"A License To Learn"

Webb Institute Zeien Lecture Series, Glen Cove, New York (as prepared)
"A License To Learn"
HII Corporate People Workforce Development

Thank you, Keith (Michel) and good evening, everyone.

I am delighted to be with you tonight and honored to participate in the Zeien Lecture Series.

I’d like to begin with a quote from Admiral Hyman D. Rickover, who most of you will know as the “father of the nuclear Navy.”

“What it takes to do a job will not be learned from management courses. It is principally a matter of experience, the proper attitude, and common sense—none of which can be taught in a classroom. … Human experience shows that people, not organizations or management systems, get things done.”

In preparing for this speech, it was interesting to me that Dr. Zeien was fascinated by Admiral Rickover and the nuclear submarine program.

I was also fascinated by the nuclear submarine program – so much so that I applied to it and was one of the final interviews that Admiral Rickover conducted prior to his retirement.

Mike Petters, HII president and CEO

Actually I had two interviews.

The first one went so well he interviewed me twice.

Actually, he basically threw me out of his office after the first interview.

It wasn’t a fair fight – kind of like watching a contest between a highly evolved human being and an amoeba.

In case you are wondering, I was the amoeba.

His questions came at me so fast that I could not keep up.  So he threw me out.

Yet six hours later he called me back.

This time I was ready.   

As a result, I went on to serve aboard the nuclear-powered submarine USS George Bancroft.

When I left the Navy, I took a job at Newport News Shipbuilding, which builds nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines and is now a part of Huntington Ingalls Industries.

In an interesting twist of fate, the Secretary of the Navy announced this past January that the Virginia-class submarine, SSN 795, will be named Rickover and will be delivered by Newport News Shipbuilding.

I say “delivered by” because, as many of you probably know, we don’t build the subs alone.

We’re partnered with General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut.

They build half of each sub, we build half, and we trade off on testing and deliveries.

And now, to bring things full circle:

When Dr. Zeien, the namesake of this lecture series, graduated from Webb Institute, his first job was at Electric Boat.

He went on to serve as the operating head of their shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts.

It’s a bit of a long intro but I wanted to make the point that we’re all connected.

And I also want to make the point that Dr. Zeien, while he might have imagined himself getting an engineering degree and going on to work for General Dynamics, probably never would have imagined he’d end up as CEO of Gillette.

Or a board member of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.

Or chairman of the World Affairs Council of Boston.

But that’s what your Webb education will do for you.

It’s your ticket to the future— your license to learn.

I first joined Newport News Shipbuilding in the submarine program, then worked in the DC office marketing submarines after we sued the Navy (that was fun).

Then I ran the carrier program for a while, worked in contracts, ran Human Resources, and became president of Northrop Grumman Newport News in 2004, president of Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding in 2008, and president and CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries with the spin off in 2011.

One of these days they might find the right job for me!

One of the things I learned early on in MY education – and something that was reinforced to me during my years at the Naval Academy – is that a strong educational foundation comes with a license to learn.

And this means you have what it takes to tackle new responsibilities, new jobs, and new projects.

It means you can reach for and accept challenges you may think you’re not ready.

And it also means that often you’ll find that you didn’t learn everything you needed to know while you were in school.

But that’s why you also get a license to learn with your diploma.

I’ve personally had most of these things happen to me in my career, and I could spend my time with you telling you about these challenges.

Yet I thought you would find it more interesting if, instead, I told you a few stories from the perspectives of Webb Institute alumni who now work at HII – many of them not too far from where you are in your lives.

We currently have seven Webb Institute alumni working at HII - four at Newport News Shipbuilding, two at Ingalls Shipbuilding, and one in our corporate office, also in Newport News.

As I share their stories, remember Rickover’s assertion that it’s “people, not organizations or management systems” that get things done.

And remember the idea that a strong education gives you a license to learn.

Dean Royal chose the Webb Institute over MIT and the Naval Academy.

He says he was sold on the faculty’s interaction with students and the emphasis on hands-on learning.

While Webb gave him a solid background on ships, he says he knew very little about submarines.

