Tom Cogan’s co-workers and subordinates will tell you he symbolizes the new breed of consensus-driven engineering executives at Boeing that grew out of the 777 development. Cogan is quiet, soft-spoken, firm, solicitous and presently the calm in the storm.
|Tom Cogan at NMW
Watch the 787 Dreamliner's
chief project engineer
accept DN's 2007 Engineer
of the Year award.
His low-key style plays well in an industry that has gone totally global not just in markets, but in manufacturing and design — a far cry from the customary autocratic top-down management aircraft makers were known for as a result of their deep relationships with the military.
As chief project engineer for the 787, Cogan oversees the technical and safety aspects for probably the most important airplane in the company’s storied history, which can be described as an economic roller-coaster ride. As of early August, sky-high Boeing had reported 684 orders for the airplane worth on the order of $114 billion before discounts, making it on paper the most lucrative new commercial airplane in history.
The 52-year-old Cogan — DN’s 2007 Engineer of the Year — acknowledges it’s “crunch time” for the 787. At this writing, Boeing and its partners were still anxiously anticipating a critical step in its evolution — the 787’s maiden flight. The first plane was rolled out to employees, officialdom and the media at the huge Boeing plant in Everett, WA on July 8.
Cogan averages 70 to 80 hours a week at work and is on call 24/7 as the company ramps up to the first flight with ground tests and the countless contingencies that arise. “After we deliver the first one next year, I might be able to take a deep breath,” he says, adding he did manage to sneak away during the summer for a few days of fishing with his father.
Longtime colleague and friend Jeff Hawk relates how Cogan keeps his work and personal life in perspective. During a recent Tuesday review meeting that typically runs 12 intense hours, Hawk, director of 787 certification, government relations and environment, recalls a brief but revealing anecdote. “The first thing Tom asked me was “did you guys buy your sea kayaks yet?” He could have said have you solved that problem with the FAA. He is not being overcome by work pressure. I respect Tom for his calmness. I have never seen him lose his temper. He always maintains tremendous respect and dignity even in challenging circumstances.”
Unlike many past DN Engineers of the Year, Cogan can’t tick off a long list of patents bearing his name. He is not a genius inventor, but if you were developing a big, complex and high-stakes machine like the 787, Cogan is the individual you’d want managing the immense engineering project that involves about 50 key manufacturing partners from around the world. Boeing completes the final assembly of each airplane in a matter of days, but only 30 percent of the 787 components are actually made by the company.
Still, he says his job is primarily dealing with technical and safety issues as opposed to the “administrivia” that consume many engineering managers.
“Certainly there is some management. I have people who report to me, but most of my time is focused on the technical aspects of the airplane. Most importantly, the chief project engineer is responsible for the safety of the aircraft. We spend more time on safety than any other element of the design,” he says.
That still means the largest part of his job is getting people and in Boeing’s case, mostly engineers, pointed in the right direction. “Part of my job is getting all the people together and understanding the requirements to find the best answer. Compromises have to be made. It’s helping the team define that path,” he says.
Invariably, deadlocks have to be broken and decisions made. He explains his role as arbiter this way: “Ultimately I have that responsibility, but they really are group decisions. We talk about pros and cons and we have an economic model we use (that examines) how it impacts Boeing and our customers. When you have all the right people bringing in the data, the (correct course) becomes pretty self-evident. Sometimes, it’s not so clear cut and I participate in those decisions.”
A long silence follows a question about his strengths as an engineer. Lori Gunter, Boeing PR official for the 787, finally breaks the ice. “I can tell you he is really struggling with this. There isn’t a lot of self-promotion here,” she says, recalling an incident when she was shuttling some heavy boxes from one point to another. Cogan saw her and helped for 15 minutes even though he is possibly the busiest human being at Boeing these days.
“None of us do this by ourselves. I worked here as a summer intern in college. I liked the people here and if things work out I would retire here. It’s really the people at Boeing that make this such a special place to work,” he says. While Cogan sidesteps the discussion of his strengths, he has co-workers who are happy to talk.
“Tom is an engineer. He carries all the typical engineering approaches and stereotypes with him. His job requires a blend of engineering, marketing and a little sales. The (attribute) that sticks out the most to me is when he answers questions and communicates information, he provides the information in a logical and sometimes detailed manner,” says Rich Ptacin, an engineer who works for Cogan and who has enjoyed a professional relationship with him for more than 20 years. “He is a good listener and processes information quickly. He understands airplanes and how Boeing goes about creating, designing and delivering them. This also means he has a good grasp of who can help us around the company. Tom is not afraid to ask for help.”
Ptacin would not identify any of Cogan’s weaknesses, but our Engineer of the Year was more than happy to share them.
“There’s a really a long list,” he quips. “You’d always like to be smarter about things and communicate better. Every day I go home reflecting on the day, on the things I could have done better. I (can be) too self-critical,” Cogan says. He confesses to being a perfectionist, a “flaw” few would argue with for someone building airplanes. “I try to make things too perfect. I suppose I have that bent. At the end of the day, we do the best we can,” he says.
