Imagine Tomorrow

2010 Keynote Address

Imagine Your Future

Remarks of Mary Armstrong
Boeing Vice President – Environment, Health and Safety
May 22, 2010

KeynoteMiles, thank you for that kind introduction.

I’m very excited to be here with you. This truly is an amazing event. It’s an opportunity to dream, and make those dreams possible.

I had a chance to look around the competition earlier today. I was extremely impressed by what I saw. You students are great inspirations to me, and I am quite sure to your parents, teachers, and judges here with us today.

Turning plants into fuel. Designing energy-efficient buildings and homes. Making solar cells cheaper and easier to produce. Using bicycle pedals to power video games and iPods. With the exception of that last one (which sounds like a great idea to me, the mother of five sons) these innovations are similar to concepts our team at Boeing is working on every day.

Instead of being invented by researchers with PhDs, these ideas were generated by you – by high school students from around the state.

Each of us has the ability to create innovative ideas. The key is to make them relevant. And these projects in this year’s Imagine Tomorrow competition are relevant. They can generate real-world value.

In this year’s competition, at least five teams are developing ways to generate electricity from the water in storm drains. We might be able to use something like that at Boeing. In the Puget Sound area alone, Boeing’s property includes over 100 million square feet of covered and paved surface. As a result, about 2.5 billion gallons of storm water are discharged from our property in Washington state every year. Add to that our facilities in 21 other states – not to mention Australia and Canada – and you quickly see that storm water is a big deal for Boeing and to all of us who share the Northwest waterways. 

One thing my team is responsible for is making sure that storm water is clean when it leaves our sites. If we could generate electricity while treating storm water, that would be a big plus! We’d be helping the environment and generating positive business results.

That’s what I mean about being relevant.

Being exposed to concepts such as these is what makes the Imagine Tomorrow competition so exciting.

Now, let me ask you a question. What do you think about when you think about Boeing?

How many would say, “Airplanes?” Maybe, “Defense products?” Or, “Satellites and spacecraft? OK, a few of you associate Boeing with space exploration.

When I think about Boeing, I think about biofuels, about creating sustainable fuels using algae and plants like camelina that grows here in eastern Washington. I think about the Academy Awards. Did you know that Boeing lit up the red carpet at this year’s Oscar celebration? We did it with floodlights powered by hydrogen fuel cells that generate zero emissions.

Most of all, when I think about Boeing, I think about the power of great ideas and the innovative people behind them.

That’s what I want to talk about tonight – not about Boeing, but about you. About how you can take innovative ideas – like the ones you demonstrated here at this competition – and turn them into the power to shape your future.

One of the main reasons I’m in the job I’m in today was because of an event much like this one. About 35 years ago, I was a student at Bethel High School in Graham, Washington. No one in my family had ever gone to college before.

My mom, who worked as a bookkeeper at McChord Air Force Base, always told my brother and me, “If I had gotten my degree, I would be eligible for a better job. If only I had gotten my degree.”

Since I enjoyed math and science classes, my physics teacher invited me – and several other girls – to an event hosted by the Society of Women Engineers at the University of Washington. For a kid from a small town, the experience of being on campus made a huge impression on me. There I was, surrounded by thousands of students from around the United States, from around the world. 

Before attending that event, I never thought about becoming an engineer. If someone asked me what an engineer did, I would have said that they drive a train on the railroad. But after attending that event, I knew what engineers could do and that I was going to become an engineer.

I still look back on that day and think about how fortunate I was to be invited.
I don’t know if the situation is exactly the same today but, in my experience, when you attended a rural high school, which Bethel was back then, you didn’t have much interaction with kids who plan to go to college. At least I didn’t.

Fearing the unknown, I had real concerns about my ability to be successful in college.

Coming to campus and participating an event like this, at the age of 17, was a big step for me. It showed me not to underestimate myself; it showed me that I could do it. And that’s what I want to emphasize to you.

Don’t underestimate what you can accomplish, or the challenges you can solve. You can do anything you set your sights upon. You will be disappointed if you do not set them high enough.

