From wheelchair, Matt Oka sees ‘big picture’, career growth

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By Len Vraniak (From Boeing News Site)

Matt Oka has faced a number of challenges since breaking his neck in a surfing accident about six years ago, but joining Boeing’s Business Skills Rotation Program and becoming part of the Space and Intelligence Systems Finance team wasn’t one of them.

“From day one,” said Oka, who uses a wheelchair, “the company really stepped up. One of the first things they did was figure out how I would be able to use a computer. I showed the ergonomics people who came to my office how I had used my computer during college, and they worked with the Moonshine Shop to develop an adjustable keyboard for me.” (The Moonshine Shop gets its name from the Prohibition era in U.S. history, when individuals used whatever they could find to quickly and cheaply make their own liquor by moonlight or otherwise out of sight. Boing adopted the term to refer to inventive problem-solving performed away from the production lines to avoid disrupting operations.)

Boeing also helped Oka get a desk that he can move up or down by pushing a button, which, he noted, “helps me to be as productive as I can be every day.”

One of the bigger complications was that Oka initially had to work in a different building than the rest of his team, because to get to them, he had to go through a secure door that he could not physically operate and that could not accommodate his wheelchair. The executive sponsor of his rotational program, Sandy Feldbusch, coordinated the installation of a new door that opens automatically when he swipes his badge.

The thing that impressed him the most, Oka said, was that “they came to me with solutions. I never had to ask. Everyone has been really good about seeing what I need to be comfortable and more productive.” He also encourages others with medical conditions, even if it’s not a visible impairment like his, to “speak up and ask your managers for support, because Boeing has resources to help all sorts of people who need assistance to improve their work spaces.”

Beyond the support he has received, Oka was drawn to Boeing for a couple of other reasons. First, like many Boeing employees, Oka has “always had an interest in space and technology.” But the Finance organization’s Business Skills Rotation Program also attracted Oka’s attention because it would enable him to get a taste of several different areas of the Finance function.

This rotation program is for college new hires, who spend a year in each of three different assignments. Based on their career interests and the needs of the company, the employee generally will be assigned a final placement in one of those areas.

Oka’s first job at Boeing was as a contracts administrator. Then he moved to financial planning, and now he is an integrated scheduler on the new business scheduling team within the commercial satellites part of S&IS. In that role, he helps to ensure that every commercial proposal his division sends out sets achievable schedule expectations for the customer.

The most interesting part of the rotation program, according to Oka, is that it challenges participants to continue learning new things. “Just when you think you know how things work,” he said, “the new assignments make you realize there is a bigger picture that your work fits into.”

Seeing the bigger picture has inspired Oka to expand his skills using Boeing’s Learning Together Program. He is about halfway through the coursework necessary to earn a certificate in Astronautical Engineering from UCLA. While he does not intend to become an engineer, Oka believes that “increasing my technical knowledge will help me be a better finance partner to the businesses I work in during my career at Boeing.”

Oka credited his first managers, who have become mentors as well, with inspiring him to grow within the company. He also credits them with creating an environment where, as Oka puts it, “I have never felt excluded at Boeing, just because I’m in a wheelchair.”

“I don’t necessarily think about that as diversity,” he continues, “because it just feels like the way things are done
around here.”

He also advises everyone to get involved, either in external organizations, company-sponsored affinity groups or events, and professional societies related to one’s areas of interest. “I offer that same advice to everyone,” he says, “whether they’re in a chair like me or not, because learning new things and meeting new people is how we break down barriers.”

Another way Oka helps break down barriers is through his charitable activities. He participates in a swimming fundraiser called Swim with Mike, which benefits the University of Southern California’s Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarship Fund. Participants raise money for each lap they swim. Oka also loves to travel, watch college football and hang out with his friends— including a number of his peers in the Business Skills Rotation Program. He has traveled to 25 countries, with St. Tropez, France, being his favorite
spot…so far.

As Matt Oka continues his career at Boeing, colleagues said, his response to the challenges in his life can be a
source of inspiration to everyone.

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