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Ready for takeoff: How Dennis Trujillo took his aerospace career to new heights

Headshot of Dennis Trujillo next to a graphic of a plane

It’s funny the details you remember when you look back on your first love, that indelible moment when the skies parted, your heart pounded … and the jackrabbits scattered? That’s how it went for Boeing Project Manager Dennis Trujillo (MS/Global Management, 2003) anyway.

He was 6 or 7 years old when he fell in love with airplanes. Trujillo romanticized them from the other side of the 4-foot chain-link fence where he spent his spare time “spotting” — the art of identifying aircraft from the ground.

“My father would take me to Long Beach Airport, and we’d park along the runway. When the airplanes would come in to land, I’d identify them. I knew them by the nose and engines,” he says. “I could tell a Douglas from a Boeing from a Lockheed.”

In fact, he could tell a plane was close just by looking at nearby bushes. “All the jackrabbits would scatter when the ground shook. I always got such a kick out of that,” says Trujillo.

Now approaching his 40th anniversary working first for McDonnell Douglas (and now Boeing, which merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997), Trujillo has been project manager for major endeavors such as passenger-to-freight plane conversions and the reconfiguration of parked planes for new owners during the pandemic. He also became the company’s first-ever Boeing Designated Expert (BDE) in project management.

Enough credit to go around

Hardworking yet humble, Trujillo credits many others for his success. He nods to his dad, a U.S. Army veteran who served in the post-World War II effort to rebuild Germany and then spent his career rebuilding jets as a mechanic. “He steered me toward a sure paycheck in aviation when law school called,” says Trujillo.

He credits his mom, three aunts and uncle, whose combined 200 years of aerospace industry experience gave him confidence in his career choice.

And Trujillo credits University of Phoenix (UOPX), where he earned a master’s in global management. (That degree certificate has since evolved into other offerings at the University, including the Master of Management degree.)

Trujillo remembers back to 2001, when McDonnell Douglas had a staffing shakeup. “It was a big PM [project management] overhaul. You had to rebid for your job. I was married and kids had come. I knew I needed to go back to school,” he says.

Trujillo looked for a degree program he could afford and complete on his schedule but that would also help enhance his career possibilities. At UOPX, he found all three.

Trujillo took advantage of his company’s tuition assistance program, Learning Together Program (LTP), which includes hundreds of quality colleges and universities worldwide to support the company’s full- and part-time employees advance their educational goals.

That tuition assistance — combined with class times that fit his schedule and the Global Management curriculum offered in the early 2000s — made the decision to enroll at UOPX a no-brainer. “The master’s in global management was well respected and fit my growing role conducting international business,” Trujillo says.

Looking back, he knows he made the right choice.

“The degree helped me. I was promoted and given bigger assignments. It prepared me for large-scale integration jobs,” says Trujillo, who was already working as a program manager in the freighter conversion world. He gained the skills he needed to carry out his job responsibilities with confidence on the international stage.

“My University of Phoenix classes helped me understand currency fluctuation, contract law and culture, especially how to negotiate within Asian and European culture,” he says. He later went on to get his Project Management Professional (PMP)®* designation, offered through the Project Management Institute®.    

Career highlights

Trujillo continued to work in freighter conversion when he graduated from UOPX. He describes how it works: “We take a passenger plane and basically convert it into a flying truck,” Trujillo says.

To get the process started, an airline will request conversion of a passenger plane to a freighter. Trujillo then runs point, coordinating the following groups:

  • An engineering team, which converts the design configuration
  • A procurement team, which buys parts to retrofit the planes for cargo transport, such as a large sliding door, cargo holds and cockpit upgrades
  • A modification team, which physically changes the plane
  • A converted freighter team, which makes sure the contract is met
  • A regulatory team, which ensures government compliance

In addition to project managing for the freighter conversion program, Trujillo also works as a program portfolio manager. This means he manages a collection of programs. For example, within the 737 MAX aircraft line, there’s a MAX 7, MAX 8, MAX 9, MAX 10, a BBJ (Boeing Business Jet) MAX and a MAX 8200. “So, we have to certify six different models that are all collectively under one model with the Federal Aviation Administration, Civil Aviation Administration of China, Eurocontrol — each of which has different certification criteria.”

It’s a complicated journey with many moving parts, and Trujillo takes all the challenges in stride.

“I’m at the top of my game. They give me the tough stuff,” he says, adding that being a successful project manager is about much more than keeping deliverables on schedule. “The trick is to inspire, motivate and lead teams that don’t report to you. You have to be able to work with people and lead by example with integrity, honesty and empathy. You have to have respect the team.”

In fact, for Trujillo, great project management is every bit as much about soft skills as it is about efficient planning, cost reduction, purchasing and delivery. He emphasizes both skill sets in the classes he teaches to Boeing employees in the U.S., Tokyo, China, London and elsewhere around the world.

Ever the project manager, Trujillo is managing a little project of his own: training 50 Boeing PMPs. “Being a PMP, it’s my passion to train the next generation,” he says, noting that 44 of his students have passed the rigorous PMP training — 96% of them on the first try — in the last 12 years.

“That’s what I’d like my legacy to be. I’d like to be the guy who trained an entire generation of Boeing project managers,” he says. “I think I’ll meet my goal.”

As for that fence-clinging kid who romanticized the rumble of jets that sent jackrabbits running wild — what would Trujillo say to him? “Follow your inspiration and listen to your dad. He was right. Planes are cool.

“It’s been a good career.”

 

*PMP is a registered mark of Project Management Institute, Inc.

 

Boeing leverages University of Phoenix to make education and skills enhancement more affordable for employees. Learn more about Boeing tuition benefits

Dennis Trujillo joins an illustrious group of UOPX graduates. Meet another alumni, Jake Clark, who’s helping veterans one warrior at a time.

Explore the master’s program that started it all for Dennis Trujillo: the Master of Management at University of Phoenix.