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Monday, July 26, 2010

Training entrepreneurial engineers

As an engineer who went to business training almost the minute I took my first job, I appreciate both the value and limitation of a business education for engineering professionals. Of course, I appreciate it even more now that I’ve started a copy, made tons of mistakes, got a formal business education and now teach at a business school.

Five elite US engineering schools got really nice press Tuesday in the Financial Times for their Master’s in Engineering Management program. With a little digging, it was clear they have a website and a “consortium.”

The FT article puts the best case forward:
Joseph Helble, dean of the Thayer School, says Mem programmes are “for engineering grads who know they don’t want to spend their entire careers in design or in a lab. They want to do broader, systems-based engineering, by identifying promising new product lines. They want to create a vision for the technology in the broadest business sense.”
As someone who once thought he would teach in engineering management, I’m all in favor of having more such programs.

Many engineering students have taken my technology strategy class, but without a business core, they get glimpses of insights, not the way to build upon a firm footing in accounting, finance, marketing and organizations. So an integrated master’s degree combining technical and business topics is a great way to address this.

However, when looking at the MEM consortium, I’m not quite clear what makes these five schools different. Do they have explicit standards? Is it the shared “MEM” brand? Or are they a members-only club? For example, the list excludes two of the top engineering schools in the country: Berkeley has a top-flight interdisciplinary Management of Technology program, while MIT has its System Design and Management program, jointly run by Engineering and the Sloan School.

And then there’s the question of how much any school prepares an engineer to be an entrepreneur. Plenty of engineers became entrepreneurs without formal preparation and did quite well. (Hewlett & Packard, Bose, Jacobs & Viterbi, and the list goes on...)

I don’t think a class or a business plan competition is going to help a 23-year-old engineering student create the next HP. Interning with a young company (as I did) would help, as would working for a top-flight company in the same industry. But nothing beats going to work in Silicon Valley, Boston or one of the other regions where you are immersed entrepreneurship, venture capital, startup infrastructure and a startup culture.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Egos, ethics and "no"

Many entrepreneurs get ahead because of their brash confidence, unwillingness to settle for second best or accept limitations that have daunted their predecessors.

Is there such a thing as too much ego? Steve Jobs was legendary for his tyrannical treatment of direct reports, but also turned the company around by making swift, clear and (largely) correct decisions since his return 12 years ago.

And then there is Elon Musk, the co-founder of Tesla Motors, SpaceX, SolarCity and PayPal. Any one of those would be considered a highly visible entrepreneurial effort and (in the latter case) even a financial success. He has success I can only dream of.

However, at times he seems to have the ethics of a used car salesman. On Friday, Owen Thomas of VentureBeat enumerated various examples of when he said Musk was less than totally truthful.

I personally first noticed Musk when he called a college professor (and coworker of mine) a “douchebag” for challenging his claim to public subsidies for his electric cars. Anyone who takes taxpayer money should be open to public scrutiny — if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. The whole incident reflected badly on Musk and his ability to handle criticism for his weaknesses or mistakes.

Some of Thomas’s allegations border on SEC violations, particularly related to his recent (and briefly underwater) Tesla IPO.

I try not to judge people I’ve not met, but sometimes there’s a clear enough picture from secondary evidence. From his exaggerations to trading in the 30-something mother of his five children, he seems to have gone through life without anyone ever saying “no.”

This is a dangerous way to be in business: yesmen will help you drive the car right off the cliff. (It is always possible that the brash public persona hides someone who’s willing to be thoughtful and analytical with trusted advisors in private, but I’ve not seen any reports either way from former lieutenants.)

However, the general pattern of the last decade reminds me of an old, old saying:
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World's Greatest CompanyThat’s not everyone’s guiding principle, but it’s certainly been mine. I was fortunate to work with other scrupulously honest entrepreneurs — even when they did something I didn’t agree with, they were honest about it and even reasonably predictable. I was also inspired by several role models, including Bill and Dave, and the memoir of Paul Hawken.

I realize that forced to choose between honesty and financial returns in a CEO, most VCs would go with the latter. But then I’m not too optimistic about their souls, either.