“He’s a relatively quiet person. It’s a delicate balance of wanting to draw out other people. He needs to hear what others have to say. (I’d like to) hear more from Tom (professionally),” says Hawk.
But his ability to listen to other engineers and drive for consensus is a huge strength, says longtime colleague Mike Sinnett, director of systems for the 787. That he is so approachable makes a difference. Conversely, an intimidating individual would be the wrong person for Cogan’s job.
“Tom is the last person who’d want to bury a problem. If you take problems underground, they can’t get solved. Let’s get them out on the table and get them understood with great diplomacy. There comes a time when enough discussion has taken place and it’s time to move on. Still, he makes everybody feel like part of the decision.”
Sinnett, at Boeing since 1991 and at McDonnell Douglas before that (MD was acquired by Boeing in 1996), says Cogan doesn’t get flustered. “He takes bad news well and approaches problems in an optimistic way to work through them. We had some issues with wiring weighing more than we intended because we had to incorporate more shielding. You go to him and say we have missed our weight target. I’ve been on programs before with problems like that and they say you must be a bad person. He does it with seriousness and a sense of humor. These issues are all very serious, (but) we have to do our utmost to enjoy the ride because these programs are long.”
One example where Cogan was willing to take a risk involved using a Boeing corporate jet which are reserved for operating division CEOs. Cogan, with a “twinkle in his eye,” was traveling to Australia with Sinnett and the pair needed to make a connection in Los Angeles to catch the long flight across the Pacific. The flight to L.A. circled after takeoff but had to return to Seattle. It was then Cogan commandeered one of Boeing’s corporate jets.
“We’ve been brought up to be good stewards of the company’s resources. (Company jets) are not even in our paradigm. (I said) ‘you can’t be serious.’ We’ll get into too much trouble, (but) this was a really important (meeting) to go tell the story of the 787. We made the (Australia) flight with 15 minutes to spare,” Sinnett recalls (Cogan did get the requisite permissions for the jet).
In keeping with his humility, Cogan is loathe to describe anything at Boeing in terms of himself. Asked what his biggest technical achievement has been, his response is predictable.
“Our biggest technical achievement — and it really is an ‘our’ not a ‘mine’ — changes weekly if not daily. At the time that we are facing a real technical challenge, there are moments when we wonder if we’ve come to a dead end. But by getting the right people talking to one another and applying their unique skills and expertise we solve it. Then looking back on it, (the answer) seems so obvious. I guess with a little more time and distance it will be easier to put things in perspective but for now, this really does change from week to week. We’ve come through so much together deciding on how to manufacture large, integrated composite structure; solving unique electro-magnetic-effects concerns and building our partnering agreements and processes.”
Cogan won’t identify his most gratifying technical decision until after the 787 flies for the first time, but he does talk about his toughest.
“The decision to make composites our primary material was very difficult. Aluminum is a material we know well and was more in our comfort zone. We know a great deal about composites, too, but not for the scale we were considering. But looking forward, we saw so much more potential for improvement with composites. It took a leap of faith in the technical expertise of our team that they could invent an effective and efficient manufacturing process. In hindsight, we can’t imagine making any other decision.”
In his spare time, Cogan enjoys nature photography, kayaking and the outdoors. One of his prized shots captured a killer whale breeching not far from his kayak. He met his wife of 30 years in high school and she is a Boeing engineer working on avionics and software. The couple raises rabbits as house pets. Cogan grew up in Midland, TX, and holds a bachelors degree in aeronautical engineering from Texas A&M. He has been with Boeing for 30 years and also served as chief project engineer for the 757 and the Sonic Cruiser, a plane that emphasized speed and was scraped in favor of efficiency, the primary design goal of the 787.
A Hundred Thousand Hearts and Minds Flying in Close Formation
|As chief project engineer for the 787, Tom Cogan is in charge of the 787’s safety. Does that intimidate him?
“It is a sacred trust not a burden. I think about the millions of people who will fly on board our airplanes. Most of them aren’t even born yet. We spend more time working to ensure that this is a safe airplane than anything else. And while I have the ultimate responsibility for the safe performance of the airplane, it is a responsibility shared by everyone on the program. It’s hard for someone who doesn’t work in this industry to understand the collective nature of what we do. There isn’t one person who holds responsibility for anything — that’s not the best way to ensure success. We have teams of experts reviewing every decision to make sure we haven’t overlooked anything. We test everything to make sure it meets or exceeds the requirements. When something goes wrong with any of our airplanes, we all feel it very deeply. Our goal is to ensure the design of the airplane never causes or contributes to an accident,” Cogan says.
Cogan’s colleague Mike Sinnett, director of systems for the 787, puts it a bit differently.
“People invest their hearts into these airplanes. Why do they get teary eyed when a plane rolls down the runway for the first time? It’s a hundred thousand hearts and minds flying in close formation. We in the industry trust each other with our own lives and the lives of loved ones everyday. Tom personifies that responsibility,” Sinnett says.