2010 Investiture Welcome Remarks by Christine B. Bucklin D'84

Dartmouth Trustee and Former SVP, Corporate Strategic Planning, Sun Microsystems

June 12, 2010

Good morning, Dean Helble, engineers and sponsors-of-engineers. I am so honored to be among you innovators this morning. I have always been a bit intimidated by the Thayer's mission, which is carved on Cummings Hall:

"To prepare the most capable and faithful for the most responsible positions and the most difficult service."

Seems like a more-than-fair warning that there are no guts or easy-A's to be found inside that building.

Congratulations to all of you on completing that preparation! Are the most responsible positions and most difficult service really in engineering? I think so...

I know from building an Internet company and working at Sun Microsystems that superior engineering breeds superior economic returns. At Internet Brands, the capability of our engineers to configure systems to scale by many orders of magnitude was critical to the company's ability to grow. Their ability to solve a problem in a light, fast way kept our costs down. At Sun Microsystems, the correlation between profits and innovations made by Sun engineers could not have been clearer. The superior performance from better engineering creates product demand, and the degree to which these innovations are proprietary to Sun determined the profitability of the product.

In Silicon Valley, the engineers are the kings. It may have been the beginning of the end for Detroit when power shifted from engineers to financial whiz kids. And certainly there are many in the oil industry today who are resolved to better heed engineers' advice.

Set aside the base pursuit of filthy lucre. Engineering feats are central to better societies ... drinking water, food, health care, infrastructure, communication are all available to many more people today than imagined only a generation ago because of accomplishments in engineering.

However, someone needs to organize and lead the engineers. In fact, the most responsible positions and most difficult service lie in orchestrating the efforts of individuals. Fortunately, the Thayer School has prepared you for those positions:

Christine Bucklin addresses the 2010 Thayer School graduates
Christine Bucklin D'84 addresses the 2010 Thayer School graduates

How does Thayer do this? I see three key ingredients: math, systems and people.

  1. Get the math right. Most engineering schools require this. The math may not be glamorous, but it's fundamental to the truth and can be a tough screen. You have earned your spurs in the Heat Equation, Wave Equation, partial differential equations, bounded and unbounded. These are not easy concepts, and even if you never reach for one of these equations again, the mental habits instilled in while learning them is now part of you. And that discipline is in demand, not just in engineering but also in business, law and medicine because it's a sign of "smart." Or, as Sylvanus Thayer might say, a sign of "capable and faithful."

  2. Take a systems approach. This is more distinctive to Thayer since most engineering schools have departments — Chemical, Electrical, Mechanical Engineering, etc. — instead of a unified approach. The intellectual agility that comes from appreciating commonalities and taking an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving is helpful. When my favorite engineer ever, my dad, retired after 43 years as a Chemical Engineer, I asked him if he had it to do over would he have been a chemical engineer. He said no. What, then? Ski patrolman, pilot, llama rancher? He wished that he'd been an electrical engineer instead, but by the time he discovered the excitement of that field, he had too many chemistry credits to switch over. Too bad he didn't go to Thayer. Your training gives you flexibility. It also gives you insights and approaches that differ from those of the more narrowly-trained.

  3. Consider the humans. Technical solutions have to work in the real world of messy human behavior. And it's hard to get anything done without the cooperation of other people. Your Thayer training comes in the context of a Dartmouth liberal arts education which includes healthy doses of humanities and social sciences. Dartmouth engineers are also well-rounded. When I met with a sample of Dartmouth engineering majors, I asked how many played sports (about half) how many were in fraternities or sororities (about half) and how many were active in the arts (about a third). There are very few, if any, effective leaders who are one-dimensional. And there are very few, if any, one-dimensional engineers getting a Dartmouth degree tomorrow.

So, congratulations to you, the capable and faithful, on your preparation for the most responsible positions and most difficult service. The world needs you. We need your specific innovations, some of which we celebrate today. We need your leadership of other innovators. And we need your talents applied to the world's problems, both technical and not. Thank you.