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MIT tech management program: innovative alternative to an MBA

This program, with a nearly 100 percent completion rate, turns out mid-career engineering pros armed with cross-organizational leadership skills

'Many of our students start out looking at an MBA program," says Patrick Hale, director of the System Design and Management (SDM) program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, Cambridge, MA). "But then they wonder, 'Do I really want to step out of technology?' They've put a lot of time and energy into becoming good technical professionals. When they see an option that gives them MBA-level management education and also lets them hone their technical skills at the system level, they find it attractive."

Jointly offered by MIT's School of Engineering and Sloan School of Management, SDM is a masters program in engineering and management. It teaches mid-career professionals to lead effectively and creatively by using systems thinking to solve large-scale, complex challenges in product design, development and innovation. SDM's three core courses are systems engineering, system architecture and system and project management.

Students with solid experience
"Our students have spent an average of ten years in their chosen field already," Hale says. Why do they come back to school? "They have reached a point where they are accomplished in one part of the product development process. Now they are ready, and are being encouraged by their companies, to move on to project leader or line management roles, but they don't have formal training for management decision-making. Often, they need more understanding of what kinds of things come into play at the system level."

SDM has 100 to 120 students enrolled within any given two-year span. "A student can complete the program in as few as thirteen months," explains Joan Rubin, SDM industry co-director. "It isn't like an MBA where you have everybody there for two years. Many opt for sixteen months so they have more time for their theses. Every January, we have an entering class of fifty-five to sixty students."

Students are committed to success, and the school is effective in its mission. "We have close to a one hundred percent graduation rate," Rubin adds with pride.

"At the time SDM was created, MIT had a program called Leaders for Manufacturing," explains Hale. "U.S. industry was losing the competition for engineering leadership to Japan and other countries. They wanted MIT to put together a program that would provide a cadre of future leaders in manufacturing who would be able to compete with the best and the brightest elsewhere. The curriculum included an MBA from Sloan and one of eight engineering degrees."

Leadership for complex systems
A decade later, industry needs had shifted to the system level as products became increasingly complex. There weren't many mid-career education options. Says Hale, "A lot of institutions offered MBAs, or PhDs in engineering that tended to make people narrower and deeper rather than being able to handle cross-disciplinary leadership."

Rubin has direct experience with the need for a systems focus. She was with Aspect Medical Systems, a start-up company that grew into a $150 million business and was acquired by global healthcare products provider Covidien (Mansfield, MA) in 2009. She held a range of roles at Aspect and Covidien, including vice president of business development, senior director of global partnerships, and director of both global upstream marketing and market development.

"We faced a clear challenge at Aspect: you couldn't simply design a device assuming that it would work just fine and that doctors wanted it. It was critical to think about the entire system in which that device was going to operate.

"When I think about the kind of education our engineers needed at the time, this is the type of degree that would have made a significant difference in helping them interface with other devices in the health care environment.

"It is more critical today than it has ever been to recognize that interoperability of systems is imperative, so we must help people look at things from a systems perspective. No product is going to operate on its own."

Industry partners help design the program
SDM was put together in the early 1990s with eight industry partners: Lockheed Martin, Xerox, Ford, AT&T, Hughes, IBM, Raytheon and UTC. They defined new courses and selected existing courses from Sloan and MIT's engineering curriculums. The target audience: mid-career professionals with some design and engineering experience now being called upon to manage outside those silos. The resulting program was first offered in 1996.

SDM includes another innovation for MIT: distance-learning programs. "At the time we didn't offer any distance degree programs," Hale remembers, "but in many cases companies were unwilling to send employees away to become full-time students. They wanted to make sure their people could stay engaged in their jobs while they were going to school.

"We offered a half-time distance program as an option and it was dominant until 2002. With the souring economy at that time, particularly among dot-coms, company-sponsored students declined while more individual, self-sponsored students came on board.

"Our distance programs are synchronous, real-time classrooms," notes Hale. "You are as close to sitting in class as you can be. You can be called on or ask a question. You can see the professors and they can see you."

