The College of Engineering celebrated Jeffrey Wilcox, MS ’88, as its 16th Engineering Leader of the Year (ELOY) during an elegant ceremony at The Logan Philadelphia Hotel last month. The award is bestowed annually on an individual who has demonstrated keen support for the College and a pronounced level of achievement in engineering and emerging technologies. It is the College’s most prestigious award.
“Bestowing the Engineering Leader of the Year Award is one way we proudly highlight Drexel’s long tradition of excellence in engineering education,” President John Fry told the gathering of over 100 Drexel alums, faculty, and staff. “Through his work and through his relationship with his alma mater, Jeff embodies the values and aspirations of the College of Engineering and Drexel University.”
Wilcox is the Vice President for Digital Transformation at Lockheed Martin. Accepting the award, he gave an address that was by all accounts a stirring call to responsible, thoughtful progress in the digital age.
“We are on the cusp of a new frontier, a new era—the digital era. It is our greatest accomplishment as engineers,” Wilcox told the assembly. “We built the new public commons—the digital commons—where four billion people live, work, and play, and yet I worry that we don’t fully understand our responsibility as stewards of that commons.
“The lifeblood of the digital commons is data, and data, in the quantities and richness we now possess, is an entirely new commodity. The rules for how we engage with it—how we find, extract, distribute, and leverage it—are still being written. It is unlike any shared resource we have leveraged before as a people. And that’s because it is alive; because it is the platform we have constructed where the human story plays out today.
“It is a teeming repository of our hopes and dreams, our power and our potential; it contains the best of us. But it also lays bare the worst of us—our hatred and biases, our fears and our weaknesses. Data is perpetually stirring itself. It is an underworld where dangerous jinn abide. And we, as engineering leaders, are responsible for creating the tools that ensure the proper use of this commodity. We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” (More speech excerpts below.)
As the Vice President for Digital Transformation at Lockheed Martin, Wilcox oversees the Digital Transformation Office and is responsible for the design, development, and implementation of Lockheed Martin’s operations strategy. He is charged with leveraging emerging digital technologies to transform systems design, production, and sustainment, and with ensuring that workforce and systems are in place to enable a successful transformation.
Previously, Wilcox served as Vice President for Engineering and Program Operations where he was responsible for the effectiveness and efficiency of the engineering, program management, production operations, and sustainment functions across the enterprise.
He is chairman of the NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership National Advisory Board. He also serves as an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular & Cellular Biology, where he teaches a course in systems engineering.
Wilcox has a BS in Biomedical Engineering from Case Western Reserve University, and an MS in Electrical Engineering from Drexel (’88). He also has an honorary Doctorate of Engineering from the Stevens Institute of Technology.
CoE Dean Sharon Walker, PhD, introduced Wilcox and presented him with the ELOY award.
“Jeff supports the many ways leadership can be modeled, taught, and passed along,” Walker said. “He is a strong advocate of mentorship at Lockheed Martin. He is also a devoted advocate of the long and productive co-op relationship between Drexel and Lockheed Martin.”
For the past 16 years, CoE has been selecting for the ELOY award an individual who exemplifies excellence in his or her field. The winner must demonstrate leadership in the development of technology-based solutions to societal problems and serve as an example of outstanding achievement for current and future generations of engineers.
The Boeing Company and Lockheed Martin were Honor Level sponsors for the evening.
As the 2019 ELOY Award winner, Wilcox joins a cadre of distinguished CoE alumni and industry leaders. Among them are 2018 recipient “Chuck” Dabundo, 2017 recipient C.R. “Chuck” Pennoni, 2016 recipient Philip Rinaldi, 2009 recipient Chris Ferguson, and 2006 recipient Robert Koerner.
Here are some excerpts from Wilcox’s ELOY speech, titled “A Larger Passion.”
On challenges facing the engineering field today:
“I believe that the greatest challenge facing the engineering leader today is to defend and expand the digital commons so it serves all of us. To make it richer, more fertile, and larger. To acknowledge that we contain multitudes—that we contradict ourselves, and that that is the code of our humanity. Engineers mediate the boundary between order and chaos, but, in so doing, we have the ability to push that boundary back—we can make it larger and richer, we can make room for a larger passion: the human passion, the human story.”
On defining leadership in a digital age:
“We tend to think of leadership traits as immutable, but I would suggest that different eras call for different leadership postures. Different eras have different tools, different threats, different opportunities, and different landscapes. And each calls for a different sort of leadership in transition.”
“As architects and builders of the environment we live in, we have an incredible responsibility. That’s why we need to be restless—why we need to be relentless in our pursuit of getting that right. I don’t believe it is an overstatement to say that civilization depends on our getting that right. And getting that right means applying our restless and boundless energy to addressing how we need to transform in order to prepare leaders for a world that looks nothing like the one I walked into in 1988.”
On the traits of a good leader:
“My job is to help lead the transformation of one of the nation’s storied innovators into the digital future. From that perch, I’d like to share some brief thoughts on what I think we as leaders need to be doing to meet the challenges of the digital age. The first trait a leader needs to possess to lead through this sea of change is a sense of humor. A sense of humor softens the ground; it says it’s okay to be vulnerable, to be approachable, to be transparent. A sense of humor creates a safe space for people to feel comfortable expressing themselves, for giving people permission to bring their full selves—all of their gifts—to work.”
“As a leader, you must (also) foster a sense of wonder. You must seek daily awe. Wonder expands the frontier of the possible, in fact, wonder says there is no frontier. It says there are things out there we can’t imagine or explain, but we need to be open to this strangeness because that’s how you create limitless possibility.”
“Shared awe is also how you bring people together. Social scientists hypothesize that awe exists in an evolutionary sense because it brings us together and makes us feel responsible to one another.”
“The last aspect of the leader’s posture I want to talk about is a sense of gratitude. A sense of humor opens the frontier of the commons. A sense of wonder expands the palette you can bring to bear. But a sense of gratitude is what makes the digital commons rich and meaningful. It’s how we become part of the human story.”
On engineering for the common good:
“As we build a larger field, a larger possibility, a larger passion, we must remember we stand on hallowed ground alongside the ghosts of the past and avatars from the future. We must respect and honor that every day.”
“I believe the digital commons is terrain that must be fought for and fought over, against forces that would shrink the space of individual sovereignty—of individual vision. It’s a battle against the forces that would enforce mediocrity in the name of monetizing our passion, or to weaponize our passion.”
“I believe the posture we bring to that battle is everything. Entering the world with a sense of humor, of wonder, and of gratitude makes room for a larger possibility—a larger passion. As you think about leadership in the digital age, give yourself a charter to push back the boundaries, to bring in wondrous new ideas, and to help your people bring their full selves to your shared mission—to give expression to the multitudes within us. We can claim this ground for the common good. We can build a space that welcomes the fullest expression of human potential, in service, to the narrative that is the human story. We can give people something bigger to reach for. We can make room for a larger passion.”