1986 RHS grad shares the secret to his success
Todd Tilley does not have an average resume. He has lived all over the continental United States (and visited 50 countries) since graduating from Riverton High School in 1986, and the focus of his engineering career has primarily been the skies. For Tilley, space was the start of his career. The biggest keys to his success: desire and confidence.
After 31 years, Tilley is still disappointed he wasn’t valedictorian of his high school class. Early on, his band teacher gave him two Bs, and that messed it all up. He got straight As for the rest of his Wolverine life, and “others who did better in band” in the end finished with a higher overall GPA.
He ended up getting a degree from MIT and his first big gig: the International Space Station. He worked with NASA and coordinated with the Russians to program the ISS’s autopilot system. Tilley has great stories of being a 26-year-old working with high ranking, low paid 60-year-old Russian engineers in a 40 degree office in the middle of Russia.
Over the coming decade or so, Tilley decided to start working via contract primarily, working on other satellite systems and high frequency radios.
Then in 2007 he started working as a Senior Systems Engineer for Northrop Grumman on a big autonomous airplane project for the U.S. Navy: the X-47B. Again, his focus was on the autopilot systems, leading a team of 200 to build a working demo for the Navy. The X-47B could operate autonomously and perform arrested landing on aircraft carriers (a first in aeronautics). It was an eight-year project, that ultimately ended up with the Navy and Congress disagreeing with how to move forward and the demo unit being stored for display. But out of it all Tilley and his group won the prestigious Collier Trophy, an annual aviation award Administered by the US National Aeronautic Association.
Tilley has continued to work with Northrop Grumman on a number of other projects, and he is currently responsible for systems engineering in a project called Firebird, which is a new concept for an aircraft that can be manned or unmanned. But he can’t speak much about it at this point.
So how did he get to this point: “I worked my ass off,” he said. But there is more to it than that. Aside from working hard and refusing to be lazy, he pushed himself to engage in projects beyond what was assigned and forced himself to learn self-confidence.
“I think you should want to make the world a better place,” he says. Tilley gives an example of someone working as a checker at Safeway. If you want to grow, and find enjoyment in life, you have to go beyond what you’re assigned. Find a way to make Safeway better. Look for a problem and come up with a solution. He credits some of his early success to always thinking beyond what was assigned to him. He did that, and then worked beyond and thought about the bigger picture. “That desire makes you powerful.” That hard work is satisfying, makes you happy and opens you up to new opportunities.
Additionally, when he was getting into contract work he noticed that the bragging types were getting the jobs while he was being more self-deprecating. He recognized that and forced himself to exude more confidence.
But it all began way back in high school, pushing himself beyond his peers. Tilley, currently residing in California, hasn’t made it Riverton for a visit in over a decade as his family has spread out across the country. But his step-siblings Travis and Kristy Koehn still live here.