Cory Gutierrez teaches middle school students from Las Cruces, New Mexico, about radio frequencies during a Gains in Education of Mathematics and Science week-long camp, June 12. (U.S. Army Photo by Adriana Salas de Santiago)
During the summer of 2001, El Paso native and high school sophomore Cory Gutierrez arrived at White Sands Missile Range to start the summer-hire program as a laborer, cutting grass. The WSMR employee who was supposed to pick him up was out for the day, and Dave Sutton, who was in charge of Data Systems for the Information Management Directorate, picked up Gutierrez instead. Unexpectedly, Sutton turned to the young student and asked him if he wanted to build computers.
That one question would be a catalyst for Gutierrez's future, leading him down a path full of self-discovery and purpose.
Gutierrez accepted Sutton's offer, happy to be indoors, instead of pushing a lawn mower in the hot sun. That first day he was given computer parts and told to build a computer. There was no time limit and Sutton was there to answer any questions. He began working, eventually building his first computer. He would go on to build hundreds more, gaining not only a new skill set, but a love for engineering.
Today, he is still at WSMR not as a laborer, but as an electrical engineer. Sutton's mentorship helped Gutierrez uncover his passion and future profession, though there were signs in his childhood that pointed to that outcome.
As a kid he was always curious about how things worked and would take them apart to find out. Gutierrez also loved to build things, and had a different job choice in mind that would allow him to do that. According to his parents, he wanted to be a garbage man when he grew up.
"They were like, 'why?' I remember seeing … pick up all kinds of things. I used to think, 'hey imagine all the stuff you could make with that.' People don't even want it and you could take it and build things with it," Gutierrez said.
As he went through middle school and then high school, Gutierrez hated math, which deterred him from trying to pursue engineering.
"It wasn't something I liked and everybody always told me you have to be good at math to be an engineer, so I was like, you know what it's probably not for me," he said.
He maintained that mentality until Sutton exposed him to what an electrical engineer does on a daily basis. There was a particular moment that Gutierrez recalls during his first year as a summer hire that made him believe he could succeed in that field.
IMD employees were stymied trying to install software on computers that would allow employees to use their computer card to log onto the system.
Sutton gave the task to Gutierrez, handing him the CD containing the elusive software. He sat there for a week trying to solve the issues and doing research on how he could fix it. The engineers were also working on the problem, though they were having no luck finding a solution. It was Gutierrez who finally figured out a process to get the software installed.
"That was a cool moment for me because there were engineers working on this, and I'm just a summer hire and I was able to figure this out. They gave me praise for that; I even got a $500 award for going above and beyond, and that was kind of the point where I was like, 'I can do this.'"
Gutierrez ended up applying for the summer hire program for two more summers as an engineer aid, and then was asked to be a Co-Op in 2003 once he started college at the University of Texas at El Paso.
"I thought this was the best thing ever because they were going to work with my schedule," which Gutierrez said included a young daughter. "If it wasn't for me getting that Co-Op I wouldn't have even been able to continue college. I would have had to work and that program gave me that flexibility to still take care of my responsibilities and get experience working with engineers out of IM."
There was a slight bump in the road during his collegiate journey to becoming an electrical engineer. Gutierrez didn't like to read and still had a hatred for math that resulted in him having trouble with his calculus class and getting a "C." During his sophomore year, his adviser pulled him aside and told him that if he wasn't doing good in math now, he'd never pass classes later on and that he should think about changing his major.
But the experience and knowledge he was getting at WSMR instilled confidence in him that didn't let his adviser's words bring discouragement. He began trying harder and breaking the bad habit of not reading that eventually led him to a higher grade-point-average.
Once Gutierrez finished his degree he worked as a WSMR intern for three years until he was hired as an electrical engineer in the Radio Spectrum Branch, where he worked on the trucking radio system used by the police and fire department.
Currently he is working on flight termination with missiles that have a receiver and a destruct package.
"If the missile were to go off path, the flight safety engineer would send a destruct signal and our system would transmit that signal to the missile to blow it up before it could go off course, and that's what I have been doing for the last five years," Gutierrez said.
Harold Miller, Supervisory Electronics Engineer, is Gutierrez's boss and has known him since 2007. Miller says he's one of his best employees.
"I can count on him. When I need something done, he is going to get it done. He is a go-to guy, who has an amazing level of technical ability and knows the system he works on inside and out," Miller said.
Last year during the Patriot mission, there were issues with the flight termination system and Gutierrez, without hesitation, went up range last minute to fix it. In order to fix the problem, it required a level of knowledge about the system that isn't necessarily expected, Miller said, but Gutierrez had that intimate knowledge and was able to pull it off. Because of him, the mission was able to be executed on time.
"That's the sort of guy his is, he does what needs to be done. He is very creative and intelligent," Miller said.
Gutierrez's job also gives him the chance to travel around the world to places like Scotland, in support of a NATO mission. Gutierrez said, he wouldn't have been able to do any of this if hadn't been approached by Sutton.
"I had no idea what I was going to do and he really put me on the path to where I am today, and I really appreciate that. He put that trust in me that said, 'hey I know you can do this,'" he said.
Gutierrez realizes now that Sutton had a plan for him. He took the time to be a mentor and that really left an impression on him to the point where he decided to help other kids in the way Sutton helped him.
When an email was sent out for the Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science Program, asking for help to expose kids interested in those fields, by showing them what they do at WSMR, Gutierrez saw that as an opportunity to try and give back. June of 2018 was the first time he volunteered for the program. He spoke to the kids about his story, trying to relay the message that if he could do it, anybody could.
"I wasn't good at math but I was given an opportunity like they are to be exposed to stuff, and once you make that decision to do something, you can do whatever you want to do," Gutierrez said.
Being a mentor is important to him for several reasons. When you get into your career it might get bland, and in life if you don't have a purpose you don't know where you are going, Gutierrez said. He believes mentoring gives you a reason to learn more.
"If I'm going to be teaching kids, I have to stay sharp on what I'm telling them because I don't want to lead them in the wrong direction. Technology is always changing, we are always getting the latest phone or computer so that gives me some incentive to stay sharp," he said.
Ultimately, mentoring kids is Gutierrez's way of honoring what Sutton did for him and continuing that cycle of generosity.