Advice to 2011 grads: 'Don't panic. Work the problem.'

12/19/2011 11:50:00 AM

Engineering at Illinois alumnus William F. Baker (MS 1980, Civil Engineering) offered insights and advice to fall graduates at the College of Engineering Commencement on December 17, 2011.

William Baker
William Baker

The text of his comments follows.

Thank you. It is a privilege to be here today to celebrate your graduation from the College of Engineering. I know I am standing between you and your degree, so I’ll keep my speech short and, I hope, helpful.

It is no secret that the University of Illinois is home to one of the world’s pre-eminent engineering schools. Consistently ranked with the nation’s top programs, its rankings are merely one measure of its excellence. The numbers can only insinuate what you and I, the graduates of this distinguished program, know: it is a launching pad for the future. The College of Engineering is defined not only by its ranking, or its illustrious faculty, or even its renowned research. I would suggest that its greatest success lies in its proven ability to lay the academic foundation for the next generation of innovators. Quite simply: the College of Engineering’s greatest success is you, its graduates.

Many of you here today will go on to be leaders in some of the world’s most technically advanced and specialized fields. You will define best practices and perhaps even create tools that will forever change the way people work and live, and you will do so by utilizing the skills honed at this fine institution. One of my professors at Illinois was Narby Khachaturian. Professor Khachaturian’s favorite catchphrase was “Theory is Practical.” Over 30 years later, I can personally subscribe to the truth within this statement. The understanding of fundamentals that I acquired at the University of Illinois helped me to design the world’s tallest building. In addition to this tower, the education I received here enables me to continually address design challenges that are outside the norm. Graduates, rest assured that this university has well prepared you for the professional challenges that lie ahead. As you all know, a college education is very expensive; rest assured that you have made a sound investment and spent your money in the right place.

Many, if not most of you, have been studying for years with limited “on the job” exposure to your chosen profession. You are wondering: “Will I like it? Did I make the right choice?” Let me assure you that you did. Because even if you move into a new field, your engineering education will prepare you for whatever you choose. For instance, of the firms that make up the S&P 500, 20% have CEOs with undergraduate degrees in engineering—more than any other discipline, including business.

This is not to say, graduates, that today’s commencement marks the end of your schooling. Actually, it is quite the opposite, in fact. As the name suggests—commencement-- it is the beginning. The beginning of what I can only hope is a lifetime of learning and enrichment. For many of you, “the real world” is the next point in your educational trajectory. Real world exposure will give you a new perspective, but do not assume that today is the end of your formal education. After you have worked for a year or two, you may want to refine your knowledge or move in a new direction. When I completed my undergraduate education, I worked in the private sector for a few years. During that time, the most important thing I learned was that there was much more I needed to learn about structural engineering. And so, against the advice of friends, co-workers and family members, I quit a very good and high-paying job for an oil company and went back to school. I wanted to go the very best place possible so I applied to the University of Illinois. I enrolled here and tried to take every course offered in my field. Going to school at Illinois was the best career move I ever made. It made everything else that came later possible.

And so, because delivering a commencement address allows one to offer unsolicited advice, after working for a few years, I would urge all of you here receiving your bachelor’s today to consider graduate school as a stepping stone on your professional path. For those of you receiving your graduate degrees today, you may wish to return for a post-doc or training in business to help market your own inventions, run your own company and produce your new creations.

Since we’re on the topic of unsolicited advice, many of you have been living in what I will call self-imposed, “student poverty” for a long time and cannot wait to make some ‘real money’. Have at it; get into the work force; make some money, but for the next few years, do not let your possessions own you. When I returned to graduate school, many of my friends wished they could do the same, but could not because they were so caught up in mortgages, car payments and other debts that they had acquired. To be a student is to live on limited resources and the discipline associated with doing so is actually a source of power. Do not lose this power until you are certain you do not need to return to campus to polish off your education. Don’t relinquish this power.

I would like to conclude with two sentiments that have served me well throughout my life, and as such, I would like to share them with you. I assume some of you here have read the “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” If you have not read it, your parents probably have. The novel features a book of the same name and written on the cover in bold letters are the words: “Don’t Panic.” This is extremely good advice. In your future professional and personal lives, there will be times when things will go very wrong. Do not panic; it will not help. Instead, turn to your engineering skills and “work the problem.” I cannot assure you that the problem will go away, but at least you will be in control of yourself, and you will do the best you can. I have needed to take this approach several times in my career, once during the design of the Burj Khalifa. My firm, SOM, had gotten the commission to design the world’s tallest building. To be sure we were on target, we immediately tested our competition scheme in the wind tunnel. At that time, the scheme was only 10 meters taller than the existing world tallest building, but the results were very bad. This was a disaster. The building did not work. I could feel myself starting to panic; I took a deep breath and started to “work the problem”, as an engineer does. In the end we were not only able to get the building under control, we were able to reshape the building and change the harmonics of the tower, so that the forces and movements went way down. We were then able to “grow” the building by over 1,000 feet, so that it not only became the tallest building in the world, but the tallest structure ever built by man.

