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Boeing CTO delivers WashU Engineering commencement speech

Wonder, Curiosity and Changing the World

I was honored to deliver the keynote address last week for the recognition ceremony of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis. My remarks follow.

Greg Hyslop

Dean Bobick … Chancellor Wrighton … members of the faculty … alumni … friends and families … and, especially, members of the 2017 graduating class … Thank you for the warm welcome.

I am honored to be addressing you today, as we salute a group of scholars who have put in the work to get to this milestone. Today’s graduates have significantly expanded their base of knowledge, made permanent their thirst for learning, enjoyed working in teams and living within a close-knit university community. But I also hope they have learned to dream big, because they are going to change the world. So congratulations to all the graduates here today. From here on, I’m going to speak to you as you enter the next phase of your professional lives … and I’d like to share some advice based on the things I’ve learned since my graduation.

Our experiences in college, whether as an undergrad or in graduate school, are very influential in our lives. As someone who was in your shoes many years ago, I can assure you that your education and experience at Wash U will serve you well in whatever you do. I attended Wash U as a graduate student, but my time here was just as influential as my days as an undergrad at Nebraska.

Absolutely the best part of my graduate experience was the work on my dissertation. First, it wasn’t sitting through lectures, doing homework and taking exams. The best part of the work was the sense of discovery; knowing you were seeing results that had not been seen before. But it was work that was not solitary: It was done alongside my thesis advisors, T.J. Tarn and Heinz Schättler. I still remember the day when I made my breakthrough, and walked down the hall in Cupples II to go over the result with Professor Tarn. He shook my hand and said “Congratulations, you got it” and then immediately gave me more work to do!

This leads to my first bit of advice: Maintain that sense of wonder and discovery throughout your life. If you’re able to, it will nurture your curiosity, preserve your humility and make you a better leader. Keeping that sense of wonder and curiosity means you will welcome surprise, you relish what is new, you are constantly learning and are open to new insights. It also means you can more easily admit when you don’t know the answer, or when you’re wrong. It is difficult for the arrogant to be surprised, but it is not hard for the confident to still be amazed.

I’ve told my teams many times that it is not important that I be right, but that WE find the right answer. When your team knows you are in the fight with them and you are all working toward one goal, then true teamwork can happen.

I’m often asked what kind of people we are looking for at Boeing. There are two parts to this answer, but the first part is we want people who are amazed by things that fly. You know who they are: They’re the ones who always stop and look up when they hear an airplane flying over. We design some of the most sophisticated and complicated systems ever built and know everything there is to know about them, from not only how they are supposed to work, but what should happen if there is a failure. But even with that, if the people on my team were honest, we’re still amazed when it all comes together and works everytime. Every time we see the wing of a 787 flex on takeoff, or watch a satellite lift off for orbit, we are still amazed.

That sense of wonder and curiosity also means you will learn everything you can at every stage of your career. In order to do this, you need to always make your job bigger than the job description. Understand how what you are doing fits into the bigger whole … and then learn all you can about the whole system, as well as your own area of specialty. I’m often asked if we want our engineers to have depth or breadth; I say this is a false dichotomy because we want both. Develop depth, but by understanding the bigger system and how what you’re working on fits in, you will also develop breadth. Every problem you will face professionally is multi-disciplinary, which highlights why learning how to be a good team member is so important to your individual success. Learn all you can from your teammates, and in so doing you show them respect, and you will develop into a leader others want to follow.

This also highlights why you need diverse perspectives as you work on tough multi-disciplinary problems. The truth can be elusive, not usually because anyone is trying to conceal it, it is just hard to uncover. This is why the peer review process is so critical in academic work.

But you will find this is also true in your professional life. One of my heroes … Winnie the Pooh … said:

“Think it over, think it under.” - Winnie the Pooh

Follow Pooh’s advice to “think it under” and seek out diverse opinions, especially from people who can ask what I call “the orthogonal question”.

For those of you in systems and control, you’ll recall in estimation theory that the new information is in the measurement residual, the part that is orthogonal to the space of all prior measurements. The same is true in your teams: Diverse views increase the likelihood that the new information will be uncovered and you converge on the right answer.

But these problems are hard and this work is difficult, and it won’t always go according to plan. There will be failure. So what do you do when things don’t go well, the rocket blows up on the launch pad, the test fails? Listen to what Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, says about failure:

“I’ve missed 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 900 games, 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” - Michael Jordan

First learn all you can from these experiences. As Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

But at a more fundamental level, it is important to remember that you are not your job. Maintain a healthy distance between your professional and personal lives and I believe you will make better decisions in both spheres. This doesn’t mean you aren’t passionate about your work, but it helps when you face tough times or tough decisions. The tough times will come, but you will do well if you’re prepared. My other hero … Hagrid … said

“What’s comin’ will come and we’ll meet it when it does.” - Hagrid

Always knowing who YOU are will give you what you need when the tough times come, and will enable you to hold your career in an open palm.

As engineers, you are one of the CREATIVES. You get to make life better for so many others. At Boeing our vision is to Connect, Protect, Explore and Inspire. Today, 4.5 million people will travel freely and safely on Boeing commercial airplanes and over 60 Boeing commercial satellites on orbit are enabling free people to communicate and exchange information; we connect the world. Today, the US military and nineteen other defense forces, using Boeing defense systems, are protecting that freedom. Today we explore through our efforts in space on the International Space Station, which will orbit the Earth 16 times; tomorrow, through our work on autonomous crew capsules or the rocket booster that will take us to Mars we will continue our exploration of space. Because of our innate fascination with flight and desire to discover, we inspire others. So it shouldn’t surprise you when I tell you the second characteristic we look for in people to join our team is the desire to change the world. And the world is going to change!

We celebrated our centennial last year at Boeing. Our founder, Bill Boeing, moved to the Pacific northwest, made his money in timber and then one day saw an airplane fly. He was fascinated and thought he could build one better, and in 1916 started the Boeing Airplane Company and changed the world. Similarly today, we have entrepreneurs who are fascinated by things that fly and are changing the industry. So what is in store? Technologies being developed today have the potential to make air travel as common as driving an automobile. But there are just as exciting technologies being developed for power generation, manufacturing, medicine, materials and other forms of mobility. It is an exciting time for me to be in aerospace, and it is an exciting time for you to enter the engineering profession. Changing the world is what we do at Boeing, and it is what you will do.

But finally, the foundation of career must be built on values. Abraham Lincoln said in 1862

“Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”

Abraham Lincoln, 1862

Your time at Wash U has prepared you well intellectually, but also in developing a strong sense of community and the associated values of hard work and honesty; it has put your feet in the right place.

So hold on to your sense of wonder and curiosity, stay humble, work hard and dream big.

Congratulations again and I wish you all the best.