Today, about half of SDM's enrollment is people who have decided to take a year or so out of their lives to go back to school. They pay their own way, and the tuition is hefty. The full-time, on-campus option (thirteen months) is $73,500, for commuters (twenty-four months), $84,000, and for distance learners (twenty-four months), $98,200. "It's not cheap," admits Hale.

Industry-specific content
The program focuses on an array of industries, which changes depending on how healthy various sectors may be at the time. As the program shifts, so do the companies sending sponsored employees. "Our early sponsors were large manufacturing companies like Boeing, Ford, Xerox and Kodak," Hale says. "Now we have everything from one and two-person start-ups to entrepreneurs. We've had MDs in the program who wanted to look at the systems aspects of managing in a healthcare environment."

Currently the two heaviest users of the program are Ford Motor Company and John Deere.

"The requirement is that students have a technical background," says Rubin. "While most are engineers, there is a range of educational experience. For example, this year we have an architect. If students took basic technical courses as undergraduates, we welcome them because they bring a nice diversity." Hale and Rubin believe that about half of what students learn comes from each other, solving many of the same kinds of problems but from different industry points of view.

"This is not an MBA," Hale says. "Many times, mid-career people get an MBA and return to their companies not wanting to be an engineer anymore. We want our students armed with the skills and theory background to become leaders in their engineering organizations, with the hands-on engineering capability that will allow them to be better leaders."

EE Trinidad Grange-Kyner: software to consulting
Trinidad Grange-Kyner agrees. Grange-Kyner grew up in Nigeria and received a BSEE from the University of Lagos in 1994. She worked as a software engineer for companies in Canada and the United States, and ended up at information storage and management services provider Iron Mountain (Boston, MA) in 2007.

Thirteen years after receiving her degree, she realized that in order to advance, she needed to learn about management and how business decisions are made. "Prior to talking with the folks at SDM, I'd been looking at the obvious path: to get an MBA.

"But what I wanted was to be able to go into a program that leveraged my technical and industry experience to get to the next level. That was unique to the SDM program.

"In SDM, even when we were learning about business strategy, there was that underlying requirement to apply it to a technology company." She graduated from the program in 2008.

Seeking the opportunity to experience different industries, she joined Deloitte Consulting, where she is a manager. "The SDM brand was well recognized by Deloitte," she notes. One of her first assignments was to work with a small team of consultants in health care. This year, she moved into assessment of online learning for higher education institutions.

Looking for diversity
Grange-Kyner is one of a relative handful of women who have gone through SDM, and both Hale and Rubin lament the lack of minority students, particularly women. "When it comes to minority U.S. citizens who are permanent residents, there are not enough here," believes Hale. About 40 percent of SDM's enrollment comes from countries outside the United States.

"Our biggest challenge," they agree, "is increasing our representation of women. Our best year was thirteen out of fifty-five but it has dropped to as low as three or four."

Now in its seventeenth year, SDM is being fine-tuned constantly. "We need to accommodate new methodologies and scientific capabilities, and to incorporate lessons learned about how to teach this sort of information. In systems engineering, we found that we teach such a broad range of management tools and methods, people can get lost if they don't have a thread to hold it together," says Hale.

In 2012, as it does every three years, SDM will undergo a complete curriculum review to ascertain what worked and what is perhaps being missed. MIT often adds or pulls a course depending upon industry needs and trends.

Every year, SDM picks an issue, like last year's Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster, and builds a course around that. Two years ago, it was the Toyota unintended acceleration problem. Guest lecturers included Toyota engineers, and classes focused on understanding customer needs, architectural trade-offs, design experiments, system analysis techniques and all of the systems tools you can think of applied to a problem with a rich set of data already available.

SDM opens doors
"I wondered what it would take for me to get to that higher technology director level," Grange-Kyner remembers. "I had not been able to figure out how to use my technical background in a way that made sense for me. SDM opened doors to all of the different aspects of technology. Once I realized that project management was one level but that there was a higher level where you are managing the overall technology direction of an effort, I understood that was what I want to do."

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