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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.


Anonymous said...

Judge not a book by its cover.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Blaxabbath said...


Many time reader, first time commenter here....

I'm a graduate of an EMG undergraduate program (civil emphasis) and I agree wholeheartedly with the benefits of giving engineers business training. Even if an engineer doesn't have the entrepreneurial drive to go out and run his own business, in terms of coming with more cost-effective designs, that introduction to money management can mean big things.

As an example, one thing I've seen is design engineers putting in chamfers or edging in order to save 0.5 CY concrete on a 250 CY structure. What the designer doesn't look at is how much more labor intensive these little chamfers are. So that 0.5 CY of concrete is a $50 savings that is to be had at the cost of a couple hundred dollars in manpower inefficiencies.

In fact, when my company won a D/B contract recently, I was reviewing the plans with our design engineer and told him to go ahead and omit all the chamfers etc because they weren't really cost effective. After we discussed why, he told me how relieved he was to hear that because he used to rack his brain trying to find ways to cut out small amounts of material. So not only was he doing a less cost effective design (obviously, this is a case by case issue) but he was stressing out about it too!

Besides, it only makes sense that those who understand the technical systems (be it designing, manufacturing, or otherwise) have enough simple business knowledge to be able to translate this work into a profitable venture without having to pay someone (and likely lose some creative control) to keep the books.

Anonymous said...

Learning makes life sweet.