A Knack for Problem Solving

With a brain wired for solving problems, Barry Cordero helps medical-technology company Medtronic seek out solutions to improve and extend lives

Barry Cordero
When he’s not working as a lean sigma deployment leader for Medtronic, Barry Cordero is encouraging other Latinos to join STEM fields through the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

When Barry Cordero was in high school, his guidance counselor told him not to bother with college. Cordero set out to prove him wrong. A year before graduating from high school, Cordero took the Navy Nuclear Power Test, scoring just a few points below what was required to be a “nuke.” At the time, Cordero didn’t know what being a nuke entailed or that the Navy’s nuclear community was comprised of the brightest the military had to offer; all he knew was that coming up short wasn’t acceptable. One year later, Cordero passed the test, giving up an adventurous job as a Navy diver in order to jump headfirst into one of the most difficult academic curriculums the military offered and eventually graduated from the University of California San Diego’s bioengineering program. The more Cordero is told something can’t be done, the more he wants to do it. In many ways, this attitude plays into his work as president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and as lean sigma deployment leader for medical-technology company Medtronic. When told that Latinos simply weren’t entering science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) fields, Cordero improved programs to engage young students. When Medtronic’s processes were proving to be inaccessible to employees, the engineer created a new system. Finding solutions is simply the way Cordero’s brain operates and here he shares three ingenious initiatives that have pushed Medtronic and SHPE in new directions.

1. A New Way To Train

When Cordero came into Medtronic’s MECC business unit, the engineer made it his goal to improve the existing system that was used to teach senior assemblers how to problem solve. A majority of the assemblers only had high school educations, but were expected to perform engineer-level analysis using complicated software. Thanks to Cordero’s system, launched in 2011, problem solving now requires little more than a pencil and paper. As of 2012, the system has been adopted by all of Medtronic and it’s being taught around the world.

“Due to assembler improvements, last year we saved over $700,000 in the cost of goods sold, but it’s not just about the savings,” Cordero says. “The real benefit is more engaged employees. When people know how to identify a problem and they have access to a process to make the improvements themselves, they really begin to own their work. You’re creating a culture of thinking problem solvers.”

The key, Cordero says, was making the training more accessible by focusing less on tools and more on the problem-solving process. Previously, the five-day training was all lecture. Now, it’s 75 percent hands-on training—and it’s paying off. Last year, one project alone reduced waste by $80,000.

2. Noche de Ciencias

As of 2010, Latinos represent just 7 percent of the US engineering workforce. For many years, SHPE was trying to fix the pipeline issue by engaging college engineering students, which is where Cordero was first introduced to SHPE. One main problem is that there aren’t enough young people entering engineering, so focusing on those already on the cusp of graduating with engineering degrees is basically preaching to the choir—and a small one at that. Cordero realized that one of the main impediments to bringing more Latinos into engineering was their parent’s understanding of college and the value of an engineering education.

This is how SHPE’s Noche de Ciencias—or science night—came to focus just as much on the parents as it did the kids. Essentially, these are events for K-12 students, giving them the opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with engineers while taking part in educational games and activities.

“I’ve been in SHPE since I was in community college, so I’ve been doing outreach for a long time. It was clear that if we didn’t engage the parents, it would hinder the kids from pursuing engineering,” Cordero says. “A lot of these kids are first-generation Americans and college isn’t really a priority; working and taking care of the family is. We had to perform a cost-benefit analysis for the parents, helping them understand the income potential of their kids if they only graduated from high school, if they only went to community college, etc. By engaging them, they were able to see the long-term family benefits of their child entering engineering. This has had a huge impact because when the parents understand, the kids are encouraged to work towards obtaining one of the most difficult degrees you can go after.”

3. Management Growth Training

Cordero jokes that all of his accomplishments have to do with training others, but there is some truth to it. Problem solving is what the engineer always seems to gravitate towards, like four years ago when SHPE noticed a decline in the number of members participating in its Management Growth Training (MGT). Cordero, as he is apt to do, took it upon himself to figure out what the problem was.

The issue was the same curriculum was being used at SHPE’s yearly national conference, so many members felt it was useless to attend the training session when they’d already been exposed to much of the same content, which is why Cordero set out to change the curriculum. After revamping the program, and adding Project Manager Certification Training, MGT had twice the applicants than there were spots available. The training program will continue to change, but for now Cordero is happy with the results and attendees are pleased with the new focus on project management.

Up Close & Personal with Barry Cordero

What is a piece of advice you received early on in your career that you still rely on?

A wrestling coach in high school who was very important to me told me that only you’re responsible for your failures and successes. It was powerful advice and because of it, I make a daily effort to change the things I can control.

What would you tell a young Latino interested in entering engineering?

You can’t just sit alone with your books and expect to succeed. Get to know others in the engineering department, help each other, and find a SHPE chapter in your area.

What is one lesson you learned in the military you still apply in the civilian world?

When you’re a nuke, you’re told … to question everything. I still do that today. I dig into the details, try to find the root cause; I challenge everything I see and try to figure out a way to improve things.