Six Tips for Success in Engineering & Business from Bell Helicopter’s Catherine Kilmain ’93

 Cathy Kilmain presenting

May 2, 2016

Catherine Kilmain ’93 recently returned to Syracuse University for a candid talk about her journey rising in the aerospace industry. Kilmain is the executive vice president of engineering for Bell Helicopter, a major producer of commercial and military, manned and unmanned vertical-lift aircraft. She got her start in Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, earning a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering.

During her visit, she shared six insightful tips for success in life post-Syracuse. Here are the key excerpts from her talk:

1. Engineering is a team sport.
“Everyone brings different perspectives and understanding. That goes for engineers and non-engineers alike. Successful projects don’t just need aero engineers or mechanical engineers—you have to have computer scientists too. You need finance experts to tell you what resources are available to you. When you are all working together to get a product into someone’s hands, it pays to play well with others.”

2. Engineering isn’t always the right answer.
“As hard as it is for me to say, the right solutions for the business aren’t always the engineering solution. It’s important to know the limits of your own knowledge and lean on teammates. I can design something beautiful and intricate but I need someone else’s expertise to help me build it cost effectively. You need to balance what you can provide from an engineering perspective with what the business actually needs.”

3. Find a career in your sweet spot.
“There is an intersection between organizational need, competence, and passion. When all three collide, that’s your sweet spot. Organizational need and competence with no passion is a chore. Spend as little time in that as possible. A lot of people pursue a title and money and put themselves in that spot.”

“Imagine something you do that you don’t like to do. What if you had to do that for the rest of your life? That wouldn’t be fun for you or the people around you. I would rather have a sweet spot over a title any day.”

4. Don’t worry about being a rookie.
“Everyone has to start somewhere. Early in your career, you’re more likely to encounter jobs that are chores. There’s something to be said for paying your dues, but don’t get stuck there. Find out what you need to do to transition into more fulfilling roles. Have those conversations with supervisors and experienced coworkers so you can reach your sweet spot.”

5. Maintain an innovative spirit.
“Read a lot. Look into anything that piques your interest. Get curious about the businesses you go to work for. You need to make sure you intimately understand their business, their culture, and what they do if you want to thrive within that ecosystem. Never stop learning.”

“Always be inquisitive and challenge the status quo in business and engineering. Is there another way? Respect others’ experience, but don’t be afraid to pose questions about why or how they do things. Learn from more experienced people, but stay excited. I want you to feel challenged and motivated to change things for the better.”

6. Give back.
“I’ve been a part of the Expanding Your Horizons program since 2003. It’s designed to encourage young women to pursue careers in science and engineering. I love it. The girls are there for the weekend. They get excited. They light up in that environment. I want to let them know they can be engineers. Women are underrepresented in engineering today, and we can’t afford that in the future. As you progress, don’t forget to give back to your community. It’s fulfilling and can accomplish a lot.”

Catherine Kilmain’s appearance at Syracuse University was part of the ongoing Engineering Meets Business lecture series made possible by a gift from Muss Akram ‘10, an alumnus of Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science.