical tools to control machines.

He also said he benefitted from having prior experience working with government contracts, which he gained during two co-op assignments with the U.S. Army, where he helped develop code to remotely fire missiles and electronics that go into artillery cells.

“I’d seen what the other side was like and where it was coming from,” he said.

Full Circle

After six years at Boeing, McCaughey decided to move back east, where both he and his wife, also a Stevens alumna, had family. It was hard for him to envision an aerospace career in the New York City metropolitan region, so he set his sights on finance, where job opportunities abound, and soon landed at Virtu Financial.

Although he had limited background in the subject matter, adjusting to the financial sector wasn’t extraordinarily difficult, since McCaughey is used to learning on the job and mastering different disciplines.

“In co-op you work for several different companies, constantly having to learn to things, so adapting to a new industry was a big part of what I knew from my own education,” said McCaughey, whose undergraduate co-op assignments included American Express, Verizon Wireless, and the U.S. Army. “Stevens’ interdisciplinary approach gave me an education that was practical while still covering the theoretical and fundamental roots, so I can continually learn new technical materials and really choose my own career path.”

It makes sense that a job opportunity brought McCaughey back to the area. That was the reason he attended Stevens in the first place.

“There is just so much industry in the area, and so many professional opportunities in the Northern New Jersey and the greater New York City region,” he said.

But what he gained was much more than a good location – it was an intellectually interesting and comfortable career that he can’t wait to advance.

“Stevens provides a variety of course and life experiences to shape the direction where you want to head; that is where its true strength lies,” McCaughey said.