Skunkworks is a riveting memoir by Ben Rich about his years working at Lockheed’s top-secret Skunkworks program first as an engineer, then as the head of the organization for close to twenty years. In this first-person account, we get to peek into the brilliant mind of a manager and a group of enterprising engineers, chemists, physicists and all-around doers that made the impossible possible and produced some of America’s most iconic military aircraft from the U2 spy plane to the record-setting SR-71 Blackbird which blazed at three times the speed of sound.
In the first half of the book Rich chronicles the story of Kelly Johnson, the formidable and charismatic chief engineer who founded the program. Johnson is a larger-than-life figure that reminds one of the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden who left an impression on his players that extended far beyond the basketball court. Similarly, the lessons and fear that Johnson instilled in his employees is palpable throughout Rich’s words and the accounts of other employees, pilots, generals, and Secretaries of State who are profiled in the book.
Indeed one of the highlights of the books is we get to hear from some of the most towering figures of the Cold War from former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to Secretary of State William Perry about how crucial a role the Skunkworks team played in ensuring America’s military advantage during the era.
We also get to peek inside the Pentagon’s bureaucracy and its Byzantine rules and regulations which made life somewhat frustrating for both Rich and Johnson. Despite their stellar record, the team ran into the same issues that most of us run into in the corporate world today from inflated egos, unexpected change of direction from the top, and backbiting characters.
The pace at which most of the planes got built is truly astonishing. Most of the planes that were took less than 24 months from conception to prototype. The focus, grit, ingenuity, and high degree of excellence that was expected of SkunkWorks employees can be credited for this rapid and prolific output which didn’t sacrifice quality.
My biggest takeaway from this book is that we should be fearless about tackling challenges that may seem uncomfortable or unknown at first. Most of the projects that the Skunkworks team undertook were zero-to-one projects that had never been done before. The team had mastered the fundamentals in each of their endeavors and was able to improvise to create products that revolutionized the game.