John Wulsin is a UNC class of 2009 Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) minor who majored in Economics. He currently works as a computer systems analyst for the Cincinnati Area Geographic Information System (CAGIS). His team provides the technology (GIS and mappings services) that powers all of the City and County services, from building permits to sewer lines to inventories of trees. John’s career has remained at the intersection of technology and business, holding positions at an early-stage investment fund that focused on clean energy technology, a digital marketing agency that leveraged the internet to help grow businesses, and a startup based in Kenya that provided a jobs marketplace and construction management software to make affordable housing easier to build. John pursued an MBA at the University of Cincinnati while maintaining a small real estate development company as a “side job.” Now, at CAGIS, he helps build technology and mapping services that ensure our City and County departments are able to do their jobs as best as possible.
A Conversation with John
(1) What led you to minor in PPE at UNC?
The Intro to Ethics course (then taught by Geoff Sayre-McCord) piqued my interest in human behavior and questions about how to “live the good life.” That course inspired me to take more courses that tried to understand the political and philosophical implications of how our governments, markets, and cultures are organized.
(2) How has what you learned from the PPE Program helped you in your career?
The PPE Program exposed me to many professors at both UNC and Duke, including a professor in the Economics department at Duke named Charles Becker who teaches a course on “Urban Economics.” From that course, I developed a fascination with how land use is intertwined with economic growth. My thesis employed novel GIS techniques to measure how public school quality in Durham impacted home prices. Professionally, I didn’t use GIS again for more than a decade after graduating, but now I use GIS every day, and I wouldn’t have this opportunity if it hadn’t been for the PPE Program and the exposure to Duke’s Economics department.
(3) What is your greatest professional accomplishment so far?
I raised over a million dollars to renovate a 130-year-old, 7-unit apartment building that had sat vacant for more than a generation. Without any prior experience in real estate or construction, I managed the project on the side, in addition to my “day job” as a technology consultant. And even though it wasn’t my primary job, I think of it as one of my greatest professional accomplishments because a) it taught me so many important lessons, and b) I can see the tangible impacts on a daily basis. I continue to be inspired by how the community has continued to grow through the new residents in the building and the surrounding neighborhood, and since then I’ve taken on other development projects where I see potential to transform neglected or vacant properties into assets that bring more value to the residents and neighborhood.
(4) What professor or course influenced you the most during your time in the PPE Program?
The first concept that comes to mind when I think of PPE is “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” which was taught brilliantly by Geoff Brennan in the “PPE Gateway.” As a conceptual framework, the Prisoner’s Dilemma helps us understand where individual incentives and cooperation diverge, and what ethical, political, and economic implications of those divergent interests.
(5) What was your favorite extracurricular programming that the PPE Program offered (i.e. reading groups, weekend seminars, speaker series, etc.)?
Getting coffee in Caldwell Hall was always a great joy for me. Sometimes the Philosophy Department organized formal events with guest speakers, and sometimes it was just an impromptu visit for a quick “pick me up” cup of coffee between classes that always came with an interesting conversation, debate, or question from a fellow student or professor. The coffee and community of the PPE program energized me in more ways than one!
(6) What advice do you have for prospective PPE students?
Set aside time/budget in your course planning to take as many of the Elements of Politics courses as possible. There is no substitute for reading the “Great Works,” and they provide a foundation for deep thinking on the questions that the PPE program explores concerning markets, governments, and ethics. Learning how to enjoy and grapple with the original texts is a skill that will bring you joy for the rest of your life as you get to read (and re-read) great thinkers from all eras and schools of thought.
(7) What advice do you have for recent PPE graduates?
Maintain the natural curiosity that college in general and the PPE minor specifically encouraged. Continue to ask difficult questions and try to observe connections that others might be missing. The PPE program helps you learn “cross pollination,” where ideas from one field can be applied to a different field. That analytic approach will bring new perspectives to your career, and make your work more interesting and ultimately have more potential for positive impact on your community.
(8) Where do you see yourself in five years?
In five years, I’ll be nearing my 40th birthday and my kids will be 10 and 8 years old. I hope that I will be helping cities leverage technology to implement programs that make all neighborhoods healthier and more sustainable, both economically and environmentally.