Boeing's Walt Braithwaite -- Commands Respect -- His Ideas, Integrity, A Computer Savvy Earn Him A Seat As Vice President

Walt Braithwaite can see through walls. And because he can see through them, he has been able to walk through them, with effort, sometimes a lot of effort, but always put forth with the certainty that he can reach the other side.

His is a formidable, sometimes contradictory mix of talents: A private, quiet man who has been a strong team player at Boeing for 30 years. A hands-on machinist who creates engine systems in the abstract: His pioneering in computer-assisted design rolled Boeing into a new era. Braithwaite's work was critical to the 777, the first jetliner designed entirely on computer.

At any given meeting, he's the quietest person in the room, but he is frequently sought out as a mentor.

Braithwaite, now a Boeing vice president, has just been given responsibility for all of the company's computer systems and intellectual property.

The position, a part of Boeing's senior leadership, is two levels from the company's chief executive officer.

It wasn't always clear to others that he was headed in that direction.

He recalls an evaluation some years ago that said he just wasn't aggressive enough to get the job done.

"I don't talk much in meetings," he says. In fact, "I don't speak unless I have something to say."

Instead he listens. And thinks.

When he was a young man in London, where his family lived for a time, his buddies half believed he could read minds.

"I listened well enough to know where a person was going before he got there," he says.

Co-workers say he'll sit quietly through a meeting, then propose an idea that gets quickly to the place everyone else was slogging toward. The boss who'd said he wasn't aggressive enough eventually came around to respecting him for the quality of his ideas, his personal integrity and his love of technology.

Those ideas and that integrity have reached the ears of the rest of his professional community - here and abroad.

His office is decorated with magazine covers from stories on his key roles in the design of the 767 and 777 airliners, plaques recognizing him for work with the Renton Chamber of Commerce, the Black Achievers program of the Central Area YMCA, and the mentoring program he founded at Boeing.

The latest recognition of his abilities came from the Museum of History and Industry, which gave him its 1996 History Makers Award in Science and Technology. The award goes to people whose "wide breadth of accomplishment has enriched the nature of our region."

Braithwaite, a trim, compact 51, still likes work that gets his hands dirty - so much the better when the task seems almost hopeless.

A few years ago, he drove up to La Connor to look at a boat he'd seen advertised. He found an old crash boat that had been built in the 1940s to pick up downed pilots.

It was a filthy, sodden mess with no engines.

"I said, you know, that's got possibilities, because I liked the lines of the boat. My middle daughter looked at my wife and said, `What's he going to do with that?'

"I always had an affinity for things technical. I always wanted to find out what made it work. I remember as a boy, when I got toys, I would take them apart at Christmas time to try to figure out what made them work, and sometimes I got a little frustrated because I couldn't get them back together."

Almost every evening Braithwaite would drive from Boeing's Everett plant, where he was director of computing, to La Connor to work on the boat. He'd take his daughters with him on weekends.

Nine months later, he put it into the water, where it proceeded to sink. The wood had dried out while the boat sat ashore on oil drums for two years.

Braithwaite had to haul the boat out and soak it with a water hose for a week until the wood resealed and he could take his first cruise.

"Even those long drives to La Connor for me were like therapy, getting out of the office, getting away from airplanes, getting away from computers and just doing some of the things I used to enjoy doing when I was younger."

Sometimes he sits on the boat and reads. Technical books. Or cruises by himself.

"I'm the kind of person who likes to take time to just think and dream," he says.

Even as a child, his idea of fun was a lot like his idea of work.

"I used to go to the library and they would allow you to take four books, and three of them were science books or technical books and one was a mystery. I never got around to reading the mysteries."

The strong work ethic and love of learning took root in his Jamaican childhood, Braithwaite says, along with a solid, British-style education he received there.

"People with that kind of ethic coming to the U.S., where there are so many opportunities, don't feel like there are many barriers . . . as opposed to African Americans born here, who have to overcome barriers, who have been told what they are not supposed to do," he says.

In his low-key, effective way, Braithwaite bridges cultures just as he bridges vocations, and he shows others the way.

Braithwaite can open doors without making waves, says former Boeing engineer Matt Afful, now an aircraft engineering consultant. "You let your example show to the powers-that-be that here is a minority doing this. It opens the door to others."

Afful says he and Braithwaite bumped into each other in a cafeteria some time in the early 1980s. "It wasn't usual to see black engineers or professionals then," so they started a conversation and a friendship.

They spend time on Braithwaite's boat talking.

"We discuss work, politics, black-white issues, Ghana, Jamaica. He's a well-rounded intellectual, and yet down to earth."

When Braithwaite began his rise up the Boeing ladder, Afful says, "You had to be extra good to be recognized enough to be put in (a critical) position, rather than being put in a stereotyped position. You had to excel. Up to maybe 1974-75, affirmative action wasn't there.

"He earned his position."

Braithwaite is creating his new job as he goes. Nothing quite like it has existed at Boeing. How does someone make sure thousands of Boeing employees around the world interact with one another by computer efficiently and securely?

It's a challenge, another wall Braithwaite can see through to the opportunities on the other side.