As an engineer, Russell Allgor PhD '97 has worked on many complicated problems, from improving chemical processes at Bayer to keeping products moving at Amazon. Yet his approach is always simple. “I probably spend most of my time asking questions,” he says with a chuckle.
After completing a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at Princeton University, Allgor headed to MIT for a PhD in the same field. His research focused on improving batch processes, and he also learned other skills, such as how to work with people and adapt when things don’t go as planned.
After graduation, Allgor landed an engineering position at Bayer in Germany. The catch? He’d have to communicate in German, a language he did not speak. Unfazed, Allgor relocated across the Atlantic and learned German while working on chemical and pharmaceutical processes.
During his three years at Bayer, Allgor discovered the power of having direct contact with workers—his office sat in the middle of the manufacturing plant, which allowed him to visit the factory floor frequently.
About two years into the job, a chance conversation with a friend at Amazon pushed him to start thinking beyond chemical engineering. “He was talking about some of the problems he was facing,” says Allgor, who realized that “these are the same kinds of problems that I solve in the chemical industry.”
A year later, he became a chief scientist at Amazon, where he has worked to make supply chains and operations run more smoothly for the past 16 years. The main goal? “Get products to customers faster and cheaper,” he says, adding that his team focuses on improving efficiency at every step of the delivery process.
Drawing on the lesson he learned in Germany, Allgor is also in close contact with people who work at the ground level. “I learned early on, you’ve got to go talk to the people who are doing the job, try to do the job yourself, figure out how hard it is,” he says, “And then you’ll really know what problem you’re trying to solve.”
Next on the horizon? Delivery drones. Allgor will be responsible for integrating them into Amazon’s delivery process. Fortunately he’s ready for the task.
“I’m motivated by solving challenging problems,” he says, “and there’s no shortage of them here. There’s always something else around the next corner.”
Allgor lives in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle with his wife, Sandra, and his 12-year-old daughter, Ella.
This article originally appeared in May/June 2017 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.