2019 Best EMBAs: Brendan Wyker, Cornell University (Johnson)

Brendan Wyker

Cornell University, Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management

“Creative problem solver able to generate order out of chaos across disciplines and industries.”

Age: 38

Hometown: Kansas City, MO (originally) & Houston, TX (now)

Family Members: Wife, Margaret, and children, Anaka, Liam, & Sean.

Fun fact about yourself: The first hours in my pilot logbook date back to when I was five years old. My father (a certified flight instructor) and I flew from Kansas City, MO to Galveston, TX and back. I was able to take the controls a few times as long as I promised to keep us straight and level.

Undergraduate School and Degree:

B.S. in Mathematics and B.S. with Honors in Physics, University of Missouri

M.S. in Physics, University of Maryland

M.S. in Physics and Ph.D. in Physics, Rice University

Where are you currently working? Shell, Front-End Development Planning

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles:

  • Co-founding member of Shell’s global Fiber Optic Sensing Forum
  • American Physical Society: Member of the Division of Quantum Information, the Division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics, the Forum on Physics and Society, the Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics, and the Topical Group on the Physics of Climate
  • Internal Proponent for Shell’s GameChanger program, one of our external innovation programs helping to develop early stage, unproven, and unusual technology ideas
  • Micron Technology Award, Rice Quantum Institute

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? We completed a Global Business Project as part of the Executive MBA Americas program at Johnson. Each team finds a business outside North America and helps them solve a problem with real impact to the business. Our team partnered with a major high-performance auto maker in Germany to create a plan on how to deal with the ACES (automated, connected, electrified, and shared) transition affecting that industry. Our team really dove into the problem with a lot of passion, staying focused on making a substantive difference for the client. By pulling together all the elements learned throughout the MBA program, we were able to deliver a high-quality plan with tools the client can use to better understand potential future scenarios. I realized during the process that there are quite a few learnings that I can benefit from.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? What jumps to mind first is the project I was given on day one of my career. I was tasked with building a new lab setup to test some questions we had on fiber optic sensing technology. After asking around and familiarizing myself with what we really needed to know and digging into the equations to answer those questions, I was able to propose a much smaller, more cost-efficient setup than what was originally envisioned. Then I took it a step further, asking management to let me use the money I saved for a real-world trial out in the field. During my initial fact-finding, it became clear that the end-users in the business would still be uncomfortable with the technology if it was only proven in the lab. The field trial was complex, with a lot of detailed procedures for a large crew. After two weeks of long days in the sweltering and stormy conditions of a Houston summer, I was able to make recommendations on the technology that impacted our global deployment strategy (and that the business would actually accept). I’m particularly proud of this experience because it required me to zoom out to a high level to understand what problems we really needed to solve, and it required me to zoom in to the fine details to complete the operations safely and effectively.

What was your favorite MBA course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? I really enjoyed Macroeconomics, Business Strategy, and Global Strategy. Looking back on the program I’d have to say I’m applying the concepts from Operations Management a lot more than I thought I would. It didn’t jump out to me at the time as the most interesting or challenging, but as my part of the business is transitioning from a project-by-project growth mode to more of a standardized cash engine, thinking through service levels, inventory management, and supply chain management has been key.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? I looked both at local schools and commuting to out-of-town programs. With the downturn in my sector, I felt it was important to find a program where I could learn from the experience of classmates and alumni from other industries. Recycling the same solutions from similar companies wasn’t going to cut it. There are very good schools here in Houston, but the diversity of industries represented seemed narrow. Commuting, on the other hand, is expensive and takes time away from family and work. With little kids at home and a demanding job, a commute would make for a pretty stressful couple of years. The Executive MBA Americas program has allowed me to interact with and learn from classmates in multiple cities across North and South America, representing a wide variety of industries and backgrounds, all while still being able to read bedtime stories to my kids almost every night. Combine this with the rigor and high standards of Cornell and an impressive Ivy League alumni network, and the decision became clear. As I learned more about the history and traditions of Cornell, I see it really was the best fit at all levels.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? Solving new and different problems with a diverse and experienced cohort. I get a lot of energy tackling new problems, and business school operates at a fast pace. I really liked hearing new perspectives from classmates with different backgrounds. Engaging in that healthy dialogue and challenging your own assumptions can really lead to solutions that are more robust.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? We had a severe illness in my family part of the way through the program. There were times I thought I’d have to drop out of the program to deal with it. I’m eternally grateful to my teammates who stepped up and helped carry a lot of the load on team projects at the time. I hope they feel I made it up to them in the latter parts of the program when I tried to contribute a lot more. Don’t feel ashamed to rely on the help of your team, and always be prepared to step up and help a teammate out when you can; it means a lot.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? First-and- foremost, ensure you have support both at work and at home. Your family is going on this journey with you. Next, be prepared to put in the effort to get something out of the program. No one will hold your hand and force you to learn. Take the time to think about how each lesson can be applied back at work, being open-minded to the fact that straightforward application may not be obvious. Finally, avoid cynicism at all costs. If something seems too easy, you’re probably not thinking it through as much as you could. Don’t just learn as much as you need for a good grade, let it soak in to make you a better executive.

