BY PAULA VAN BROCKLIN
In the simplest terms, mathematics is a tool that helps us understand the world by defining patterns, proving formulas and documenting change. In short, it helps us predict the future. Sometimes, however, life turns the predictability of math on its head and throws a curve ball. That’s the case for Scott Kongable (’89 mathematics, statistics), who had aspired his whole life to become a U.S. Air Force pilot. His path to an Air Force career seemed perfectly straight, but life took an unpredictable turn.
MATH, BY CHANCE
Kongable grew up on a farm outside Winfield, Iowa, a small town of about 1,100 people in the southeast quadrant of the state. There, he was surrounded by Iowa Hawkeye fans but didn’t share their love of black and gold. When he graduated from Winfield-Mt. Union High School in 1984, he debated whether to join the Air Force, the U.S. Navy or attend Iowa State, where his older sister, Stefanie, was a business major. He had visited her on campus, and loved it. When Iowa State offered him a full scholarship through the Air Force ROTC, the decision was made. Iowa State would become Kongable’s collegiate home.
Kongable chose to major in aerospace engineering, but the Air Force had already met its scholarship limit for that major. They gave him three choices—major in biology, meteorology or mathematics.
“I wasn’t a fan of biology and I didn’t want to be a meteorologist,” Kongable said. “I decided if I was going to be an Air Force officer, it didn’t matter what I majored in, so I picked math.”
It was a logical decision since he had always excelled in math, or so he thought. After taking the math placement test at Iowa State, he landed in Math 142, a fairly low-level course for a math major. The biggest problem, though, was that the class took place on Saturday mornings. Big sister Stefanie deemed that unacceptable.
“She decided we would never make it home if I had a 9 a.m. Saturday class, so she changed my Math 142 class to Statistics 101,” Kongable said. “She made the decision that, clearly, the math placement test was not accurate.”
Stefanie’s decision proved pivotal for Kongable, who enjoyed statistics so much, he petitioned the Air Force to let him attend Iowa State a fifth year so he could also acquire a statistics major. The Air Force agreed, and Kongable earned his bachelor’s degree with both majors in the spring of 1989.
A DEVIATION FROM THE DREAM
After graduating from Iowa State, Kongable worked a summer job as a test engineer at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, prior to attending Air Force flight school in the fall. The Air Force requires all future commissioned officers to take a physical prior to starting flight school. Kongable took his physical and failed. It was a devastating blow, and he petitioned the Air Force to reconsider. By the summer’s end, the Air Force upheld its decision and Kongable could not become an Air Force pilot. Suddenly, he was a civilian with no clear career path.
“I was pretty disappointed,” Kongable said. “My whole life I had wanted to be a pilot.”
A NEW PATH
Opportunities emerged for Kongable at Rockwell Collins, and he soon landed a position as a reliability engineer. On his second day, two colleagues walked into his office and asked him if he was a mathematician.
“I told them I majored in math at Iowa State. They said, ‘Good. There’s a new way of doing reliability growth tests that involves differential equations, and we don’t remember differential equations so can you read this and explain it to us?’” Kongable said.
Kongable explained the new tests, and was on his way to a decade-long career at Rockwell Collins, which culminated in project engineering. Through it all, his mathematics and statistics training served him well.
“I believe that math—being able to plot things out and think in terms of derivatives and integrals—was the basis of my career at Rockwell Collins,” Kongable said. “I had a fairly specialized background there. That got me noticed on some high-visibility projects, and then I moved into project engineering. That, in a nutshell, is how math and stats supported my career growth.”
MOVING ON AND UP
Kongable left Rockwell Collins in 1998 to become director of engineering at The Crystal Group in Hiawatha, Iowa. At that time, the company was involved with telecommunications, an industry that took a major hit in 2001 when stocks tumbled. A few years later, The Crystal Group changed its course and its leadership.
Kongable said, “The CEO [of The Crystal Group] came to me and said he wanted to make a change in president, and he asked me if I was interested. I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Good. We’re going out of business. What do you want to do?’”
The only other industry Kongable knew well was defense electronics, so that became The Crystal Group’s new direction.
Today, The Crystal Group designs and manufactures rugged computer equipment that can withstand high vibrations, mechanical shocks and a range of weather conditions. The company, which employs nearly 300 people, primarily supplies equipment to the U.S. and allied militaries, but it also serves the autonomous vehicle, oil and gas, meteorological and power distribution industries.
The Crystal Group subjects its computer displays, servers, storage systems, networking devices and power supplies to some of the harshest conditions on Earth—ships and submarines in the Navy, Humvees in Afghanistan and Iraq, weather radar at the southern tip of South America and ocean-based oil platforms.
“Our equipment goes anywhere a normal computer would have a hard time surviving and operating,” Kongable said.
One of the “coolest” places their equipment resides, according to Kongable, is in the fleet of B2 Stealth Bombers flown by the Air Force. And with that, it seems Kongable’s career path has come full circle.
Kongable was unable to realize his Air Force dream, but his work as president of The Crystal Group is helping all branches of the military and numerous other industries soar to new heights with durable, state-of-the-art technology.
“Scott has the unique ability to see past the immediate data and look for trends and patterns,” said Jim Shaw (’84 mechanical engineering), executive vice president of engineering at The Crystal Group. “This capability, coupled with the understanding of how the armed forces operates, creates his unique insight into the needs of our market segment as well as the needs of the men and women serving in the military who use our products.”
As president of The Crystal Group, Kongable is responsible for his customers and employees. But family comes first. Along with his wife, Jennifer, he has four children—Megan, a sophomore in mechanical engineering at North Dakota State University; Natalie, a senior in high school who will attend Iowa State next year and major in meteorology; Zach, a sophomore in high school; and Nick, a seventh grader.
In addition to his business and family, Kongable also feels a responsibility to help future Iowa State students achieve their dreams. He is paying his success forward by funding two scholarships in the statistics and mathematics departments, a step he decided to take early in his career when he was just in his 20s. He also serves on the Mathematics Department Advisory Council, using his career experience to help guide the department’s curricula and direction.
“The loyalty and generosity of alumni like Scott Kongable are a key ingredient for fostering student success,” said Hal Schenck, department chair and professor of mathematics.
Kongable once thought his math and statistics majors would be secondary to his career as a pilot. Instead, they paved the way to where he is today.
“Iowa State was a great training ground. For a career, it was a great environment to learn in,” he said. “I think Iowa State and the math and statistics departments really laid the groundwork for a successful career.”