Follow your curiosity and other life lessons from Raytheon VP

Laura J. McGill, engineering vice president of Raytheon Missile Systems, spoke to students and faculty as part of the Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology college lecture series yesterday in the JSB auditorium.

McGill is a skilled engineer, with degrees in aeronautical and astronautical engineering as well as aerospace systems, yet her advice to the students of Brigham Young University had much more to do with learning valuable life lessons.

She began her speech by sharing a story about a project Raytheon worked on to correct a satellite that was malfunctioning and liable to break its orbit and cause severe damage. Raytheon launched a missile from a ship out on the ocean at the proper time and with the proper direction and force to blow up the satellite before it broke orbit.

“That was a good day for us, to take out a threat on behalf of the earth,” McGill said at the conclusion of her story. “Not all days are like that though.”

She continued on to say that she started her college career with the goal to find a fun job. Fun for her meant technically challenging. And technically challenging lead to a lot of unanticipated difficulty.

“I’ve had a lot of bad days,” McGill said. “[But] you have to learn to deal with those failures in your career. Part of it has to do with making every day count.”

McGill then addressed the students directly, saying that choosing to study engineering and technology at BYU meant they’d already picked hard and distinguished themselves among their peers. She said the next steps would include building a reputation based on qualifications, following through on commitments, dealing with adversity, and treating colleagues with respect.

To illustrate her points, McGill shared a few of her failures in the workplace; stories about faulty wires and system refurbishment. But, according to McGill, what mattered most about each of these stories was the failures she encountered and how she chose to react to them.

 “We don’t talk enough about failures,” she concluded. “Failures are part of the discovery process. That’s how you learn.”

McGill explained that failures and setbacks often come unexpectedly, that the days you don’t anticipate are the ones that make or break your career. She had to learn to weather them, take responsibility, and deal with the issues or problems.

“These are the days that make your reputation, that make your career,” McGill said.

Her next bit of advice pertained to being a leader, personal humility, and diversity of thought in the workplace.

She spoke about how difficult it was for her to step away from solving cool technical problems and assume her role as a leader.

“When I was getting too technically immersed in the details, I wasn’t helping my team,” McGill said.

She had to ask herself if what she was doing was going to help her team move forward. In learning to step back personally and subsequently move forward as a team, McGill also gained an appreciation for forging emotional connection with the people around her, which lead to some amazing instances of problem solving.

“There have been times when I’ve had to admit I don’t know how to solve certain problems,” McGill said. “As soon as you think you’re the guy in the room who has all the answers, you’ve probably gone a little too far. There [is] always someone in the room who knows more than you do.”

She explained that some of the answers to a few of the toughest problems she faced didn’t come from the engineering department. Sometimes the innovative solutions came from supply chain or management. McGill recommended embracing the diversity because that’s where innovation and magic starts.

In conjunction with embracing diversity is understanding that everyone walks a different path in search of that innovation.

“Everybody’s going to have to make their own journey,” McGill said. “You get to decide what that is. Whether you’re going to be a mechanical engineer or work in commercial industry or design the next cool consumer product. You’re going to have to decide how to bring value to that. Because in the end that’s why we’re all here, is to bring value to people.”

McGill concluded her speech by offering advice and sharing one last story.

When she was a kid, there was a hanging ceiling in her family’s home that, if she jumped, she could reach. It became a contest she held with herself; seeing how high she could jump to hit that ceiling wall.

“Go out there and make your own mark, make your highest mark on what you do in your careers,” McGill said. “Follow your curiosity.” 

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