Susan Chodakewitz has served as the president of Tetra Tech AMT since late 2006, where she leads approximately 400 employees in the aviation and information technology arm of Tetra Tech, AMT’s parent company.
In her conversation with ExecutiveBiz, she discusses her company’s growing presence in the commercial and international markets, Tetra Tech AMT’s involvement in the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation (NextGen) program and what made her choose to go into the business world after receiving an MA in Russian Studies from Columbia University.
ExecutiveBiz: What are the biggest growth drivers for your company going forward?
Susan Chodakewitz: We have several of them. And they really relate back to the quality of the people we have on board and the culture of the organization.
For us, what we’ve been able to do successfully thus far is develop teams of very strong technical individuals who provide impactful and meaningful support for the client in the execution of their mission and in their success. As you’d imagine, we are very agile and flexible in so doing. We also take ownership and have a passion for what we do. We partner with the client and we attract world-renowned experts who are the best at what they do.
ExecutiveBiz: Can you specifically touch on some of those experts?
Chodakewitz: Mary McMillan, for example, is one of the first commercial U.S. female pilots who is also an expert in aviation safety. Her experience not only transcends detailed safety knowledge and expertise in complex technical systems, but she also is an operator and a pilot who understands how to help our FAA client in that context as well.
Similarly Jeff Williams is one of the “fathers of performance-based navigation” for the FAA and continues with us now in such a capacity.
And most recently, Steve Delahunty joined us. He is an adjunct professor at George Washington University in cybersecurity and a former Army officer. Steve has been deeply involved in industry and Government IT issues for the past 20 years.
ExecutiveBiz: You were named the Large Business of the Year in 2010 by the FAA. How are you involved in their NextGen program and what other work are you doing for the aviation industry?
Chodakewitz: Well first of all let me say that this award was just an incredibly exciting recognition of the blood sweat and tears that our teams have put into the FAA programs, and we were thrilled to receive such feedback from our clients, especially since the award is for not only technical excellence but also for quality program management and for small business partnering.
We have a portfolio of NextGen-related programs, but they relate primarily to three or four major substantive areas.
One is Performance-Based Navigation (PBN) that I mentioned earlier. This is a major thrust within the FAA and the global aerospace community that concentrates on considering and developing new processes and procedures and technologies to allow the national airspace system to operate more efficiently, while maintaining safety.
In this way, it is possible to put a lot more airplanes in the highway of the sky, which allows for new and innovative approaches, descents and landings. PBN saves fuel, reduces aircraft emissions, simplifies flight planning, improves airport access, reduces arrival and departure conflicts, and expands routing options during bad weather. So this is one critically important pillar of what we do.
Another aspect of what we do is work very intensely with the transition from ground-based to satellite-based navigation, allowing pinpoint accuracy in the all-weather and full maintenance conditions of satellite navigation. This has led to significant achievements.
We also work on the safety side, helping the FAA create safety systems that provide visibility into the ongoing operation and generate information to proactively design the system for NextGen. Underlying that is a lot of IT work that we do, that goes from the back office all the way up to the Air Traffic Control tower that really enables much of the change that we’re talking, about.
ExecutiveBiz: So in that vein, what are some of your biggest successes since becoming president of the Company in 2006?
Chodakewitz: Obviously the reference to the award we received from the FAA is one measurable sign of our success. But, I think to a large extent, we really have had success in all aspects such as broadening the nature and type of our programs; creating and maintaining an agile, flexible culture; and being recognized as possessing a client oriented, high-performance organization.
What is so critical from my perspective is that our success is measured not just in terms of financial growth and performance but also in light of the diversity of our work, our ability to consistently deliver technical excellence, and our industry reputation as a premier engineering and technical organization and an outstanding partner.
ExecutiveBiz: As president of quite a big organization , how are you able to keep your organization agile?
Chodakewitz: Right — the million dollar question. Well I think we have a very flat organization. We have managers that are technical experts and who actively roll up their sleeves and do work.
We also hire exceptional people at all levels, from the program managers to the task managers to the technical team, so we are able to push responsibility and accountability down to the lowest level.
Underlying all of this is a culture of trust that recognizes people are going to make the right decisions for the right reasons. Equally important is that people are oriented to reaching out to peers and others to ask for help and guidance when they need it.
