2016 Distinguished Achievement Award: Q&A with Kim Christopher

// Industrial & Systems Engineering

Tags: alumni, Engineers' Day, ISyE E-Day, Kim Christopher

photo of Kim Christopher

­Kim Christopher

Director of Product Management, Optum Solutions and Technology; BSIE ’81 (MBA ’88, University of Minnesota),

Recipient of the 2016 College of Engineering Distinguished Achievement Award, Nov. 11, 2016.


Why did you choose to attend college at UW-Madison?

It’s a top-10 engineering school with a beautiful campus on the lake. And I knew there were many things to get involved in beyond engineering. Plus, in-state tuition was $400 a semester back then, so it was a no-brainer.

Why did you choose engineering as your major?

I went to Waukesha South High School about an hour from Madison, and at that time I was the only female in advanced math and science classes. As a junior, my guidance counselor asked me what I was going to study in college. I said “math.” He asked if I had ever considered engineering, and I said, “What’s that?” He gave me a nice glossy brochure from the UW-Madison College of Engineering describing the different kinds of engineering, the classes I would take and the types of jobs you could do with the degrees. I thought that industrial engineering fit me to a “T,” based on this brochure. The next summer, I attended a weeklong camp at Madison for girls interested in engineering. Each day we learned about a different engineering discipline with discussions and hands on labs. That really cemented that industrial engineering at Madison was for me.

What was your favorite engineering class?

My favorite class was the senior design class. In that class, we were given a list of local companies or organizations to choose from that had real problems they wanted us to solve. We worked on these problems in a team environment. Our team chose a low-cost clinic in Madison that had problems with customer service, staffing and wait times. We collected data from the clinic leaders, employees and patients, and we observed their operations on-site for several days and evenings. Our team used our industrial engineering systems thinking, combined with classes like organizational behavior and design, and we were able to improve the clinic’s throughput and customer satisfaction  without increasing their operational costs. The project was very rewarding, especially since they were serving low-income patients.

When you were a student, what was your favorite place to eat or hang out on campus?

My favorites places to hang out were the Union Terrace and lakeshore path. They were great places to hang out and relax and be able to just kick back and look at the beautiful scenery. My favorite place to eat was the restaurant Porta Bella on Francis Street. It’s great that it’s still there—I took my family there after the Homecoming game last year.

What’s your fondest memory of your time on campus?

Football Saturdays at Camp Randall. It’s just an awesome stadium with phenomenal fan support. Those were days that you could forget about studying and have fun with your friends.

What lesson did you learn as a student that has benefited you most in your career?

There are three things I learned as a student that have greatly benefited my career. The first is time management. To plan and organize and juggle competing priorities is a great life skill. With time management skills, I was able to finish the engineering program in four years while working every summer and during the school year. The second skill is teamwork—accomplishing objectives with teammates that you did not choose. Professors would often randomly assign you to teammates, which is what will happen to you in the real world. You don’t get to choose your boss or coworkers, and you still have to get things done as a team. The third skill I learned is having a good problem-solving approach. You apply all the skills you learn in school plus life experience in the job to analyze and solve complex engineering and business problems. That problem-solving skill and confidence is the third thing that’s benefited me most in the real world.

What is your current title and company?

I’m the Director of Product Management at Optum Solutions and Technology, which is part of United Health Group. United Health Group is No. 6 in the Fortune 500. Half of the company is Optum, which provides information and technology-enabled services to partners across the healthcare system.

What of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?

I don’t have one in particular, but I’m very proud that I’ve used my engineering and business degrees to be successful in a wide variety of roles and fields. My first job was in defense avionics. Remember the movie Top Gun? I worked on the onboard computers that flew those jets. I also worked in transportation, in medical devices and in the healthcare industry. I’ve had roles in manufacturing engineering, research and development, product development, sales, marketing, even was a director of investor relations and corporate communications. I’ve never had one minute of boredom in my 35-year career.

Who played the greatest role in your achievements?

With all of those diverse industries, companies and roles, this is an easy question to answer—my husband Dave. We just celebrated our 30th anniversary. We are a two-career couple with two grown sons, and it takes a great partnership to advance both of our careers while raising kids. Dave’s an awesome husband and dad, and also my greatest career supporter and coach. To have such a strong partner who is there for you 24/7 is such a gift.

What advice would you give students in your discipline today?

I would advise them to do as many internships as possible, preferably with multiple companies. I did three internships with three companies. Doing an internship helps you  decide what you want to do out of school and makes you more marketable. Also, take advantage of Engineers Without Borders or study abroad if you’re able. Those weren’t available to me at the time—they weren’t part of the curriculum, and I really wish they would’ve been. I’m kind of jealous of current students’ opportunities. So many businesses are global, and to have that global perspective is important.

If you had to do it all over again and pick a major other than engineering, what would you choose?

I would choose business finance or business marketing. I have an MBA in addition to my engineering degree, and it’s been very useful throughout my career.

What are your hobbies/interests?

I enjoy traveling, bicycling and hanging out with family and friends. We’ve been to Italy a few times, which is one of my favorite places. We’ve traveled in several different areas of Italy.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?

Something that’s unique is that after living and working in Minneapolis for 30 years, Dave and I built our dream home back in Wisconsin on a river bluff 400 feet above the Mississippi River near Maiden Rock, WI. It’s on a 3-mile-wide section of the river known as Lake Pepin. We both got telecommuting roles with our companies and now we get to work from home every day. Looking out my window, I’m eye to eye with bald eagles—the best office ever!

Author: Engineering External Relations