His engineering training has shaped his approach to political life.
Every university brags about its alumni, but how many can call a country’s president one of its graduates? Georgia Tech can.
On May 4, Tech engineering alumnus Juan Carlos Varela was elected president of Panama. Varela came to Georgia Tech in the fall of 1980 and received his degree in industrial engineering in spring 1985. He returned to Tech this fall to serve as a member of the Georgia Tech Advisory Board (and to attend a Jackets football game).
At a one-on-one interview (if you don’t count the four U.S. Secret Service members and the Panamanian security detail, along with members of his staff), we had a chance to talk with Varela about Tech, engineering, and what it’s like to be Mr. President.
- Kay Kinard
On choosing Georgia Tech engineering:
I wanted to be an industrial engineer, and Georgia Tech is the No. 1 school for industrial engineering worldwide. Also, Atlanta at that time was becoming a vibrant city, and it was the capital of the South. My two brothers came to Tech — one graduated in industrial engineering and the second one was in industrial management. My family has a rum distillery, a family business that is 100 years old. So many things with the business involved engineering, construction, planning, designing. Since I was a kid, I liked it.
My calculus professor, Dr. Michael Barnsley, was a great professor. He gave me a life lesson. I got good grades the first part of the quarter. I came into the final with 85%. The final was worth 15%. I had four A’s and one B. The Calculus I final came, and I just put my name on it. I wanted to go back to Panama to celebrate my birthday. When I came back to Tech for the winter, I got a C in calculus. The only C I got at Tech. I went to talk with Dr. Barnsley and I asked him that if I had 85%, it would be a B, so how come I got a C? He said that it was because it was not my best effort. It was not about the grades; it is in making the best effort. So he gave me a life lesson, and I will always remember that.
I also remember spending time in the Student Center and Junior’s Grill. I had very good friends here that I will remember the rest of my life.
On early political involvement:
Before coming to Tech, I was involved in various social movements in my country. When I came to Tech, many countries in Central and South America were involved in civil wars. I was confused about what to do after I graduated high school. My brother said to come to Tech. I applied and was accepted. But I was worried about what was happening and followed the news every day. It was a very difficult time. I always knew I would be back in politics one day.
On life outside the classroom:
To be at Georgia Tech is not easy. Chemistry, physics, statics, calculus — the first two years are very tough. I remember the classes very well. I did go to the football games, but I am not saying what else we did. We will keep that to ourselves. I always enjoyed seeing the freshmen, the RATS, on the football field. I will remember that. I still have my RAT cap.
On engineers as politicians:
As president, I use daily my engineering training. As industrial engineers, we simulate the future, we see alternatives. We see the future and then come back to the present.
That has helped me a lot in my political career. I am president today because I made some decisions in my career, and I made those decisions because I was simulating the future. When you graduate from Tech and in industrial engineering, you may not remember all that was in the books, but the training of the mind lasts forever. The problems that the people in Panama and worldwide are facing today require good minds and training to solve it. An engineer’s mind. Being an engineer means trying every day to improve people’s lives. Engineering is a beautiful career.
Although I am not working for a technical company, I use my engineering training every day. It helps me with the design of the transportation system for our cities. I use it to help establish my budget. I use critical paths for making decisions and implementing solutions to problems. Right now, I am doing a test of 3,600 sources of drinking water in my country. The first time that someone is going to test all the drinking water sources — that is quality control. You apply your engineering training wherever you are.
Advice for a student coming to Tech:
Study. Enjoy, but study, study. Spend all the time you can studying. You can have a little fun on weekends. A college degree is the first thing you get in life that truly belongs to you. Fight hard to get your college degree. You can still have fun while getting good grades. I did it. Fight hard. Don’t let the system defeat you. During the first two years at Tech, the system defeats many students, but you have to keep fighting.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 Georgia Tech Engineers Magazine.
Industrial and Systems Engineering