When Johanna Shaw looks back at the path she took to get to GE Aerospace, she recalls how, at first, she wasn’t sure she fit in. Having spent 10 years at GE Energy, now known as GE Vernova, she thought her transition to the aerospace side of the business would be “a cakewalk.”
A cakewalk it was not.
Though they are two divisions in the same company, they had different operating systems and rhythms, didn’t communicate the same way, and even used different sets of tools. When she joined GE Aerospace in 2021 as an engineering project manager (EPM) trainee, “I felt like I literally left and joined a whole new company,” she says. “I had impostor syndrome for a long time.”
What a difference a couple of years and some new experiences make. Of course, Shaw, who goes by the nickname JoJo, didn’t land at GE Aerospace out of the clear blue sky. She always had a plan; it just required some painstaking steps along the way. Her path started at Georgia Southern University, where she completed a senior project on radio frequency and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering while raising her son. Landing a job at Tampa Armature Works in Tampa, Florida, right out of college, she worked her way up from a quality rep to an associate engineer and then a senior engineer, getting to understand the “pain points of each area” while handling projects for the U.S. military — a laser-powered bomb detector — and Walt Disney World, where she got to help with the electrical infrastructure of the Haunted Mansion, “another fun thing I got to work on!” she says.
While converting shipping containers into server rooms for the military and ensuring those animated ghouls at Disney World stayed powered up, Shaw used her spare time to earn an MBA. But she needed another challenge, so she made the move to GE Energy in 2010. In addition to designing low-voltage and medium-voltage transformers, she completed a “bubble assignment,” helping to implement new software across her site in Clearwater, Florida. But after a decade, “I just felt like I had reached a plateau and was ready to do a little bit more,” she says.
Shaw had managed teams but had never held an official management position. She talked to one of her mentors, who recommended she take advantage of the Talent Induction Program at GE Aerospace. The TIP was set up to tap talent within the company “that didn’t always have the specific requirements for a position but had a lot of transferable skills that could be leveraged,” she says. “So they used me as a guinea pig — the initial EPM program candidate.”
A few months into the program, Shaw got cold feet. “I told my mentor, ‘Hey, I might owe you an apology. I know you put your neck out for me, but I’m not feeling like I made a good decision,’” she recalls. “And he was like, ‘Absolutely not. You made a great decision. I’ve heard nothing but great feedback about you. You’re doing way better than you think you are. This is normal.’” After about nine months of training, Shaw shifted into a full-time EPM position, first on the Computer Interface Products team for two years and more recently on a team within Edison Works, a business unit dedicated to the research, development, and production of advanced technology for the military.
The job of an engineering project manager is to structure a team, lead it, and keep everyone on task. As the EPM for her seven-member team, all of whom are based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Shaw serves as the central node, communicating with them about the schedule, scope, plans, budget, and forecasting, all while maintaining an open line to the customer. Collaboration is key. “There’s a lot of dynamics that you have to play with,” she says. “It’s all about the relationships. People want to be seen, they want to be heard, they want to feel valuable. So I can’t just get on the phone and be like, ‘Hey, give me this.’”
Shaw’s team at Edison Works focuses on radio frequency “fingerprinting” of autonomous vehicles. Working for military customers, she immediately noticed one big difference between the energy division and aerospace: “There’s way more security on this side,” she says of GE Aerospace. Also: “They’re very process-oriented.” Gone are the days when she could receive an order and have a new transformer designed and shipped in three weeks. The lead times have stretched out and the teams have expanded. “Here, we’re integrating software, you have the hardware piece of it, the whole systems aspect of it,” she says.
What hasn’t changed is the culture. Shaw has always been impressed by her colleagues’ desire to get the job done right. No matter what question or concern she comes to them with, “I’ve never had someone look at me and say, ‘That’s not my job. That’s not my problem,’” she says. “Overall, people want to do a good job.”
That mentality extends to her work with the African American/Affinity Forum, an employee resource group that has a strong presence at GE. She started volunteering for the AAF’s Clearwater chapter almost as soon as she transferred to GE Aerospace. Coming out of the pandemic, the group needed help jump-starting its professional development and community service activities, such as its work mentoring elementary school students interested in STEM fields.
Shaw had been involved in AAF previously at GE Energy, so pitching in to help was natural. Last year, she took over as chapter president. On the whole, she feels GE’s efforts to promote diversity are working. “When you encourage and develop diversity within your company, people want to be here, they want to stay, and they want to do a good job for the company,” she says.
Her involvement in AAF and the company’s commitment to diversity is a point of pride for Shaw. Another point of pride is her son, who graduated from Tuskegee University in 2022 with a degree in aerospace engineering. “He was so excited about joining the aerospace business,” she says. “He was like, ‘I want to work for NASA!’ And I was like, ‘Well, you have some options.’”
Indeed, one of those options panned out: He just started his third rotation in GE Aerospace’s Operations Management Leadership Program.