How engineers become leaders

Lessons in life and leadership from our Black Engineer of the Year Award winners

Veonicca Wesley was playing through the pain.

Her left ankle was hurt. But the injury was no match for her competitive streak. It kept driving her back to the tennis court at Tuskegee University, where she was studying mechanical engineering. She brushed off a doctor’s suggestion to have surgery, and eventually the injury got so bad she could barely walk.

“I never gave my body an opportunity to heal,” said Wesley, now a systems engineer at Raytheon Missiles and Defense, a Raytheon Technologies business.

Lesson learned. Five years later, she needed surgery on her other ankle. And she got it.

“I believe I needed that experience to grow,” Wesley said. Among the takeaways? “Trust the experts…Don’t give up…And, you can’t do it all by yourself.”

Wesley and two other Raytheon Technologies leaders were honored with major awards at the 35th Annual Black Engineer of the Year Awards STEM Conference. Here, they share lessons they’ve learned in their journey to become leaders.

Success is about what you give – not what you’ve got

It’s tempting to measure success in perks – a big salary, a big title, a shelf lined with awards. But there’s an even better metric, the award winners said: how much you give to others.

For Wesley, her generosity of spirit comes from her parents, who made family Christmases more about donating gifts to families who had less. “The more I move up, the more I can give back to the next generation,” Wesley said. “What’s the point if you’re not a bridge builder for others?”

Dr. Brittany Wheeler, a work transfer manager at Collins Aerospace, finds her success not in her degrees – she has three of them, including an MBA and a Doctor of Engineering – but rather in what she has done with them.

“I wouldn’t call myself successful if I did not reach out and pull somebody up with me,” she said.

Keith Burrell, an engineering fellow at Raytheon Intelligence & Space, also makes it a point to mentor his team.

“I tell them all the time, ‘I’m interested in your career, even if it means you’re going to leave this section,’” he said. “‘If you need to move somewhere else or you need to take another career path, I’m going to support you.’”

The BEYA conference will honor Burrell with a John D. Harris II Legacy Award (named after the former CEO of Raytheon International Inc.), Wesley with a Professional Achievement in Industry Award and Wheeler with a Dave Barclay Affirmative Action Award.

Confidence goes a long way

Burrell knew he wanted to be an engineer before he even knew what that meant.

“As a kid, I always liked to take things apart and put them back together,” he said.

All that natural curiosity and all those hours of tinkering propelled him, first through college – he was the first in his family to attend, and earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and an MBA from the University of Southern California – and later, through a more than 30-year career in aerospace and defense.

Most recently, he has worked as an electronic packaging subject matter expert and manager of a 17-person team. One key lesson he’s learned: Solving tough technical problems takes more than expertise.

“You come up with a solution to a problem, and you’ve got to be confident that it’s going to work. You’ve got to be able to defend it against other folks who may not know exactly what you’re doing, but they know enough to say, ‘I don’t think that’s going to work,’” Burrell said. “If you’re not confident, you’ll have a lot of people shooting ideas down. And, you’ll be back to the drawing board.”

For Burrell, that poise comes from doing the work to know the subject inside and out, and then building upon past experience to mitigate risk.

“You have a list of things in your mind that can fail, and you try to adjust for those issues,” he said. “When something doesn’t work, you want to make sure it’s not a complete disaster; it’s something you can fix.”

In 2020, Burrell was recognized as an engineering fellow, the culmination of his effort over the last several years to achieve technical expertise across Raytheon Technologies programs.

The journey was hard but worthwhile, he said. His advice to aspiring leaders: Get uncomfortable.

“I try to remember that when people ask me to step in a new role or take on a new task I haven’t done before,” he said. “Your natural instinct is to say no and stick to what you’re good at, right? You may not be good at a new challenge right away.”

Don’t wait for someone else to step up

When Wheeler sees a problem, she prefers to run straight at it.

“I do not want to complain about something that I did not do everything in my power to fix,”  she said.

Before she started at Collins Aerospace, for example, Wheeler learned the site where she would work, in Chula Vista, California, had no local resource group for Black employees. She saw an opportunity.

“I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll start one,’” she said. “Once I get my mind on something, I’m going to do it.”

Less than a year into her role, she made good on her promise.

Wheeler also mentors students in STEM programs — giving them something she didn’t have during her childhood in Los Angeles. Through years of volunteering, she made two observations: Very few students were young women of color, and STEM curriculums often left out how to succeed in business. So, she co-founded Greater Than Tech, a nonprofit aimed at increasing the number of women technology business leaders.

“It’s important for me to give what I didn’t have,” she said. “Why would I want to be the only one?”

Workshops at the nonprofit facilitate creativity — asking participants to re-engineer a technology for another purpose, for instance — and teach other topics relevant to entrepreneurship, including marketing, design and sales.

Build trust by holding yourself accountable

Wesley is a principal systems engineer with three distinct roles — integrated product team lead, section manager and campus manager for engineering recruitment at Auburn University. As such, she knows how important it is to find time for yourself while juggling priorities.

If her team works late on a Friday, she says, she’s there too.

“I would never ask someone else to do something that I wouldn’t do,” said Wesley.  

Wesley, who started her career 16 years ago as an intern, creates trust with her team members through her actions. And that mutual respect is crucial for her team’s work on the SM-3 interceptor, a defensive weapon used to defeat incoming ballistic missiles.

She holds herself to the same standards she expects of her team.

“You are a leader. If you see something wrong, speak out. If I do something wrong, speak out,” Wesley tells her team members. “I am the first one to say, ‘You guys, I made a mistake.’”

Raytheon Technologies is a sponsor of the BEYA conference, where 28 additional Raytheon Technologies engineers will be recognized with Outstanding Achievement Awards.