The choices you’ll make during the next few years will have huge – and I hope positive – consequences for you and your future. You’ll decide whether to go to college and what to study, what jobs to pursue, and how to enhance your career while you raise a family.

I’ve been very fortunate. My family, my community and my employer have been great sources of strength and support as I’ve made these choices. At the same time, I’ve kept one simple truth in mind: I am the one person responsible for my career. The same applies to each of you. You are responsible for your own careers.

Today, I want to share with you several stories, examples from my life, to illustrate the fact that you can – and must – take charge of your future. These stories can be simplified into three main points:

  • Use education to enable your career dreams.

  • Take the initiative, which often means questioning the status quo.

  • And always have the courage to follow your heart.

The first story I would like to share is about how my choices around education have allowed me to fulfill my career dreams.

As I mentioned, the Society of Women Engineers’ event inspired me to become an engineer. When I made up my mind, I told my high school chemistry teacher that I intended to go into chemical engineering. I loved chemistry. I thought he would be excited about my decision.

To this day, I vividly remember his response. He told me, “That’s not a good career for a woman. Become a pharmacist. ”

I thought to myself, “You old duffer. You just watch me become an engineer!” That spurred me on even further!

I chose to study chemical engineering because I was interested in chemistry. What I didn’t realize then was that having an engineering degree would be a springboard to do anything I dreamed throughout my life.

This is the advice I give my own sons.  They don’t always appear to be listening, but more about that later.  What I tell my sons is this:

  • Do you want to start your own business? The math and science you study for an engineering degree gives you the tools to solve business challenges.

  • Do you want to be a teacher? An engineering degree helps you understand how things work – at very fundamental levels – so that you can teach others.

  • Do you want to travel the world and help people in developing nations? A technical degree gives you the opportunity to develop ways to produce clean drinking water, to grow food in arid lands, to eradicate diseases and to help people improve their standards of living.

Look at all the things we take for granted today:
Cars, and the highways and bridges they drive on. Airplanes. X-rays and CAT Scans. Computers. iPods. The Internet. Even lightweight golf clubs made from graphite composites.

All of these – and more – are the result of engineers. Engineers take all those research breakthroughs and turn them into relevant applications for our lives and the world.

Looking around this competition, looking at the concepts you’ve worked on, I can confidently say that, in the future, our world will be vastly different – and vastly improved – because of technical breakthroughs being developed by our next generation of engineers.

Personally, I never developed anything as glamorous as an iPod or a CAT Scan machine. Yet studying engineering opened many doors to me.

When I started as an oil refinery engineer I never envisioned that my career would take me into fields such as electronics, alternate energy research, or leading 12 manufacturing plants around the world to produce wings, tails and flight decks for commercial airplanes. And I could never have achieved all this without an engineering degree.

So what happens after you earn your degree and land your first job? That brings me to my second story. It's about taking initiative.

When I started at Boeing, the company had a reputation as a place that stressed hierarchy. In some ways, it still does. As new employees, starting at a big company can feel very impersonal. But Boeing was based in the Pacific Northwest. It’s home. So I took a risk.

When I interviewed, it happened over the phone. Let me assure you, we’ve changed that process because a telephone interview is more than a little impersonal.

When I arrived for my first day on the job, my supervisor, Dorothy, handed me a stack of company procedure manuals. Again, a little impersonal.

So, I was desperate to make some kind of connection. I asked myself, “How does my job contribute to the company's success? How is what I’m doing relevant?”

A couple of weeks into the job, I got into my car and drove to see Dorothy's boss. Unannounced.  I just walked up to the secretary and said, "I'm a new engineer in Dorothy's group. I just wondered if Bob had a minute for me to introduce myself."
She said, after a long pause, “Well of course he has a minute!”

I met Bob. I told him that I was a new engineer and wanted to introduce myself. And you know what? Bob already knew my name. We had a short conversation. I told him about my excitement to work at Boeing. There were no awkward moments. And Bob remembered me. To him I became more that just a name on the roster of engineers.

