Aerospace Engineering at Illinois Alumni Profile: John Yu


John Yu, left, with AE Assistant Prof. Grace Gao
John Yu, left, with AE Assistant Prof. Grace Gao
Aerospace Engineering alumnus John Yu has received the 2017 Outstanding Recent Alumnus Award from Aerospace Engineering at Illinois.

Yu, who earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from AE in 2007 and 2008, respectively, is head of Boeing’s Automated Identification organization in the Architecture, Capabilities & Systems division located in Everett, Washington. His team is responsible for bringing improved safety, quality and efficiency to Boeing Commercial Airplanes through the automated acquisition and transfer of data.

After earning his AE degrees, Yu went to work for the Boeing Company in Everett, Washington as a project manager supporting Pre-flight & Delivery of new wide-body airplanes to customers. 8 days after starting later, he was transferred to work on a developmental initiative to eliminate chromates from primer coatings. 

In 2009, Yu was tasked to help start up 787 Dreamliner production at Boeing’s new facility in Charleston, South Carolina. To help recover from design and build issues, he was deployed across the globe to assist struggling suppliers fix design errors and expedite fabrication of 787 components. In 2011, Yu was designated lead propulsion engineer responsible for nacelles requirements on the 787-8 and 787-9. Yu transitioned into management with responsibilities ranging from electrical assembly, business operations and supplier management. Prior to his current assignment, Yu was a Retrofit & Repair Engineering Manager whose team endeavored to  develop faster and more efficient ways to fix and maintain 787, 737MAX and KC-46C Tanker airplanes.

Of the achievements throughout your career, please elaborate on the ones that have given you the most satisfaction and why?

The work experience that has brought me the most satisfaction occurred early in my career. I had an opportunity to lead a team to fix a structural flaw on the 787, Boeing’s first majority composite airplane, that was found during flight-testing.

There are three reasons for why I remember this project. The first was the project had a clear and strong purpose. If we didn’t fix a shear tie fatigue problem, the airplane couldn’t get off the ground, gravely imperiling the success of the entire program. The second reason was the freedom my superiors gave the team to investigate the root cause and develop an innovated solution. The third reason was the (team’s) ability to quickly and easily obtain knowledge from experts around the world to help develop a solution.

This experience provided purpose, autonomy and growth.

What have been the most useful lessons you have taken from your time as an AE student, and who helped you to learn them?

Don’t just study for exams by memorizing practice questions. Learn the fundamental concepts and thoroughly understand the material so you’ll be able to solve problems. Prof. (John) Prussing, through his Orbital Mechanics exams, reinforced this point. While at the time I griped about this trickery, in retrospect it was an invaluable lesson for me to better internalize the course material.

What have been the most useful lessons you have learned during your career?

Be flexible and take risks. Life will present you with unexpected opportunities and challenges. Six months after starting my first job at Boeing (8 months after leaving Illinois), I was asked if I would be interested in going to Charleston, South Carolina, to help a supplier with the 787 Dreamliner. Up until that point, I had never worked with a major supplier and never worked on the 787. I said, “I’ll give it a try,” and packed my bags for steamy Charleston. Fast forward a few months, this ‘supplier help’ turned into a ‘supplier purchase’ and ultimately the creation of an entirely new airplane final assembly plant, the first of its kind outside of Boeing’s traditional home of the Pacific Northwest. If I had turned down the request and stayed in the position that I was in, I would definitely have missed out on a lot of dynamic and challenging work experiences that have helped me get to where I am today.

Another lesson that I have learned along the way is the need to help others as much as you can. For selfish reasons, you never know when you’ll need to ask for a favor in the future. For altruistic reasons, helping others is quite fulfilling and gratifying. Either way, be helpful!

Who have been your inspirations, particularly in AE?

Profs. (Larry) Bergman, (Rod) Burton, (Bruce) Conway, (John) Prussing and (Scott) White have been major inspirations from AE. Their passion for educating the next generation of engineers have left an indelible mark on me and countless other. Their eagerness to help, counsel and guide students to pursue their fullest potential have inspired me to do the same with the new engineers joining my organizations.

I still remember a conversation I had with Professor Burton regarding the proliferation of proprietary batteries used in consumer electronics and the benefits of having standard battery sizes. Today, my team at Boeing strives to avoid adopting 1-off technologies, and to standardize whenever possible to bring efficiency to our airplane production processes.

What advice can you offer current students?

Do something you find satisfying. If you don’t like what you do at first, keep looking.  

Do you have any comments on or predictions for the future of your industry?

I’m extremely excited about the development of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). It can be a hugely disruptive technology and a catalyst for significant innovation. Additionally, the prospect of human exploration to Mars is exhilarating. This presents mankind with the potential to be an interplanetary species.

Are there any other comments that you would like to make or insights you would care to share?

Call your mother (father too). They raised you and want to hear how you’re doing.