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The Art of Retrofitting

When we think of engineering in the aviation industry, we tend to focus on the development of new aircraft, but what about the planes that are already out there, those that could find new life with some retrofitting? Danielle Vardaro came to Boeing after earning her undergraduate degree, and she has worked as an engineer on the production and manufacturing side for years. Today, she is a director in product marketing, selling avionics and performance upgrades for all of Boeing’s airplane models from the small, single-aisle 737 to the wide-bodied 787.

This entails upgrading aging fleets for performance and efficiency or helping carriers align with new mandates in changing airspaces. In this role, Vardaro, who has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, uses her skills in a different way—aligning customer needs with the products and services in the expansive aftermarket portfolio. And, if the right solution doesn’t exist, she investigates whether it should.

For someone who grew up tinkering with everything, including bicycles, toys, and computers, and who describes herself as “being of the mindset of wanting to make things better, improve things, and make things more efficient,” it is a fulfilling role. “I get to look at the way airlines fly, bring solutions that the customers may not realize they need, solutions that help their operations and help them fly more efficiently,” Vardaro says. “From an engineering-bigpicture-macro standpoint, it gives me a bigger picture of how aviation works, how we do business around the world, and what the needs are.”

Sales directors reach out to Vardaro when customers have questions. Say that a customer wants to fly a certain aircraft through a certain airspace. Avionics requirements differ across regions, so a carrier can’t just move an aircraft from one part of the world to another. She will explain the changes that need to be made, such as whether they need to reconfigure the airplane with certain avionics boxes, new wiring, or even certifications to allow them into that new airspace.

Take Chinese carriers as an example. There’s a huge leasing market in China. When the first term lease is up, the aircraft are often reallocated from China to Europe. With completely different avionics requirements for those airplanes, Vardaro paves the way for transitioning airplanes from one market to another and for upgrading them accordingly. She also must continuously assess the portfolio of current services and products, repositioning either if they aren’t selling. One reason they might not be moving? Not having the right solution at the right price at the right time. “We operate in a very dynamic, fast-paced market that is very different today than it was years ago,” Vardaro explains. “Airlines are no longer looking for the perfect-Cadillac solution. They are looking for the perfect solution that gets the job done, that keeps seats filled, and planes in the air on the routes they need to fly.”

Hers is a global role—and it comes with a lot of travel. She’s been to Europe, China, Thailand—“a little bit everywhere,” she says. She flew 45 flights in one year, 30 of them while pregnant. Now, though, Vardaro has twin newborns, so there’s no flying for the time being. When she returns to work after her maternity leave, things will be different. She’s not exactly sure how, but she’ll return to work as a mother, so what she does know is that there will be a shift.

Shifting Priorities These ongoing shifts are something she wishes women talked about more—how it’s inevitable that there will be a rejiggering of priorities as one’s personal circumstances change throughout a career. It isn’t just having children; it’s being there for elderly parents or caring for sick family members. What part of our life is getting what percentage of our attention is going to be fluid for as long as we have families, in all their shapes and sizes. For women who spent their early careers doling out the biggest piece of the work–life pie to work, it can be tricky to decouple the idea of giving your job 100% from the idea of giving your job 100% of your time.

A quote that currently resonates with Vardaro, which has been passed along at different times by the likes of Betty Friedan, Madeline Albright, and Oprah Winfrey, is that “you can have it all, you just can’t have it all at once.” On top of that, the more she speaks with other working mothers, the more she realizes that the life of a working parent is the art of making the most of what time you have. “If you want to work, fit in fitness, and have a healthy family and overall balance, you have to be efficient in all ways to get things done in the time you have,” she says.

Overall, Vardaro believes that women should be confident in creating their own paths and making the decisions that are right for them. “There’s no right way to navigate your career,” she says. “You might have a five- or ten-year plan, but be flexible about how you get there. We all hear those great speeches at conferences that say, ‘This is where I am,’ but that person didn’t know that their journey was going to be the way it was. Some paths may lead you to places that feel completely out of left field— but it’s your story to tell.”

Owning her individuality is something Danielle learned from IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine Editor-in-Chief Dr. Karen Panetta while an undergraduate student and a Nerd Girl at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “She taught us that we don’t all have to fit in this cookie cutter mold,” Vardaro explains. “We can be individuals.... That confidence is contagious and is something I’ve always looked up to.”

This article first appeared in IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine December 2017.

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