So he spent the first 15 years of his career at Newport News becoming a subject matter expert on submarine naval architecture and weights.

He’s now an engineering manager working on the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine replacement—a critical program for HII, General Dynamics and the Navy.

One of the things that has impressed him throughout his career is the responsibility entrusted in HII’s engineers and designers.

“Coming out of college, you are used to getting graded,” he said. “I’ve described the job of a submarine naval architect as a test where you have to score a 100 percent every time.”

He tells a great story to illustrate this point.

Dean’s son once asked him: “But they won’t let it go on the boat if it is bad for the boat, right?”

He replied: “They is me and the people I work with.”

When asked what advice he would give you, he said:

“What you are learning at Webb is enough to understand the technical conversations that are happening around you once you get a job in industry and the work ethic to shine amongst your peers. That said, make a real effort to learn from every person that you come into contact with—from the janitor to the CEO.”

Erica Carter graduated from Webb and took a research and development job at our Ingalls shipyard, but she left after three years.

After eight years in a commercial shipyard, she came back and helped design the composite deckhouse for the Zumwalt-class destroyer.

She currently works as a naval architect in Ingalls’ Advanced Ship Design Group, where she helps update existing HII designs to meet the needs of our Navy customer.

One example of this is the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock that the Navy has decided will be used at the hullform for their new class of amphibious warships.

Erica says her experience with all stages of shipbuilding—design-through-construction, with both military and commercial designs—makes her well-suited for preliminary design and proposal work.

She also says she’s been surprised by “the people aspect” of the industry and how it influences not only her job satisfaction, but also the success or failure of a project.

“Good program management with emphasis on teamwork is key to a successful project, even more than the technical expertise of the team.”

John Sullivan also works at Ingalls.

If you had to describe his career in one word, it would be “variety” and his story really demonstrates his license to learn.

He did a summer internship at Ingalls and returned after graduating from Webb.

He began his career as a naval architect on the Project America cruise ship program.

Then he worked in research and development of composite materials.

Later, he served as the technical lead for the construction of a rocket fairing, and he even helped build a prototype launch abort system for NASA’s Orion program.

Today, John is the deputy ship design manager for Ingalls’ T-AO(X) team.

T-AO(X) is a fleet replenishing tanker the Navy is currently planning.

As John says, the T-AO(X) program will potentially set up Ingalls with steady work for the next 20 years.

When asked what he’s learned at HII, John said:

“The best engineering skills and abilities in the world won’t help you nearly as much as being an effective communicator will. How you say it is as important as what you are saying.”

As a senior in high school, Jennifer Ryan applied to the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and N.C. State—and she was accepted at all three.

However, because she could send her SAT scores to four schools, her dad suggested that she also send them to the Webb Institute.

Webb invited her to apply and interview, and the rest is history.

She interned at Newport News every summer and took a job in the Naval Architecture and Weights Department. 

One of her biggest accomplishments was working on the first-of-class aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford—helping to conduct the largest damage stability calculation ever done for a carrier.

In 2006, she became an academic instructor at Newport News’ world-renowned Apprentice School, which offers four- to eight-year, tuition-free apprenticeships in 19 trades and eight optional advanced programs.

Apprentices work a 40-hour week and are paid for all work, including time spent in academic classes.

Jennifer teaches mechanics, naval architecture and shipbuilding design.

Not only does she use the knowledge she gained at the Webb Institute, she says she has even used some of her old course notes!

When asked what she’s learned at HII, she said it’s good to maintain contacts all over the shipyard.

“There are many times when you cannot accomplish something alone in your department. You need the knowledge and experience that others have and cannot be afraid to ask them for help.”

Donald Rickerson took an unusual route to the Webb Institute.

He went to The Apprentice School in Newport News first.

He started as a sheet metal apprentice and graduated as a marine designer.

He says while his classmates were buying homes and starting families, he was tightening his belt and building up his college savings.

“The years of financial sacrifice leading up to my undergraduate study left me unwilling to settle for a second-rate education,” he said. “I ended up at Webb Institute because I craved a top-notch education.”

