Tim Trainer: from Navy captain to program VP at iRobot
His team of twenty-five leads four major iRobot programs for the four military branches, a growing maritime field and other customers
Tim Trainer enjoyed thirty years in a successful career in the U.S. Navy. It left him assistant chief of staff for aviation maintenance and engineering, directing a worldwide staff of 240 civil service, military and contract personnel. Then he found himself part of an emerging diverse population: a long-term military veteran now forging a new life in the civilian workforce.
Civilian work can be unknown territory to many vets, accustomed to different traditions, different expectations and even a different way of communicating in their former jobs. But Trainer has moved into a field that draws on his military strengths. Now he works at iRobot (Bedford, MA), a business that serves the same military organization he exited when he retired from the Navy as a captain in May 2009. He joined iRobot that August.
He began as VP of engineering and software, overseeing 200 employees. This March he was appointed VP of programs. His team leads four major iRobot programs delivering robots to the military, a growing maritime market and other customers.
Small unmanned ground vehicles
Among other areas, the team handles small unmanned ground vehicles. Each vehicle type has its own integrative program team made up of engineers and program people. "I'm responsible for providing the people, processes and infrastructure to the program teams," Trainer reports. "The job is not only managing the programs but interfacing with the customers. I go to trade shows, visit customers who need our technology and demonstrate the technology. And since we have groups in North Carolina and California I go there periodically to touch base."
Trainer was attracted to iRobot because as it grows, he expects to find opportunities to make an impact on the organization. "It's dynamic!" he says. "When you turn the wheel the ship moves! After six months here I'm now responsible for product programs on the government and industrial side. It's exciting stuff and a great opportunity!"
The need to understand the profit side of business management, Trainer says, "is a somewhat new world to the recently-transitioned military officer." But vets are effective, well-trained and goal- and mission-oriented, Trainer says. They can understand the missions and relate to design and delivery schedules.
Trainer grew up in the small town of Durham, CT. He lived there for eighteen years and ever since has been on the move as a military commander. As a kid he enjoyed building things and working on rewiring projects around the house with his dad, who was in electrical sales. He also liked math, and "the physical nature of mechanical engineering."
Sold on aviation
He joined the Navy on an ROTC scholarship and graduated from Marquette University (Milwaukee, WI) in 1979 with a BSME. During his junior year he went to Corpus Christi for tactical training with an A4 jet aircraft, and "I was sold on aviation," he says. "I opted for aviation and planned to stay long enough to pay back my obligation or until I stopped having fun. Then it was fifteen years later and my obligation was long over but I was still having fun. It finally became thirty years of a career I loved very much," Trainer says.
In the beginning of his Navy career Trainer went to flight school, got his wings and was assigned to his first operational helicopter squadron where his boss and mentor was a test pilot.
"I applied and was selected to go to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, MD, where I got to meld my love of flying with the technical aspects of aerospace engineering. Test Pilot School is essentially a graduate level education in developmental aviation flight testing," Trainer says.
He graduated in 1985 and entered the Navy's Aerospace Engineering Duty Officer program, where seasoned naval aviators fill acquisition, engineering and flight test roles across the Navy. He went on to receive an MS in aerospace engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in 1992, and continued on to a variety of engineering, program management and acquisition work.
He took on large management responsibilities starting in 1999. As director of Air Vehicle Engineering he led 850 engineers at seven sites. In 2001 he was appointed executive assistant to the commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, essentially chief of staff for a 28,000-person organization.
In 2003 Trainer became the commanding officer of the Naval Air Depot in North Island, CA. He led and directed all phases of operation at this major aviation industrial activity center, including eight major aircraft lines and repair capability for more than 8,400 aviation components.
From 2006 until he retired in 2009, Trainer was assistant chief of staff for aviation maintenance and engineering, directing a worldwide staff of 240 civil service, military and contract personnel. His staff handled the engineering, logistics, planning, budgeting, execution and policy needed to globally deploy and safely operate all Naval aircraft, aircraft engines and airborne systems.
Leadership skills in the military, Trainer reflects, are developed slowly over time.
"As a junior officer, it's being put in charge of a group of sailors to accomplish a mission, being given the tools to do that and being set free to make it happen. At the end of the day, it's 'Go do this mission and do it safely, and we'll evaluate how well you did it.' It's somewhat scary but very motivating and ultimately rewarding to do it successfully and accomplish something," he says.
Trainer is still applying his leadership style in his current job. "You have to let people know where you want to take them, and have a vision of where to go, and be able to communicate the vision. And then you have to show a commitment to the vision by hard work and full devotion to the goal. When they see you committed to it, they will be, too."
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