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An Engineering Career - 50 Years Out

12/01/2010 4:45 PM 10"250
Kent Kresa, '59, '61 MS, '66 EAA, Chairman Emeritus, Northrop Grumman Corporation

Description: Returning to his freshman physics classroom after half a century, Kent Kresa still feels passionate about MIT: "It's a place I love; I feel good when I come back, and it's been very much a part of my life for the past 50 years." In his talk, Kresa describes how an MIT education helped shape his professional path, leading to a topflight career in the aviation and defense industry.

Kresa came to MIT "in love with airplanes," but had no sense where he'd end up. Fascinated by fluid dynamics, he found student work at Boeing in the wind tunnel group. After witnessing "huge open rooms that had acres of engineersall grinding away on numbers," he left Boeing with "serious questions about his future career" in aeronautics engineering. He was so soured that he contemplated leaving MIT for a business degree at Harvard.

MIT professors persuaded him that the engineering world was about to change dramatically, and Kresa decided to stick it out. This decision paid off, for Kresa soon found opportunities that were both exciting and cutting edge. He got an early taste of digital computing at a firm developing a commercial parachute system for satellite capsules. He worked at MIT Lincoln Lab in ballistic missile defense. One of his most "phenomenal life experiences" unfolded on a tiny atoll in the Marshall Islands, where he and a team of 100 MIT researchers toiled for two years on a missile reentry project. Cut off from the rest of the world, there wasn't "a lot to do other than to work and drink and party."

After completing an advanced MIT engineering degree in the mid"60s, Kresa went to work for DARPA. He saw the first stirrings of the internet, and the evolution of infrared technology, precision weapons guidance, GPS, stealth technology and unmanned vehicles. After seven years in this innovative environment, Kresa feared he "had peaked before he was 35." But his next job "fortunately proved there was plenty left to do." He headed to Northrop as lead researcher, which led to a series of increasingly senior positions, culminating in company chairman in 1990.

At Northrop, Kresa weathered the downsizing of the nation's defense industry, which spurred his company's acquisition of Grumman and other affiliated tech companies. He says he came to recognize that "engineering"related activities that emphasize broad thinking and innovation have the best chance of delivering good solutions and giving self"fulfillment and social value as well." These insights, he says, powerfully evoke his MIT experiences, where he first learned that "the most successful problem"solving stretches and crosses boundaries," and that the ideal environment for this involves "interaction with smart teammates, where everybody has mutual excitement about work, and the commitment to try out ideas."

About the Speaker(s): Kent Kresa was elected CEO of Northrop Grumman in January 1990 and chairman of the board in September 1990. He joined Northrop Grumman in 1975 as vice president and manager of the company's Research and Technology Center, developing new proprietary processes and products. From 1976"82, he served as corporate vice president and general manager of the Ventura Division, a leader in the production of unmanned aeronautical vehicles.

In 1982, he was appointed group vice president of the company's Aircraft Group and in 1986 was named senior vice president"Technology Development and Planning. Kresa was elected president of the company in 1987. Before joining Northrop Grumman, Kresa served with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where he was responsible for broad, applied research and development programs in the tactical and strategic defense arena. From 1961"68, he was associated with MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, where he worked on ballistic missile defense research and reentry technology.

Kresa has also served as Chairman of the Board of Avery Dennison Corporation, a director of General Motors Corporation, and was appointed by President Obama as interim board chair of GM during the company's recovery.

Host(s): School of Engineering, School of Engineering

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