UW Grad Turns Passion For Fighter Jets Into Career

It all started with air shows

Growing up, UW-Madison graduate Tony Milczarek and his brother developed an affinity for air shows. They crisscrossed Southern Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio as young adults in the pursuit of those powerful sights and sounds. But the explosive sensations emanating from those modern day fighter jets did more than just inspire patriotism–they inspired their careers.

Years later, Milczarek’s brother’s dreams turned into reality. He landed a position with a top-tiered defense contractor after earning a degree in Aerospace Engineering, and that was all the encouragement Milczarek needed.

“Although the academic demands appeared daunting, I also chose an aerospace engineering major because I wanted to channel my passion for airplanes,” he said.

After school, Milczarek ultimately landed a job at Boeing’s defense aircraft facility in St. Louis.


From fighter jets dreams to managing multi-functional teams 

Today, Milczarek still works with airplanes. But his wheelhouse is slightly different at his current employer, Carlisle Interconnect Technologies compared to his days at Boeing. Now he works mostly with avionics like communication, navigational, and inflight entertainment systems for commercial aircraft.

As an Aircraft Systems Engineering Manager, he manages three teams. This means he indirectly oversees around 30 electrical engineers, electrical designers, mechanical engineers, mechanical designers and analysts, and drafters–who are responsible for drafts or blueprints.

Together, his multi-functional teams package installment plans for aircraft electronics. System manufacturers or the airlines themselves will approach CarlisleIT looking for a plan to install their avionics and Milczarek’s teams to design the integration, complete all the documentation necessary to substantiate the installation according to FAA regulations, and manufacture the kit content to support the installation.


Taking the initiative on continuing education

As Milczarek’s career progresses, he looks for ways to add new leadership skills to his toolbox. In 2010, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a Master’s in Engineering Management. The experience was positive; he came back to UW for continuing education classes in an ad hoc attempt to strengthen his leadership abilities.

Averaging about one class per year, Milczarek completed Effectively Managing Technical Teams, Coaching and Mentoring for Technical Leaders, Managing Up and Managing Across: Leadership Beyond Your Team, as part of the Technical Leadership Certificate program.

“A lot of the tools and methodology that are talked about in these different classes are the stuff you run into in everyday life,” he said. “I enroll in the next class and find that they are different things I have yet to learn. It’s a positive experience building on a positive experience.”

And Milczarek’s growing toolbox of leadership skills has proven successful. He’s been promoted from a mechanical project engineer to an engineering team leader to management.

Six or seven years ago, Milczarek couldn’t drum up company support for his continuing education. Now he can use his positive experience to convince members of his teams to take classes. Milczarek puts professional development classes in his annual goals and plans on taking more leadership classes.


Cross company collaboration

Milczarek attributes the effectiveness of the leadership courses to the unrestricted flow of ideas from top leaders in the industry.

“You get leaders from all different places of employment, not only from Wisconsin, but there are people who fly in from across the nation to participate in these particular the courses,” he said.

Students offer feedback to one another in attempt to solve problems they face at work. Milczarek says he even learns how to solve problems he hasn’t encountered yet from listening to his classmates share stories.


Finding a mentor… in a ‘Funky little portfolio’

Milczarek received a souvenir from one of his professional development courses that has proven to be invaluable.

“They have this funky little portfolio they give you with all the cue cards and the cheat sheets. I catch myself checking on that pretty often,” he said.

The ‘funky little portfolio’ contains situation-specific advice on how to deal with a broad range of scenarios diagnosing an individual’s competence/commitment and then matching the appropriate leadership style to ensure the best results. Milczarek references these cards daily, but believes he won’t need them soon. The skills will become permanent fixtures of his mental skills toolbox.


Powered by confidence

Although these changes in his day-to-day operations have made a significant difference, Milczarek really notices improvement when he addresses difficult situations. He now feels comfortable standing up in front of his teams and telling them exactly what they have to do with clarity and compassion.

“It’s every day I notice how I have developed over the years compared to where I used to be,” he said.

Milczarek admits these prickly situations are never easy, but the confidence he has gained in the Engineering Management program and in his leadership classes has made taking control a lot easier.


Next steps on the leadership ladder

The next course Milczarek has his eye on is Mastering the Transition from Technical Expert to Manager. At first this class didn’t seem too pertinent to a manager removed from the technical aspects of engineering, but when he took a closer look at the curriculum, he found material he has yet to learn.

“Just when you think you know everything and it’s supposed to be all common sense and ‘of course a leader knows what to do and so on and so forth,’ when you get into these classes they manage to show you new things that you never knew before. So that’s what’s pretty exciting to me,” he said.


A passion that has persisted

To this day, Milczarek and his brother still travel from city to city to witness the inspirational power of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels fighter jets that sparked both of their careers years ago.