What was your biggest regret in business school? I regret not reaching out to alumni from previous years as much as I could have. I’ve starting to work on that now, however, and I’m always looking for opportunities to connect with the alumni network and stay involved.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I admire all my classmates who had young children in the program. It’s not easy, but life goes on even while you’re in school. I waited for my little ones to be old enough to walk on their own before starting, so I can only imagine what it must have been like for those in the program handling 3 a.m. feedings. In particular, I was really impressed by Lars Hollis. He was able to handle a very demanding employer and a new baby, and he rode the momentum of the program to a bold career change.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…we were going through round-after-round of layoffs, and I wanted to make sure we were making the right decisions for staff and the business, not cutting a single job we didn’t need to.”

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? My ultimate goal is to be a connection between basic science and the broader business world to help accelerate benefits to society from research. After finishing my Ph.D., I chose a career in industry over academia because I wanted to more rapidly apply discoveries. It became clear early in my career, however, that a large part of the barrier between discovery and application is really that the technical aspects of a problem are only part of the story. Scientists and engineers may become cynical or frustrated when their technical solutions are not implemented, but without the broader business context they may be answering the wrong questions. Having spent time in both worlds, I hope to be a translator that helps technical teams understand the broader context of their work and helps business leaders see the value of some interesting and really complicated science.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I’d like them to remember me as an open-minded, authentic, and determined colleague they can turn to for help in solving any kind of problem, whether it’s technical, business related, or anything else.

What are the top two items on your bucket list? I want to see my kids grow up and graduate from college or grad school with a passion to make a difference in whatever fields they choose to pursue. I’d also like to live long enough to see quantum computation evolve to the point where it can make significant therapeutic impacts, especially on fields like neuroscience (not a field I’m in, but that’s what bucket lists are for).

What made Brendan such an invaluable addition to the class of 2019?

“Brendan is a unique and extremely talented student who combines a very strong STEM pedigree with a keen desire to directly engage with the full range of organizational and business challenges faced by a major multinational energy company. After completing his undergraduate program with dual degrees in Mathematics and Physics (with honors), Brendan went on to earn two Masters Degrees in Physics. He then earned a Ph.D. in Physics. Between the research he conducted during his Ph.D. program and additional work in his corporate career, he has authored 27 publications in peer-reviewed journals. With the MBAs he is about to receive (one from Cornell; one from Queen’s) he will have seven degrees in hand!

Since joining Shell in 2011, Brendan has had an array of roles with increasing levels of responsibility. His first position was part of a global research team leading the deployment of fiber optic technology in energy fields around the world. He moved on to become Chief of Staff to the Chief Petroleum Engineer. More recently, he worked in petro physical operations in the Gulf of Mexico on exploration projects that cost tens of millions of dollars. Currently, Brendan leads front-end technical integration on a portfolio of deep-water projects. He is widely appreciated for his strong intellectual capacity and ability to deliver superior results despite often being faced with tight timelines. His efforts have been recognized with two corporate special recognition awards over his eight years at Shell.

Brendan has fully embraced the Executive MBA Americas experience. He has been a highly dependable and collaborative teammate and classmate. And, despite the rigors of balancing a very demanding job, raising a young family of three kids with his wife Margaret, and a challenging Ivy League MBA program, Brendan has been an exceptional ambassador for the program and Cornell. He regularly meets with prospective students, participates in program information sessions, and attends every school event offered in the Houston area. Brendan is poised to move into an executive leadership role in the near future. We’re very excited to see what the next chapter holds for him.”

Verne Thalheimer

Executive Director, Executive MBA Americas,

Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management


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