Article Photo

Bob Puette


Article Photo

Sam Sperry

Alternate routes to success: McCormick paves the way

The McCormick School prides itself on equipping graduates with the necessary skills to lead productive, fulfilling careers. Those careers, however, don’t always follow traditional engineering paths. Two McCormick alumni, Sam Sperry (’65) and Bob Puette (’64), have enjoyed very successful careers in service professions — Sperry in law, and Puette in business — and both demonstrate a strong commitment to giving of their time and resources to McCormick.

Puette, president of Puette Capital Management in Corral de Tierra, California, and Sperry, a municipal bond attorney with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in San Francisco, have enjoyed careers made possible by the McCormick School’s commitment to comprehensive problem-solving principles and effective communication. And both have applied those principles in the leadership roles they have chosen at McCormick — Sperry as past chair of the Murphy Society Annual Fund and Puette as past chair of the McCormick Advisory Council.

Whether they pursue careers in engineering, law, or business, McCormick graduates frequently express profound gratitude for the analytical tools gleaned during their time at Northwestern.

Problem solving and the law
Outstanding engineering faculty at the McCormick School taught Sam Sperry a great deal about problem solving. In addition, they trained him to seek out solutions even when problems are not apparent — an invaluable skill in his area of legal expertise.

“There isn’t always a problem to be solved in my business,” says Sperry. “Sometimes it’s simply a matter of making things work better than they did before. My professors at Northwestern did an amazing job of teaching me to cherish the common thread between problem solving and task performance.”

The class that taught Sperry most about task performance was appropriately titled Creativity and Problem Solving, and he estimates that it was “probably the closest precursor to the design classes that we have now.”
As a municipal bond attorney for large-scale projects throughout the state of California, Sperry has to think creatively about making the best use of land and building developments. “Dean Ben Gotaas used to say that gifted engineers can’t just be concerned about making money. They have a responsibility to society,” says Sperry, whose senior class designed a pipeline that relieved periodic flooding of the Fox Lakes. “That was grounded in my thinking very firmly at McCormick.”

After attending Stanford Law School, Sperry was able to leverage a powerful one-two punch of engineering and law to thrive in the field of public finance. “It has just been tremendous to use the intellectual tools and hands-on experience that I got from McCormick in the field of law,” says Sperry.

He continues to invest time and philanthropy to support McCormick’s growth as a premier institution of higher learning. Sperry was chair of the Murphy Society Annual Fund for four years, and his law firm recently hosted a group of Northwestern alumni who interviewed 120 area high school seniors who have applied to the University.  This pattern of involvement really began in 1975 when he met then-dean of admissions and financial aid Bill Ihlanfeldt.

“Bill started a network called the Alumni Admissions Council,” says Sperry. “He initiated the idea of building up the awareness of alumni and giving them a significant role to play in the admissions process. And he made California a prime target.” San Francisco was a key city for Ihlanfeldt’s work, so Sperry found himself in a great position to help the McCormick School and the University.

“Bill had the right perception,” he says. “If you can give alums a task to perform that makes them feel good about what they’re doing for the institution, then you’ve got a meaningful partnership.”

Over time Sperry’s role as a McCormick alumnus has evolved from focusing on admissions to assisting in development.  “It’s always rewarding to talk to future Northwestern students, but I’m really interested right now in motivating other alumni to give back,” he says. “For me, I don’t feel obligated; I feel motivated to give back to the place that gave me so much.”

The essence of management
Like Sperry, Bob Puette employs the engineering acumen that he cultivated at McCormick to succeed in an alternative career — actually, several alternative careers. In addition to serving as president of Puette Capital Management, he sits on the boards of six notable companies — in technology, real estate, and electrical contracting — and has a wide range of technical expertise from more than 20 years at Hewlett-Packard. He is also the former president of Apple Computer and was on the board of Cisco Systems for nine years.

The scope of Puette’s virtuosity should not surprise anyone, considering the fact that he successfully juggled Division 1 football — playing on the 1962 team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation — and grueling engineering classes.

“In addition to learning some outstanding analytical tools while at McCormick, I found out early on that there’s nothing like having a very disciplined schedule,” says Puette. “Studying engineering and playing football left no free time, so I really learned to structure my schedule and to prioritize. There was no better place than Northwestern for that kind of training.”
In addition, Puette lauds McCormick’s commitment to simple, efficient thinking that removes extraneous impediments. “No matter what field you’re in, you really need the analytical skills to make complex things simple,” he says. “I always tell people that they’ll get a big raise if they take complex things and make them simple. If they want to get a smaller raise — or no raise at all — then they can go around keeping complex things complex.”

When preparing for an engineering final, Puette would often crystallize a semester’s worth of notes into two pages. “That’s the only thing I would do to prepare for the final,” he says. “I’d work everything down to its very essence, and then I’d know it cold. I’ve continued this practice throughout my career, and it has been a very valuable tool.”

In 1991 Puette gave the commencement address to McCormick graduates shortly after joining the McCormick Advisory Council. In addition, he was instrumental in the early expansion of the Murphy Society after former dean and personal friend Jerome Cohen tabbed him to lend his expertise to both entities. For several years Puette chaired the McCormick Advisory Council. “When Jerry asked me to help influence the curriculum and direction of McCormick, I jumped at the chance,” he says.

Similarly, Puette is enthusiastic about helping Dean Julio Ottino wrestle with issues that will shape the future of McCormick, equipping the next generation of leaders. “I really understand the challenges that the deans face and how long it takes to accomplish certain goals based on my own personal experience as a manager,” he says. “Every dean or manager has limited time to accomplish major objectives and, therefore, must be very effective in his or her role.”

Puette is more than optimistic about what’s on the horizon for McCormick, which is why he continues to actively support the University. “I really enjoy working with Julio,” he says. “He has an exciting energy, and I think he’s going to effect some real positive change at McCormick and for the engineering profession.”

—Alex Runner

For more information about how you can support the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, contact Roger Williams, Development Director, at