Ryan Wallace Finds his Niche in Industry

March 15, 2004

By David King

Ryan WallaceRyan Wallace strives to be a leader. As early as high school, Wallace remembers his aspirations to become a leader in the field of engineering. And now at DuPont Cyrel@, Wallace is a leader, with a bright future ahead of him.Wallace joined DuPont Cyrel@ as a part of their Field Engineering Program immediately after completing his Duke Masters of Engineering Management (MEM) degree in May 2002. DuPont's program, designed to shape talented engineers into leaders, fit Wallace perfectly. On a six-to-eight year timetable, he and other engineers in the program will rotate to different businesses within the company about every two years. When they complete the program, these highly trained engineers are able to select which business fits them best for establishing their careers.

Wallace's first job with DuPont required leadership from the get-go. As a group supervisor in manufacturing, he supervised eighty-four employees on various shifts. He found himself responsible for productivity, quality, safety in operations, and personnel activities specific to the manufacturing process.

Wallace transitioned to his second assignment as a Quality Engineer in September 2003. Although still tied to operations, his position is much more technical. Looking at different concepts such as defect elimination and measurement system analysis, he hopes to improve the quality and efficiency of the manufacturing processes and the product he examines. He's finding excitement and new challenges in each new task he undertakes.

Duke's Masters of Engineering Management degree from Duke helped make Wallace's goals to have a leadership career a reality. Wallace enrolled himself into engineering internships each summer beginning as a junior in high school. By the time he had graduated with his mechanical engineering degree from the University of Virginia, he already had a wide variety of work experience and technical skills under his belt. Tthroughout college, he served in leadership roles of several organizations on Virginia's campus.

Wallace had always planned on pursuing further education beyond his Bachelor's in engineering. Originally, he desired to go all the way for his PH.D., affording him an opportunity to teach in the field he so enjoyed. He later decided that teaching probably was not for him, and neither was a career in research. So he considered his options. Not wanting to be the “typical engineer” who focused only down one narrow technical corridor, Wallace wanted to be “an engineer who could do anything.” He knew he wanted to get a handle on business and law, and so considered an MBA or a J.D. Yet, Wallace felt these fields would force him to bypass a career in engineering.

Wallace also considered a Master's in industrial engineering. He knew industrial engineering would expose him to process management and system optimization, which were topics of great interest to him. However, it was not long before further search turned up an MEM program. Here was a program that fit with what Wallace had been searching for: exposure to processes, people, and business. Wallace gained much of his information about Duke's program from the Web, and after talking with a friend who had already completed the Duke degree, Wallace was sold. He finally found what he had been looking for, and Duke's program fit the bill.

Wallace entered Duke that next year with realistic expectations. He wanted exposure to different curricula: engineering, business, and law. He also hoped to gain a better understanding of where he wanted to be vocationally in the long term. Although he knew he wanted to apply his leadership skills in management, he hoped to clarify some of his many interests. “I did not have a focused direction when I entered the program. I knew I wanted to be a leader, but what type?”

When asked if his experience at Duke met his expectations, he adamantly agreed. “I would do it ten more times if I could,” he replied. "My experiences there guided me in the right direction.”

The MEM program also affirmed his desire to stay in engineering. “Whereas, some of my colleagues may have been using the MEM to get out of engineering, I definitely wanted to stay in engineering and further develop my skills.” Wallace also found himself continually focused management of people and systems. Earning his MEM degree put in the favorable position of being able to explore and clarify his interests.

Wallace gave much of the credit to his MEM courses for shaping his future. “In marketing, I learned how a business works and how an organization functions,” Wallace said. “I began to see how all the pieces fit together.”

Being exposed to real life business cases through the numerous case studies, “you analyze the situations that organizations go through and how they react to them. Opportunities are then provided for teams to collaborate and brainstorm to come up with creative and effective solutions,” he said.

Wallace said that exposure to real life case studies remains invaluable to him as he faces some of the same problems working for a large company today. Wallace also recounted how his Management course focused his leadership potential by teaching him different ways to lead. He studied various leadership styles and the different effects they could have on an organization.

The Entrepreneurship course was one of his favorite classes. Having had notions of starting his own business before, Wallace listened to learn the ins and outs of starting one's own company.

“I am definitely a little more realistic now after seeing the risks associated with it,” Wallace said. Although still not closing himself off to the possibility down the road, it was just the type of information he needed to help guide him towards making informed career decisions.

Wallace praises the flexibility of the program's engineering courses. In comparison to his undergraduate degree where there was little chance for deviation, Wallace loved the opportunity of being exposed to different engineering disciplines. While he took one class within his discipline of mechanical engineering, Wallace also branched out to take classes in civil and biomedical engineering. “I didn't want to be pigeon-holed into one discipline,” he said.

“At Duke, as professors continuously assigned numerous responsibilities and tasks, you would accumulate several projects to complete and deadlines to meet." Half-joking, Wallace asserts "this was a great lesson for the crisis management skills one would need to develop in order to manage deadlines effectively on a day to day basis."

Wallace's MEM experience helped him transition from his first to second job within DuPont Cyrel@ where the last person had already left the company. Wallace had to move quickly from knowing little about the job to performing and getting results. “My learning curve was shortened with the abilities I had learned in process management: absorb information, interpret the information, and then get to performing. A lot of this came straight from the case studies,” Wallace explained.“You figure out what is going on, determine what happened and why, and then make recommendations.” In addition to the facts, it was the skills Wallace gained during his MEM program that continually aid him in his work.

Wallace enjoys working at DuPont in part because he enjoys seeing and learning a number of different processes and businesses. He also loves being around the technology. He values the ability of not being forced into an assignment that allows him to learn only one process for his whole career. It is the freshness and variety that fuels Wallace's love for his job. Naturally, these positives serve as Wallace's greatest praise for the MEM program as well.

He advises those enrolled in or considering the MEM program, “Ask a lot of questions of those people that are doing what you think you may want to do. Step out of your comfort zone. Build as much diversity in your experience as you can.” Wallace said that his MEM degree helped him do exactly that.

“You have to find opportunities to get exposure to the people you can ask questions of,” Wallace said. He found that the seminars the MEM program offered with presentations by professionals in the field benefited him tremendously.

“By talking to them, I could see if I would want to take on a job similar to theirs without having to spend five years in a career deciding firsthand,” Wallace stated.

Ryan Wallace is an individual who continues to capitalize on both his talents and opportunities. His time at Duke remained no exception. For Wallace, the MEM program took his high aspirations and gifts and helped him focus them into a career. Now with both skills and direction, Wallace cannot wait to see what new opportunities lie ahead for him to discover next.