Looking back on it now, it felt like I was really stepping out there. I was going outside the accepted chain of command. Yet my intentions were totally above board. I also figured if my boss took exception to me showing initiative, than the job probably wasn’t a good fit for me anyway.

Boeing did turn out to be a good fit. Over the next 25 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work at more than 20 different jobs at Boeing. I was able to take advantage of these exciting and diverse opportunities because of my foundational engineering education.

Now for the last story, which about the importance of following your heart. It's from a later time in my career, after I had entered management.

Two opportunities came along at the same time, forcing me to make a hard choice. Boeing was setting up a site in northeastern Montana for flight testing. I was asked to get it up and running. At the same time, I had been nominated for a company-sponsored fellowship – an opportunity that seemed to be a sure step to becoming a vice president.

I talked to people I respected around the company, I talked to my mentors. They immediately recommended the fellowship. They told me that taking an assignment in Montana would look like I was banished for committing a huge blunder.

I viewed the situation much differently. I would be setting up a new operation. I would be dealing with huge business and technical challenges. It would be totally under my direction. That appealed to my sense of adventure.

Against the advice of others, I followed my heart. I chose Montana.

It was scary at first. I had to do a lot by myself, without a crew of engineers validating my work. There was no one but me to set up the contracts, create business practices and manage the staff.

Even though I didn’t follow my mentors’ advice, I kept in touch with them. I let them know how it was going. I visited them when I was in town told them all about the exciting things I was doing. And you know what? Pretty soon they thought it was their idea for me to take the Montana assignment.

That opportunity in Montana was the single best job I have ever had at Boeing. It prepared me for all the positions I have held since. It helped me get to where I am today – leading Boeing’s environmental efforts. And it was the result of me following my heart.

Now, do I always give the best advice? You may want to ask my son, Dan, for his opinion about that.

I encouraged him to become an engineer. I was so excited when he attended freshmen engineering orientation at UW.  When he got home, I excitedly asked him how it went!  He said, “No offense, Mom, but. that was a really boring group of people and there is no way I am going to be an engineer.  I am going to major in business then I am going to law school to become a sports agent.”

Dan, who does love math, decided to pursue his business degree in accounting.
Now I’m not going to comment about how exciting accounting is. However Dan is finding that out in his summer intern job, reviewing income tax forms. But, silently, I take comfort in the fact that Dan has taken my advice. He is taking full advantage of education to reach his career dreams, questioning the status quo (even if that is me!) and he is following his heart.  I tell these stories because, I hope – in some little way – to inspire you the way you have inspired me with your projects today. To inspire you to maximize your educational opportunities. To encourage you not to take “no” for an answer, but to challenge the status quo. And, most importantly, to take your future into your own hands, and to follow your hearts.

When I was younger, when I was a small child, our nation was intensely focused on the challenge of landing on the moon. This prompted an entire generation to become the first members of their families to attend to college; to go to graduate school; to study math and science; to pursue careers in physics, engineering, chemistry and aerospace; and to develop innovative new technologies.
Today, looking at the challenges in front of us as a global community, it’s clear that there are hard choices ahead of us. How do we address the serious issues of pollution and climate change? How do we develop cleaner energy? How do we help millions of people around the world improve their standards of living without putting more strain on the environment? In short, how do we create a sustainable future?

Judging from the projects submitted to the Imagine Tomorrow competition, you have a head start in developing solutions to the hard challenges we face. You’ve tried to address problems that seem as impossible today as landing on the moon seemed to us in the 1960s.

I encourage you to view this competition as a starting point, as springboard to pursuing a career focused on solving the hard challenges we face as a global community. View it as the first step of a fulfilling future.

Take advantage of the educational opportunities ahead of you. Challenge the status-quo view of what you can and cannot be accomplished. And most importantly, follow your heart into the career that allows you to follow your dreams.

Judging from what I’ve seen here, you’re well on your way. And all of us will benefit from that.

Thank you.


For information about the Imagine Tomorrow competition, please email
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