My second sentiment centers upon my belief in collaboration—that the collective thinking and ingenuity of a group is more powerful than the ability of one individual. Do not let your ego get in the way. Do not worry about getting credit; worry about the success of the team. The credit will come on its own. I have seen several brilliant people who were so concerned with getting credit that their professional trajectory was greatly diminished from what it could have been. At my firm, I am surrounded by individuals from all sorts of different cultural, professional, and academic backgrounds. When I begin collaborating with these individuals, I will bring my ideas to the table, but often find that by the end of the discussion, the idea morphs into something much better. I urge you to find your own network of collaborators; to seek out mentors that can help guide your career, as well as trusted peers to bounce off your latest and greatest ideas. And here’s the good news: you already have the start of one. For each graduate here today, there is an army of teachers, parents, family members and mentors who have played a role in your arrival at this point. Be sure to take a moment today to thank these individuals and then be sure to pay it forward. Just as each of us has benefited from the legacy of those before us, think about the ways in which you can give back, as you start to become successful. You will be successful; you will be leaders. Thirty years hence the people who will be in this room, the graduates of the University of Illinois will be looking to you for their inspiration and guidance.

When you graduate today, you join an elite group of individuals who I refer to as the “Illinois Mafia.” This is because when I meet a graduate of Illinois, I know he or she will bring something to the table. This is a person of substance. University of Illinois graduates are involved, usually in a leadership position, in virtually every professional committee in which I’m associated. This network of individuals-- friends, former roommates, lab partners, and Alums you will meet-- will prove invaluable in your professional life. So use them! And be proud to be counted among them.

With talent comes the obligation to use it. For each of you here in the room there are many who wanted to be here but were not accepted to the University of Illinois. You owe it to the people who helped you get here as well those who wanted to be here but could not to do your best. Remember, there were many others who applied to the University of Illinois but were not accepted. You were. You have an obligation to yourselves and to those who could not be here to do something significant with your education.

Today you are a part of a legacy—a legacy of engineering excellence at the University of Illinois. This honor is accompanied by the opportunity to use the knowledge that you have been so fortunate to receive to influence the world around you. Seize it.

Congratulations and thank you.

About William F. Baker: As a structural engineering partner for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, LLP, Baker stands high among the elite group of the most accomplished and visible structural engineers worldwide. Completion last year of the world’s tallest building—the Burj Khalifa in Dubai—added to Baker’s already stellar reputation as one of the modern era’s most innovative structural engineers.

While widely regarded for his work on supertall buildings, his expertise also extends to a wide variety of structures like the GM Entry Pavilion and Millennium Park's Jay Pritzker Pavilion and BP Pedestrian Bridge. Baker is also known for his work on long-span roof structures, such as the Korean Air Lines Operations Hangar and the Virginia Beach Convention Center, as well as for his collaboration with artists like Jamie Carpenter (Raspberry Island-Schubert Club Band Shell), Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle (Gravity is a Force to be Reckoned With), and James Turrell (Roden Crater).

He arrived at the University of Illinois in fall 1979 as a graduate student with both a vision and a mission. Later, having excelled in his graduate work, he joined Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago. To date, Baker has participated in 62 domestic and 66 international building projects. In addition to his work in connection with the Burj Khalifa, he has served as a structural engineer for the building of Trump International Hotel and Towers in Chicago, Infinity Tower in Dubai, and NATO headquarters in Brussels. These projects, and his dissemination of the knowledge about them, have led to revolutionary improvements in the design and construction of buildings throughout the world.

In addition to working at SOM, Baker is actively involved with numerous institutions of higher learning, as well as various professional organizations. He contributes regularly to structural engineering literature and has published more than 50 articles describing his projects and highlighting both theoretical and applied research focused on optimization, wind effects, and stability.

An active supporter of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Illinois, Baker has a passion for education and actively engages with students and faculty to share his knowledge and to promote the engineering profession. He established the Baker Structural Engineering Fund to support a faculty scholar in that field. This past May, he was honored as a Distinguished Alumni of the College of Engineering.

In 2011, he received an honorary doctorate in engineering from the University of Stuttgart, as well as a 2011 ASCE Outstanding Projects And Leaders (OPAL) Lifetime Award for Design. Baker is the 2010 recipient of the Gold Medal from the Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE) and the 2009 recipient and first American to receive the Fritz Leonhardt Preis (Germany). In 2008, the CTBUH awarded him the Fazlur Rahman Khan medal. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of both the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the IStructE, and frequently lectures on a variety of structural engineering topics within the U.S. and abroad.


Contact:  Kay Kappes, engineering convocation coordinator, Office of Undergraduate Programs, College of Engineering, 217/333-3528.

If you have any questions about the College of Engineering, or other story ideas, contact Rick Kubetz, writer/editor, Engineering Communications Office, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 217/244-7716.