It doesn’t mean that there aren’t exceptions or problems or issues now and then but none that go very far because of a very team-based peer review approach that we also overlay on how we operate.
ExecutiveBiz: What is your relationship with Tetra Tech, your parent company? How much oversight do they have over your job or the company in general?
Chodakewitz: I think it is the best of all worlds. Technically we are a wholly owned subsidiary of Tetra Tech but we really operate as the unit that leads in aviation and IT. The Tetra Tech culture is one that we really mirror and emulate at AMT because it is very flat, very client focused, and puts a premium on attracting and retaining outstanding people.
I think just as I tried to suggest that we hire the best people who deserve to have independence of activity, I think Dan Batrack, our CEO, has that same perspective and flows that down to the individual operating units.
So we have got the reach back, strength, stability and scale of a multibillion-dollar business but with the agility and flexibility and accountability to support our clients and go to market the way we see best.
ExecutiveBiz: Please talk about some of that work in the commercial and international markets?
Chodakewitz: Based on the work we are doing for the FAA currently, we believe that Tetra Tech AMT is in a great position to support the international community in a range of airspace design, environmental and safety activities. This is especially important given the air transportation growth projections in certain regions, such as the UAE, South America, and Asia. We have supported the Dubai Airshow, for example, for the past several years, and are in a strong position to expand our aviation presence more broadly. In terms of the commercial market, we are working with regional airlines – nationally and internationally – to implement efficient and ‘green’ airspace solutions.
Another key leverage point for us is Tetra Tech’s international presence. We have more than 330 offices worldwide, many of which are in the specific regions that we are targeting. Given our local knowledge and engagement, as well as Tetra Tech’s high-end engineering and infrastructure work, this provides an outstanding platform for international growth in the aviation sector.
ExecutiveBiz: I understand you’ve had a number of speaking engagements and you are involved in community service and mentoring. Could you explain that?
Chodakewitz: To a certain extent, we are all dependent upon the people that we’ve worked with, and I strongly believe we need to be thankful to the people who have helped us in our careers. For me personally, mentoring women, getting involved in professional organizations and helping younger people grow professionally not only continues the cycle of helping but is very energizing as well.
I serve as Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of the Women in Aerospace which is really an outstanding professional nonprofit organization that helps not only mentor women in all aspects of the aviation field but also provides training and technical assistance and a community of practice for women either on the technical side or on general consulting skills and a ‘no risk’ environment for discussing professional choices and challenges.
Tetra Tech AMT and myself personally are very involved in ATCA, the Air Traffic Controllers Association and I’ve been very honored to be on the Scholarship Board. ATCA provides many students in undergraduate schools who are studying for aviation careers with very substantive scholarships to help make things easier. And in addition to that, I’m also just trying to do a good amount of work in some of the other areas like Women in Technology and other professional societies, again that not only advance women but hopefully give them opportunities to gain the skill sets that they and all early-career professionals will need to be successful.
ExecutiveBiz: For your undergrad you studied Spanish and International Relations and then you received a Masters in Russian Studies at Columbia University. Later in your career, you won a number of awards including Smart CEO 2012, Washington Business Journal in 2011. I was wondering what shifted your career from what looked like academia, to more of the executive/ business path?
Chodakewitz: I think part of it, quite honestly, were the external environmental factors. My background in Russian Studies coincided with the fall of the wall and the breaking up of the Soviet Union, so if that doesn’t give someone cause to question what their future career is going to look like, nothing will.
But I also think, part of it is that on a personal level you evolve and you mature and you consider what’s most satisfying to you. While I loved being a Soviet analyst and doing so much related to Russian studies, I was beginning to feel that I needed to grow and change professionally.
Ultimately, I felt that I could have the biggest impact by bringing teams together to work across different stakeholders, to bridge the gap between the technical and the non-technical and I realized that just really, slowly, led me into more and more of the management executive world.
This transition allowed me to learn and be exposed to a huge number of areas that I never would have had the opportunity to engage in; working in the consulting world also allowed me to stay very close with clients, which to me is one of the most exciting parts of the job.
The move into business and eventually an executive role has been extremely exciting and satisfying. For me, I don’t think there is anything more rewarding than leading an organization.