Wednesday, March 5, 2008

January ‘boot camp’ starts SDM off at a fast pace - SDM Pulse, Spring 2008

By Kathryn O’Neill, editor of the SDM Pulse

1 month
2 design challenges
42 hours of workshops
74 hours of academic class time
Countless sleepless nights

They don’t call it “SDM boot camp” for nothing.

MIT’s System Design and Management Program begins with an intense month on campus that, like Army boot camp, builds strong and lasting bonds.
Members of Team 6 pose with their robot, which won the
tug-of-war event during the first design challenge
competition on January 10, 2008.

SDM draws students from around the world—and many attend classes primarily at a distance. In January, however, full-time, part-time, and distance learners all come together for the entire month. These students will be working together again and again throughout the program, and this is their opportunity to get to know each other face-to-face.

“We bring together smart, motivated individuals with strong technical backgrounds and several years of industry experience. Then we throw them in at the deep end of the pool,” said Pat Hale, director of the SDM Fellows Program. “What they’re able to accomplish is amazing.”

The bond forged in each cohort, reinforced with one-week business trips to campus each term, is one of the most important benefits of SDM. These are talented mid-career professionals—many already have advanced degrees, global experience, and leadership roles. The connections they build in SDM—to each other and to MIT’s world-renowned faculty—will serve them through-out their careers.

“The cohort is a diverse mix of people in culture, academic background, gender, industry and personality,” said Jaime Devereaux, SDM ’08, a senior systems engineer at Raytheon. “This diversity lends itself to finding many approaches to the same problem.”

This year’s class of 60 met for the first time on January 3 and was immediately split into teams for the first design challenge: building robots to compete in a mini olympiad. Some events were competitive (archery, tug-of-war), while others required cooperation (relay race, synchronized dancing). They had a week to do everything—assign tasks, form strategies, build, program, prototype, test—plus manage the uncertainty introduced by changing requirements.

They had a week if you don’t count time spent on classwork. Fortunately, SDM keeps everyone running with catering; SDM students often cite “free food” as one of the many program “bennies.”

Design Challenge 1 ends with a lot of team spirit and dancing robots. But there’s not much time to celebrate; it’s time for Design Challenge 2. Week-old teams are disbanded and new ones are formed. Students take the measure of a few more people and then get to work devising solutions to global warming or the twin problem of global malnutrition and U.S. obesity.

This second challenge is intentionally difficult and ambiguous. Each team needs a 5- to 10-year plan to solve their problem. Deliverables include a one-minute “elevator” pitch, a 20-minute presentation, a business plan and a timetable. They’ve got two weeks.

Who can say how they do it, but every year another SDM class pulls it off. “It’s improved my confidence a lot,” said Anil Rachakonda, SDM ’08, a senior design engineer at Analog Devices. “It’s really surprising the rate at which ideas unfold.”

Just imagine what these people will bring back to their companies.

So much to do, so little time

Design challenges are just part of the workload during the January session. SDM students spend about 119 hours in classes and workshops over a period of 19 workdays—not including homework.

System architecture, one of SDM’s three core courses, meets three times each week in January, then continues throughout the program. The class teaches students to structure and lead the early, conceptual phases of the development process (see story on page 3). Other January courses include: probability and statistics; the human side of leading technology; and technology leadership. Workshop topics include conflict management, presentation skills, and career development.

“There’s so much knowledge here,” said Jorge Amador, SDM ’08. “It’s very intense.”

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