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David Haffner

IMSE alumnus David Haffner was invited to meet with College of Engineering students in October 2015. Haffner, who is CEO and Board Chairman of Leggett and Platt, Inc., a Carthage, Mo.-based Fortune 500 company, spoke about his time as a student and the “world of nerdism.”

By David Haffner, BS IE 1974

David Haffner talking with a group of students.

David Haffner talks with engineering students.


I’m very flattered to have been invited here this evening to interact with you and this engineering brain trust of students. It’s especially meaningful to me because I am, and always will be, a Mizzou engineer (plus, it gives me a chance to throw down some beers at Harpo’s and take in a Shakespeare’s pizza).

Engineers are a curious lot, and although I’m shamelessly biased, I know they are critical to the overall well being of the cities, states and countries in which they live. It doesn’t hurt that they are some of the very best paid graduates.

Guess who designs and builds our roads and bridges, our shopping malls and restaurants, our cars, airplanes and space ships? Our laptops, tablets, cell phones and video games? Engineers.

I vividly remember my undergraduate days here at Mizzou:

The 21-credit-hour semesters that I took my junior and senior years, so I could graduate in four years. I couldn’t afford the extra year that many students took.

The 7:40 a.m. classes, many of which after pulling all-nighters (either studying at home… or partying at Harpo’s or Ford’s Theater).

The escalating Vietnam War, inflation of more than 12 percent, which was ravaging personal wealth and rising unemployment.

It was not a particularly good time to be coming out of an academic stupor looking for a job.

If my engineering professors back then had benefited from perfect foresight (perhaps with the help of a sophisticated Fourier Series algorithm), they might have said to me:

“Dave, your efforts here at Mizzou will prove very worthwhile, and although you came to many of your 7:40 a.m. classes in questionable states of sobriety, you will graduate with honors.

“You’ll have your choice of many job offerings from some of the country’s largest firms, and you will be challenged to design some of the most sophisticated processing systems throughout the world.

“Don’t worry, Dave,” they might have said. “Although you grew up poor in the Ozarks, never expecting to travel abroad, you will circumnavigate the world many times, spreading the knowledge we’ve given you here in Columbia.

“Really, Dave. Those merciless physics and thermodynamics classes will pay big dividends.

“And, Dave, you’ll go on to get your MBA, which will humble you as you regret those demeaning comments you and the other engineering students made about the business school students.

“And — you’ll find it hard to believe — but you will eventually assume the chairman and chief executive roles for one of the largest public companies in the country.

“You’ll come to the realization that success in your career, anchored by your engineering degree, will be a non-linear function of effort, perseverance, trust, resiliency and integrity, as well as healthy doses of luck and critical timing.”

They might have told me that I’d be richly rewarded intrinsically, each time I return to campus to interact with students, professors and university administrators.

“And, oh yeah, Dave — Mizzou will eventually have a powerhouse of a football team. (Eventually becoming a part of the SEC.)”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, if my professors had made those comments to me as a student in the College of Engineering, I would have immediately dubbed them all insane — suitable subjects for the psychiatric ward at University Hospital.

But guess what? Amazing things can happen.

You’ve chosen engineering as your field of study. That is an extraordinarily good choice, and good on you for doing so. But it’s not easy. In fact, it’s a hell of a challenge. But the subsequent rewards, both financially and intrinsically, can be mind-boggling.

As an engineering student you have entered the world of “nerdism,” and upon graduation will become a “professional nerd.”

I’m a nerd. Jim Thompson’s darn sure a nerd, and you’re all nerds. It’s a good thing.

Since I’ve known for a while that I would be delivering comments to you this evening, I’ve recently been asking people what they think of when they think of engineers. It distills into something like this:

All engineers are analytical brainiacs, with plastic pocket protectors, that think they’re smarter than everyone else as they go around designing “this” and optimizing “that” all the while not realizing they have very little personality and virtually no social life.

Fellow nerds, that simply is not true. I don’t even own a plastic pocket protector… anymore.

Hey! So we’re nerds! Be proud of it!

All of us engineers, or engineering students, were “nerdlings” in our earlier years. If your dad or mom, or both are engineers, you were actually conceived as a nerdling, which is, in itself, Boolean dis-proof of the anti-social, non-sexual engineering postulate.

So we start as nerdlings and progress into adolescent nerds (or nerdettes) and eventually find our way into engineering college where a staff of “nerdalizers” (also known as professors) hone our scientific and mathematical skill sets. And occasionally you will see the “almighty nerdmeister” (also known as College of Engineering Dean). Jim Thompson now holds the enviable title of “almighty nerdmeister emeritus.” That has a ring to it.

