Over the course of his career, Jose Bern has done many things he never would have expected as a shy civil engineering student: public speaking, sales, and even dancing in a flash mob.
Bern, CE 95, spoke to students during the Fall 2023 Hyatt Lecture on Oct. 19 about the importance of branching out and learning new skills to achieve success over the course of their careers.
Bern is the corporate vice president of Empresas Bern, where he leads the sales and development division. In the last 45 years, the company has built the skyline of Panama with over 170 corporate, retail and residential projects.
Despite his background in civil engineering, Bern told students that as he has advanced in his career, most of what he does revolves around management and sales.
“Civil and environmental engineering is the base for this tower of knowledge…We develop other skills that bridge us across to different areas,” Bern said. “Nowadays, I use more of my people skills every day than my math skills.”
Bern recalled two things that really helped him develop those people skills he now uses so often in leadership.
Shortly before arriving at Georgia Tech, he read "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie. This classic book of business wisdom had a significant impact on his views regarding leadership and human interaction.
He noted that a psychology class he took as an elective while he was a student at Tech changed his understanding of human behavior and motivation. He recommended that students take psychology if they have the opportunity.
“It gives you a perspective on how a different system works—the human system,” Bern said.
Bern told students that the real world often presents challenges where they will need to balance their knowledge of the human system with their engineering expertise and problems-solving skills.
He provided as an example, the issue of providing enough drinking water to the population of Panama.
“We have a solution, we’ve had it for 20 years,” Bern said. “The U.S. Corps of Engineers recommends we flood the Rio Indio and engineering-wise it’s a perfect solution. Politically, it’s an issue because you’re going to flood a bunch of people’s homes and their farmlands.”
“So even though engineering-wise we know what to do, the implementation is not so simple. We have to negotiate our way around.”
Bern stressed the importance of empathy and the duty of engineer-leaders to look after their teams and the people their work impacts. He left students with the message that their journey extends beyond the technical aspects of their field, encompassing the broader landscape of human interactions and leadership.