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Feature Story

Keith Otsuka

Gail Hanusa/Boeing

Keith Otsuka is currently Boeing Test & Evaluation's chief pilot for the 777 program.

Stereotypes shattered

Keith Otsuka defies any number of stereotypes, including the test pilot as reckless adventurer -- or as a dashing young man with a military haircut.

"I used to tell people in the Air Force that if you lined up a bunch of people and asked someone to identify the one who's a test pilot, they wouldn't usually pick the short Asian guy," said Otsuka, a third-generation Japanese-American who spent 10 years as a test pilot in the U.S. Air Force. "It's all about their expectations and assumptions."

The image of the death-defying test pilot depicted in films is also misleading, he said.

"In the lineup, the test pilot would be the guy with the pocket protector," said Otsuka, who joined Boeing in 2000 as a production pilot and is currently Boeing Test & Evaluation's chief pilot for the 777 program.

"Just because someone is quiet and unassertive doesn't mean they won't be a good manager or a good leader."

"We are the geeks of the pilot world," he said. "We tend to have engineering backgrounds and we have that inquisitiveness about why things work the way they do. It makes us different from people who just fly airplanes. Our goal at the end of the day is to take something potentially risky and manage the risk. Risk-taking does not necessarily make a good test pilot."

The multiculturalism of his home state of Hawaii strongly influenced Otsuka's views of diversity. "In Hawaii, everyone is a minority -- and no one is," he said. "It's the only state that does not have a majority Caucasian culture. We never thought about boundaries because nobody told us there were any. No one said, ‘You can't do this.' In the Air Force and at Boeing, I never felt that coming from a minority culture hurt me in any way. I was always given ample opportunity to perform."

As a member of the Engineering & Operations Diversity Council of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Otsuka works to make sure that perceptions and expectations do not get in the way of the company making the best use of available talent. In fact, the primary focus of the council is to develop culturally competent leaders who can recognize skills that spring from people's diverse backgrounds and leverage them to benefit the company.

Otsuka said his life and career have taught him that opportunities should never be limited by cultural expectations, and that assumptions can be dangerous things. "Our assumptions do not necessarily have anything to do with whether a person can do a job," he said. "Just because someone is quiet and unassertive doesn't mean they won't be a good manager or a good leader."

People may take various approaches to an issue depending on their unique personal background and experiences, but that's OK, he said, because differences can add value: "I have to go in with the assumption that everybody wants to do the right thing, but everybody has a different perspective on how to do it."