Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles spotlighting women in the SDM program.
The women of the System Design and Management Program are a diverse group of highly skilled individuals united by their interest in stretching beyond technical competence to understand and integrate whole systems for the benefit of their companies and their industries.
Three women currently enrolled in the program recently took the time to describe their experiences in the program for the SDM Pulse@MIT.
Aparna Chennapragada SDM ’06 works for Akamai Technologies as a software architect. She received her master’s in computer science from the University of Texas-Austin and her bachelor’s in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras.
Linda Nguyen SDM ’07 comes to MIT from Procter and Gamble, where she is a senior product engineer. She received her S.B. in mechanical engineering from MIT.
Kelly Yedinak SDM ’07 is a deputy program manager at Northrop Grumman. She received her B.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Washington.
Q: Why is SDM the right program for you?
KY: In large corporations it is very difficult for engineers to get exposure to different aspects of an entire system. Most positions are not highly interactive but rather require a lot of individual time spent in front of a computer. I decided that I wanted more out of my career than a computer screen.
AC: I wanted to combine my interest and experience in technology with relevant business foundation and management skills. I considered regular MBA programs but preferred a curriculum more rooted in technology. I was also attracted to the "D" in SDM, because I have observed the increasing importance of design and holistic thinking.
LN: SDM is a great balance between the two worlds. A technical leader needs to understand the business side and be able to communicate in business terms. SDM provides a means to evolve existing engineering skills into systems thinking as well as develop the business mental models that engineers with traditional academic backgrounds often lack.
Q: What strengths (technical or business) do you bring to the SDM cohort or the teams on which you participate? What strengths have you seen that others bring that impress you?
LN: I bring more than eight years of product development and manufacturing experience, as well as team management and organizational skills. Maintaining balance is a critical part of my life, so I like to work hard but play hard as well; I try to share this philosophy with my teams to encourage having fun while grinding away under the workload.
AC: My background in Internet infrastructure services and experience in a start-up environment helps me bring my unique point of view to classroom discussions and projects, particularly in technology strategy and innovation. Working with people from a variety of industries has helped me understand the commonalities and differences among different industry structures. From a commander who served in Iraq to an aspiring entrepreneur building solar generators in Africa, the SDM cohort is full of diverse individuals who have enriched my learning.
KY: I am always thinking of all of the pieces of the system, rather than of any single one. Often I find myself being more aggressive than ever before in challenging other people's ideas. But, I always listen closely to people's answers and try to help them develop their thoughts and concepts. Knowing how you get the answer is just as important as knowing what the answer is.
Q: Tell us about your best SDM experience so far.
LN: As grueling as it was, the monthlong January “boot camp” was extraordinary. Because most of us have been out of school for quite some time, the immersion was critical to getting us back into student/learning mentality. I had forgotten how much fun—and how much work—being a student could be! Nothing beats playing with Legos!
KY: I think some of my best experiences have come during “crunch time,” when I'm working with a group and must get things done quickly. I remember knocking out most of a 10-page paper only hours before it was due, and having a yelling (but good-spirited) debate on an important section of the paper with one of my teammates five minutes before turning it in. The fun part was not so much the yelling but that we each improved our own thinking and knowledge by challenging the other. This openness will help me help my colleagues at work.
AC: One of my best SDM experiences was the January boot camp. The team-building workshops and the design challenge competitions helped me forge a strong bond with my classmates.
Another learning experience for me was my entrepreneurship course. I worked with bright and motivated students across campus to develop a business plan to commercialize research from an MIT lab. This helped me learn about technology risks, market opportunity and raising capital. And, our business plan won an MIT $1K Award in the run-up to the annual MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition.
Q: What have you found within the SDM program that you would like to share with others?
AC: Professor David Simchi-Levi's class on operations management was very stimulating and helped me understand the complex interaction between design, manufacturing, logistics and distribution. And, Professor Tom Allen's class exposed me to some fascinating research on how organizational structure and architecture can affect innovation.
LN: The diversity of our cohort has impressed me the most: backgrounds, country of origin, as well as industries. I have learned so much from my classmates, in and out of the classroom. SDM is truly a global environment.
KY: I wish everyone could take courses that teach, as SDM does, the value of looking forward. I want my company's attitude, and the attitude of those around me, to always be thinking about the future and how to be better, rather than how to be just good enough.
Q: How do you anticipate the SDM program will help you meet the challenges you will face in your career?
LN: I have always been a systems person at heart, needing to see the bigger picture to put context around the engineering details. SDM will develop my systems mind, providing me with the skills and mental frameworks to manage more and more complex projects throughout my career. The networking and relationships established from SDM will be invaluable as well.
AC: Going forward, I see three major trends. One, the role of technology in almost every industry is increasingly central. This will require future leaders to apply business skills not in a vacuum but within the context of technology. Two, the complexity of systems is only going to grow. It’s critical that we apply holistic thinking and understand all the factors (regulatory, environmental, cultural, technological and business) to solve problems. Finally, organizations are increasingly global. We as future leaders need to be able to build strong teams and collaborate effectively across countries, cultures and companies. The SDM program and my experience at MIT helped me hone my skills along all these dimensions and I look forward to applying this in my career!
KY: In the future I think the lessons learned in SDM will allow me to stay one step ahead of the competition, and keep the company that I work with at the forefront of technology. System design refers not just to a physical system, but also to technology ecosystems, organizational structure, technology evolution and much more. Having a thorough knowledge of how to analyze a system will allow me to lead a company to develop systems that are often first to market, but more importantly will dominate their market.
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