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2022 Simon Ramo Founders Award Winner
It is incredibly meaningful to be honored with the Simon Ramo Award, and being introduced by the eminent Wes Harris makes the honor even more profound. I am delighted to be recognized by the National Academy of Engineering and its members… because choosing to become an engineer was one of the most important decisions I ever made.
I did not start out with sky-high ambitions. I was just a kid in Venezuela from a very modest background, hoping for a decent job and a better life. Like many young people at the time in South America, I saw engineering as a ladder up to the middle class. I was also attracted to engineering thinking, and to the fun, logic and rigor of engineering.
As my career unfolded at MIT, I gradually found myself in leadership positions: the head of a big lab, head of an engineering department, and eventually provost and then president. Along the way, I came to see that engineering had given me something I never expected: an extremely useful set of skills that helped me do what leaders need to do, and are expected to do.
As a leader, one is often required to make important decisions under conditions of great uncertainty – which is exactly what engineering trains you to do. I can give you many personal MIT examples of that, from managing the unpredictable global financial crisis in 2008 to overseeing the uncertainty of Covid-19.
I am not the first to say this, but my own experience has taught me in unforgettable ways that leadership is a profound exercise in systems engineering. It may not be quite as hard as designing a space ship to Mars. But it takes many of the same kind of skills.
It takes the ability to break an overwhelming problem into manageable pieces, to drill down in the data until you uncover the opportunities, and to capitalize on the skills of an enormous team.
And it takes the courage to articulate your vision, to prototype and iterate (learning from your mistakes!) and to keep on going until, with a little luck, you finally find the path that works.
We live in a moment when society is starving for principled, inspired, constructive leadership, in the face of immense global challenges. In a time of such tremendous need, I believe in the vision, potential and capacity to do good of the members of the National Academy of Engineering, and that includes all of you here tonight. And I trust you will each find many ways to contribute to move the needle in the right direction for the benefit of humankind.
I am deeply fortunate to have been welcomed into this transformative profession so many years ago, and I am profoundly grateful for the immense honor of this truly wonderful award.