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In 1969 Jeff Sykes broke his neck on a high-school football practice field in Washington state. Since then he has used a wheelchair to get around – and get around he has.
Sykes continues to learn new disciplines and explore new arenas. In his successful, diverse career – the last 21 years of which have been at Boeing – he's had roles in information technology, rehabilitation services, community relations and, most recently, systems management. He's also found the time to mentor countless young people with spinal cord injuries and to inspire students, colleagues and community partners throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond. These efforts have led to a number of honors and awards, including recently being named one of 10 "Employees of the Year" by Careers & the disABLED magazine, which annually honors individuals with disabilities who have made a difference in the American workplace.
Boeing is "the greatest company in the world."
After opening a private practice as a speech therapist and then working as a computer programmer in the banking industry, Sykes joined Boeing in 1989. For 10 years he served in a variety of IT positions around the company. Then, challenged by a colleague to follow his passion, Sykes moved to community relations, joining the company's Global Corporate Citizenship group in 1999.
"I was on a one-month leave of absence for about 10 years," Sykes jokes now. "It was really rewarding. I learned that when there's a need in the community, Boeing people step up every time."
In 2010 he began a new job at Boeing Test & Evaluation, the company's centrally-managed test and evaluation organization. He now manages a computer system that tracks the progress of flight testing for the 787 Dreamliner and other new airplanes. If you catch him on the right day, you can look outside his office window and see a new 787 take off or land.
Throughout his career, Sykes has worked to break down barriers facing people with disabilities, including deafness, dyslexia and other "hidden" disabilities. He's volunteered at Seattle Children's Hospital for many years, where he counsels children with cancer and encourages young people with spinal-cord injuries to persevere towards their aspirations. He co-founded the Puget Sound chapter of the Boeing Employees Ability Awareness Association affinity group and served as its president for five years, helping to enhance understanding of – and communication and collaboration with – people with disabilities. And to help make air travel more accessible, Sykes has arranged for members of the group to test potential airplane equipment, services and seating configurations at Boeing's Payload Concepts Center, and also serves on Continental Airlines' Disability Advisory Board.
"Don't be afraid to talk to us, or to ask us any question," he advises people. "The only dumb question is the one that's not asked."
Sykes says he's grateful for the opportunities he's found at Boeing. "It's the greatest company in the world," he said. "I'm the kind of person who likes to learn something and move on to something new, and they encourage it here."