Wednesday, March 4, 2009

January Session gets ’09 cohort up and running - SDM Pulse, Spring 2009

Cameron Fisher, SDM ’09, wears his team’s
logo for the robot competition that wrapped up
the January Session’s first design challenge.
‘Teamwork can be a lifeline and a source
of inspiration,’ Fisher said.
By Kathryn O’Neill, managing editor, SDM Pulse

The System Design and Management Program begins with an intense, monthlong session of classwork, team
projects, and sleepless nights. Nicknamed “SDM boot camp,” the January Session plunges midcareer professionals into the rigors of graduate-level coursework, bonding members of each year’s cohort together through shared experience.

“If it were at all easy or less intense, you’d have the choice of being self-reliant,” said Cameron Fisher, SDM
’09, who went through the January Session this year. “This shows how teamwork can be a lifeline and a source of inspiration.” Originally from Vancouver, Canada, Fisher is a management consultant in IT Strategy at IBM. He already has an MBA but joined the SDM program to enrich his technical and systems management skills.

“We all have been out of school for many years. This program immersed us in an educational environment and put us back in touch,” said Leyla Abdimomunova, a senior banker from Kazakhstan. She also has an MBA but hopes to gain a deeper understanding of the technological challenges with which her clients are dealing.

In addition to Fisher and Abdimomunova, two other members of the diverse SDM ’09 cohort took time from this year’s January Session to talk to the SDM Pulse about their experiences: Sahar Hashmi, a physician and postdoctoral research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital who is originally from Pakistan; and Cheri Burgess, a senior mechanical engineer at Lockheed Martin in California.

“It’s fun to see so many diverse backgrounds and that we’re all working well together,” Burgess said.
Leyla Abdimomunova, SDM ’09, holds her team’s robot ready
for action during the first design challenge of the January Session.
The robot competition was one of three design challenges
students faced—in addition to classwork—during January.

The January Session introduces students to key elements of the SDM program—leadership, project management, system architecture—and immediately puts lessons to use in design challenges. For example, the session begins with team-building exercises that quickly pay off in a team robot-making project. This first-week project ends in an intense and entertaining robot competition that showcases the students’ design and project management skills.

“I think it’s very creative to have this challenge at the beginning,” said Hashmi, who was operating on very little sleep the morning of the robot competition. “Everybody’s stressed out but enjoying every moment of it.”

Classes held in January include system architecture, probability and statistics, and the human side of
technology. All four students said they enjoyed the courses they took. “The human side of technology was excellent,” said Burgess. “Understanding the way people respond to change and how as leaders we can help people through those changes—this is a lot of what I do in my job, so it is directly applicable.”
Cheri Burgess, SDM ’09, prepares to compete in the first
design challenge, a robot competition held at the end
of the first week of SDM’s January Session.

Hashmi particularly enjoyed the product design course taught by Guillermo Aguirre, former Mexican undersecretary of technology, which culminated in a challenge to redesign an ordinary object, such as a sponge or chair. Hashmi said she plans to apply skills she learned to the management system of a trauma center, working to improve the processing of patients from arrival through intensive care to discharge.

Addressing real-world problems isn’t always easy. And so, as January wound down, a final challenge required students to apply systems thinking to complex world issues by holding formal debates on a range of topics: government-sponsored health care, the U.S. economic bailout, clinical trials in the developing world, ways to protect human rights, and global warming. Teams were paired to debate the affirmative and negative sides of each issue and didn’t learn which side they had to argue until the day of the debates.

The teams for this session worked together for three weeks, allowing members to bond and draw strength
from their teammates—for classwork as well as challenge preparation. “It was an excellent team-building
experience,” Hashmi said, noting that the long hours built camaraderie. “If one person was not prepared, we would sit down and help him.”
Sahar Hashmi, SDM ’09, takes time out from
the January Session robot competition to
talk about her SDM experiences. ‘I think it’s
very creative to have this challenge at the
beginning,’ she said.

Abdimomunova said her teammates helped her understand some unfamiliar mechanical systems that were
used as examples in system architecture. “If I were alone, I probably would have spent much more time on the same exercises,” she said.

Fisher, who managed to keep up with a multimillion-dollar proposal at work while attending “boot camp” (receiving formal recognition from IBM), agreed that support from the cohort was crucial for success. “The intensity of the workload calls for people to help each other because no one person can do everything,” he said.

In many ways, that is a key lesson of the January Session—an introduction to the complex human side of
systems thinking. Pat Hale, director of the SDM Fellows Program, touched upon this lesson in addressing the cohort as the session came to a close. “What you’ve learned about each other will stick with you for the rest of the program,” he said.

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