He currently performs structural engineering analyses to support the maintenance, modernization and repair of Los Angeles-class submarines.

He says the Webb Institute taught him engineering concepts that help him collaborate with engineers from other disciplines.

It also shaped his technical writing style.

“Communication is an essential element of engineering,” he said. “If you cannot share your ideas, then those ideas are worthless.”

Chris Hicks grew up on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and knew he wanted to work in the maritime industry. 

After graduating from Webb Institute, he took a job at Ingalls with the intent of working for a year, paying off his car and moving on to something he then called “more interesting.”

That was 15 years ago.

In the meantime, he’s had 12 different jobs, each one more challenging – and more interesting -- than the last.

Today, Chris is a manager of strategy and corporate development in our corporate office, where he supports company growth initiatives beyond our core business. 

Even though he’s moved away from engineering, he says the practicality of his Webb education has proved to be invaluable.

“It was not purely about the math/physics of ship design,” he said. “We were taught to think more holistically. Understand the ship as a system of systems and then think of the ship as only one piece of the larger network of interdependencies through a ship’s life. Essentially, that thinking model applies to everything from basic engineering to corporate strategy.” 

When asked what he’s learned at HII, he added:

“HII isn’t just a company with a few shipyards. The engineering and technology side of the corporation is extremely diverse, and it would surprise most people to know what skills and capabilities reside in our corporation.”

Michael Diggs says his family has maritime connections that date back to the 1600s.

He followed his older brother to Webb Institute and took a job at Newport News after several summer and winter internships. 

He worked as a naval architect in our aircraft carrier program but recently transitioned into a new job doing high-definition surveys of above-ground storage tanks for the oil and gas market.

He says working at HII satisfies his need to explore and discover.

“I don’t have to invent something to enjoy it,” he said, “but I need to be moving into areas where I haven’t been before. In my current role, I am developing a new service using a new technology in a market that is both new to me and to the company. I am traveling all across the United States and meeting new people and companies. All of this is very exciting to me.”

When asked what advice he would give to current Webb Institute students, he said:

“You are way more powerful than you think. You can influence and create the business environment around you. … Determine what would be good and then pursue it with everything you have. Lastly, don’t try to do things by yourself. You will be more successful and enjoy success more when you do it with others.”


Aircraft carriers.


Energy, Oil and gas.



Webb Institute alumni are making a difference in every aspect of HII’s business.

And they are adapting and genuinely succeeding in many areas that they would not have imagined when they were in college.

When I was a midshipman, I never imagined I would go on to lead the company that builds nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, submarines, destroyers and amphibious warships for the Navy.

And I certainly didn’t envision myself as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company that would expand on its shipbuilding past by branching out into energy markets, including oil and gas.

Every time I got a job, I just did my best.

And when I was in a position to lead other people, I did everything I could to help them succeed.

So far, it seems to be working out ok.

I’d like to end with another Rickover quote – it’s a little lengthy but it is my closing.

“When doing a job,” Rickover said, “any job—one must feel that he owns it, and act as though he will remain in that job forever.

“He must look after his work just as conscientiously, as though it were his own business and his own money. If he feels he is only a temporary custodian, or that the job is just a stepping stone to a higher position, his actions will not take into account the long-term interests of the organization. His lack of commitment to the present job will be perceived by those who work for him, and they, likewise, will tend not to care. Too many spend their entire working lives looking for the next job. When one feels he owns his present job and acts that way, he need have no concern about his next job.”

Your job today is your education.

Who knows what your next job will be.

Or the one after that.

But own each one and work conscientiously.

And know that the Webb Institute has given you the tools you need.

And most importantly – a license to learn.

I wish you the best of luck on what I know will be a very successful future.

Thank you.

About Huntington Ingalls

HII is a global engineering and defense technologies provider, and recognized worldwide as America’s largest shipbuilder. With a 135-year history of trusted partnerships in advancing U.S. national security, HII delivers critical capabilities ranging from the most powerful and survivable naval ships ever built, to unmanned systems, ISR and AI/ML analytics. HII leads the industry in mission-driven solutions that support and enable an all-domain force. For more information, visit: