Boeing Engineer: From Dream Job to Nightmare

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The most depressing thing I read today was Former Boeing Engineers Say Relentless Cost-Cutting Sacrificed Safety at Bloomberg Businessweek.

If you want to know why I am not part of the “I love what I do and I’m going to plan to work forever” crowd, this article pretty much sums it up. As someone who has an engineering background and has actually done work inside some of their facilities years ago (but never worked for Boeing), I also felt Boeing had the reputation of hiring the best aerospace engineers and thus made awesome airplanes. As a kid, that was a dream job. C’mon, you get to make airplanes!!!

Yet somehow a company renowned for its meticulous engineering installed software that drove the aircraft into the ground while the pilots searched desperately for answers.

Why? The answers to all your questions is money. At Boeing, the bean counters won and the engineers lost. It wasn’t overnight, but it like many things it seems gradually and then all at once. Even though the FAA basically let Boeing police itself, the FAA has still had to forcefully ground two of Boeing’s planes in the last 6 years. The last time a plane was grounded before that was 1979. The worst part is that they still don’t seem to understand their mistakes.

The relentless message: Shareholders would henceforth come first at Boeing. The important thing was not to get “overly focused on the box,” Hopkins said in a 2000 interview with Bloomberg. “The box”—the plane itself—“is obviously important, but customers are assuming the box is of great quality.” This was heresy to engineers, to whom the box was everything.

I can’t imagine how disheartening this would be to a Boeing engineer or factory worker. Their obsession is why the airline industry has become so commonplace and successful. We trust that we will land safely. They built up a great reputation. Now it appears that Boeing executives started trading that assumption of quality (reputation) in exchange for short-term profits (while firing many of the engineers). The product that they helped create had defects that killed people. Worker morale must be at an all-time low.

This is why building up a certain level of financial independence is important. Sure, your job right now is great. The pay is great. You’re building something cool. You like your boss. There is no end in sight, so why not buy the huge house, luxury car, and new boat? If you have the dream job and your specialized skills are highly valued, enjoy it but remember that if done properly you only need to get rich once! A dream job can turn into a nightmare. Read this article and watch out for those bean counters. I’m so thankful that I never have to answer to one again.

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  1. Its interesting how the Anything But Supreme Court conveys all the rights of citizenship to
    Corporations….except the right to be prosecuted for Corporate Murder.
    Maybe time to watch Fight Club again.

  2. Lisa Stansbury says

    Thanks for sharing Jonathan. Agree with you about the money focus being the issue. But don’t so many of us in the personal finance blogger or hobbyist space focus on return on investment? The take-away, I guess, is when is it enough, already? Hopefully, it is a lesson we will learn as a society sooner rather than later.

    • That is a good point, that the goal sheet should be more than numbers. Personally I like to tell myself (true or not) that I write about the numbers but in real life I try to focus on the the important non-financial parts of life. Time with friends and family, etc. Certainly, if I was all about the money, I would not have had three kids. If I’m honest though, I also appreciate the value of meaningful work more after having kids. It can be nice to spend 10-20 hours a week (not 50-60 per week) creating something of value and being paid for it. I have found that I don’t enjoy being a 100% stay-at-home parent (and neither does my spouse). I’m sure others may feel differently. But the ability to decline any opportunity that I dislike is awesome.

  3. This is very true, the only thing certain in life is change. Admiration, fame, wealth, careers are here today and gone tomorrow. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. As a design engineer in a different field, chemical plants, it is very difficult to find a balance between a completely safe design and one that can actually be built with the resources available. Only NASA can afford to buy $400 toilet seats, normal corporations can’t afford to build everything out of stainless steel and expensive alloys and stay in business. Often engineers are placed in the difficult position of working within a budget that doesn’t allow the best theoretical construction, but does meet all industry standards. And sometimes mistakes happen that no amount of money could fix. The MCAS system on the 737 Max does appear to have been given too much control authority and had too little redundancy built in. It will be interesting to see if the inquiries find a connection between the MCAS problems and Boeings budget constraints.

    • Joel Oester says

      Good Point. There is always the balance. Inexpensive, High Quality, Quick to Market. You have to pick 2. Management always wants all 3.

  5. Douglas Fitzgerald says

    This is a really important post. The problem is that the product they are selling is not “The Box” – the product they are selling is Boeing stock. All that matters is getting that stock price up in the short term. This is true across corporate America and there doesn’t seem to be a solution for it.

  6. I left Boeing in 1999 after an 11 year career as a design engineer on the 737, 757, and 747. The acquisitions of Rockwell and McDonnell Douglas (and then subsequent take over of key leadership positions by people from the acquired companies) totally changed the culture and I could see the writing on the wall. In my early thirties, I was then still in a position to completely change industries. Both my parents retired from Boeing. It was a great company and I’m sure that there are still a lot of great people there. Chasing stock prices is not always the best way to run a company. Thankfully I now work at a company that left the stock market and is privately held. It seems like there is more long term strategy when the CEO isn’t watching a stock ticker.

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