Anyway, you claw your way through all of the classes and lab work en route to your ultimate nerd goal: graduate engineer. Along the way, you hear so many of the engineering jokes like:

You might be an engineer if…

  • • You plan your date on a Gantt chart
  • • Your dogs’ names are Lever and Fulcrum
  • • Dilbert is your true hero
  • • You ever saved the power cord from a broken appliance (I have hundreds of them)
  • • Someone you know is expecting, and you are more interested in the ultrasound equipment than the sonogram
  • • Your middle name is Logarithm (which probably means you’re one of those conceived nerds)
  • • You’ve ever spent an entire weekend repairing a $5 radio
  • • You think that when people around you yawn, it’s because they didn’t get enough sleep
  • • You have no personality and can prove it mathematically

And my personal favorite…

  • • You are likely to become a successful engineer if, when your professor asks you where your homework is, you claim to have accidentally determined its momentum so precisely that, according to Heisenberg’s Theory, it could be anywhere in the universe.

Is that not beautiful? I could have used that a few times in my electrical engineering and physics classes!

Yes, guys and gals, engineers are nerds, and we’re proud of it.

Engineering is truly a noble profession, just ask Jim Noble, Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Department “nerdalizer.”

Engineering and its application affect virtually every aspect of our lives. Without it, society would be woefully deprived.

There are lots of famous engineers, including: Yasser Arafat, Neil Armstrong, Leonid Brezhnev, Jimmy Carter, Edith Clark, super-computer architect Seymour Cray, Thomas Edison, Gustave Eiffel, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Lillian Gilbreth, John Glenn, jazz musician Herbie Hancock, Alfred Hitchcock, Herbert Hoover, Lee Iacocca, Tom Landry, Pinterest engineer Cynthia Maxwell, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, IBM VP Lauren States, Leonardo da Vinci, George Washington

In fact, more contemporaneously, of all of the diversified backgrounds of the S&P 500 CEOs, a full 20 percent of them have engineering degrees. I’m one of them.

Engineering students, you are embarking on a tedious but exciting and rewarding journey. Take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead. Engineering school is not easy, as I said earlier. In fact, here at Mizzou, the College’s retention rate is about 78 percent, or said differently, we lose about 22 percent of the original enrollees. Look around. That says 1 in 5 will divert to some other career. What a loss for those individuals and society at large. Stick with it. You’ll never regret that you did. You have to be resilient.

Resiliency is a function of several variables, which include durability, malleability and strength. Durability is the resistance to constant, chronic forces and factors (like your non-engineering friends pressuring you to “party on” instead of studying). The more we are exposed to these forces, the more we are affected. It’s crucial that we don’t totally fall prey to them and allow them to eat away at our substance.

Malleability deals with blunt force trauma (those things that hit you unexpectedly). To be able to bend with those punches and recover to steady state is vital to resiliency. And no, I’m not talking about recovering from the occasional hangover.

And strength, that all-important variable, is a function of true integrity. Whether it is the molecular/atomic bond of a material or the philosophical substance of a person, engineers have to be strong. Integrity deals with the integral. The integral means the whole span, from start to finish, from point A to point B, not just some portion of the whole, or periodic sub-segments of time. A good engineer maintains her or his integrity at all times.

I became an engineer because I was intrigued by science, math and physics. I knew it would pay very well, and if I worked hard and kept my shoulder to the stone, would provide an extraordinary foundation to my education and career.

My wildest dreams have been exceeded. Yours can be, too. School’s tough. Apply your best academic effort. Doing otherwise will lead to sub-optimization of your potential:

  • • to you bioengineers: that’s like getting phage in your good bacteria,
  • • to the ChemE’s: it’s like critical solution dilution,
  • • to you civil engineers: it’s like loss of stability in your structure,
  • • to the EEs, computer science, information technology, and computer engineering folks: it’s like unwanted circuit resistance or a fatal code error,
  • • to the industrial engineers: it’s like lopping off the optimum piece of your linear program solution set,
  • • and to the mechanical and aerospace engineering students: it’s like unwanted gear backlash or unintended drag.

But you know what? You also have to have to have some fun and truly enjoy the undergraduate experience. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest having as much so-called “fun” as I did, but you need to enjoy your time here in Columbia. Just stay focused on that degree!

Obtaining your engineering degree will be an incredibly valuable inflection point in your lives. I guarantee that.

Hey, I thought of a new Mizzou Engineering cheer: M-I-Z…Z-O-U, You’re-a-nerd… So-are-you! Try that next Engineers’ Week, or for that matter as you pass your fellow engineering students in Lafferre Hall.

I intend to mingle for a while here this evening, but let me express my sincere thanks for allowing me to be with you and for your attention. I saw several people yawning, but I figured they were just sleepy.

Good luck on that Calculus exam.

David Haffner lives in Carthage, Mo.