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Jeff Wilke '89, Senior vice president, Worldwide Operations and Customer Service,

Chemical Engineering

Why I chose chemical engineering

I became a chemical engineering major because I liked chemistry in high school, wanted an engineering degree, and heard that it was the most difficult of the engineering disciplines. But I also chose courses in politics, philosophy, and comparative literature to ensure that I was a well-read graduate. I filled the rest of my schedule with classes in economics, which I also loved, and turned into a self-developed minor.

A global view

After graduation I joined Accenture to write computer code for the financial services industry, using software development experience gained from my course work and thesis. After two years working on bank mergers, I went to MIT for the Leaders for Manufacturing (LFM) program, receiving an MBA degree and a master's degree in chemical engineering. I chose LFM based on Princeton Professor William Baumol's book, Productivity and American Leadership: The Long View, which argued that the American standard of living would suffer without a significant change in long-term productivity rates.

After MIT, I joined AlliedSignal, working first as a financial analyst and then as a manufacturing manager in several chemical plants. Later I went on to run global operations for a metals division with plants in India and China, had full general management responsibility for a business unit serving the chemical, environmental, and commercial roofing industries, and ran the pharmaceutical fine-chemicals division, with plants in Italy, Germany, Ireland, and the Bahamas.

In 1999, recruited me to lead worldwide operations. My team is responsible for our company's order fulfillment, transportation, supply chain, and customer service in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Japan. I've led the opening of seven fulfillment centers, supporting the growth of our company from under $1 billion to a run rate of nearly $7 billion annually, and watched talented teams (ultimately thousands of people) reduce defects and improve processes to save nearly $500 million annually.

Understanding links

Chemical engineers learn how to design a process to make money. Chemical engineering students learn to understand the links between design trade-offs and economic value. They have to consider social externalities such as pollution and environmental impact. They learn to translate principles of pure science (chemistry and physics) into a cost structure in support of a business. They learn to design processes with minimal defects and efficient trade-offs between capital investment and operating cost.

Along the way, chemical engineering majors also learn engineering skills in computer science, operations research, biotechnology, materials science, and process control. They learn to apply the math of optimization and of uncertainty. This combination of broad mathematical and scientific knowledge, coupled with a systems-thinking approach, has enabled me to quickly adapt to a wide range of industries (software, financial services, commodity chemicals, metals, electronics, pharmaceuticals, and e-commerce/logistics.) Pursuing an engineering degree at Princeton, with the opportunity to complement my major with a superb set of liberal arts subjects, meant I had more exposure to the intellectual frameworks upon which western democracies and capitalist industries are built. I made an excellent choice.

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