I’m sometimes asked how I got through the rigors of the System Design and Management (SDM) Program while simultaneously running an independent consulting business and raising a young family. I always say it helps if you thrive on stress and can function on five hours of sleep a night.
But in truth I had a lot of help. My wife, Diane, stayed home full-time with our children: Brian, who was 2 when I started in the program, and Juliana, who was born midway through SDM, in January 2007. I made sure that I was always home for dinner and took time to play with the kids, but from 7:30 am until dinner I was typically gone.
My colleagues at SDM also helped me keep up the juggling act, so I have a lot of teammates to thank for my
success—people who were both really smart and really flexible. I found that when I was completely overloaded and couldn’t finish my portion of a problem set, for example, they would pick up the slack. And I would do the same for them. It played really well into my chaos that I could rely on this team.
As for my business, the key to consulting is to have more than one client at a time and make them all feel as if
they’re the only ones. That was harder to do during SDM, so I scaled down my business a bit. But I also got lucky: my main client at the time was more concerned about results than availability, so I was able to catch up on work at night.
It helped that my business was well established when I started the program. I founded my small consulting firm, ThinkBox Solutions, doing custom software architecture and applications development, in 1996.
Interestingly, it was through my business that I first learned about SDM. While researching a server issue I
stumbled upon the blog of Robbie Allen, SDM ’05, who described how he had solved the same problem.
Following a link to SDM, I read about all the classes and became intrigued. I like to take advantage of a lot of training—it makes you a better consultant—and at the time I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. So I applied.
During SDM, I found the class in system architecture particularly useful because it defined the “ilities” that systems need—such as durability, maintainability, and flexibility—as well as their relationship to system complexity. Having formally recognized these qualities in class, I found I was better able to evaluate a proposed system design in my business, offer customers alternate designs and generally improve the way I architect complex software architectures.
Some of the topics related to the generation of new business from technology and dealing with patents also filled in gaps of things I didn’t understand.
In addition, SDM’s guest speakers were incredible. One was a civil engineering architect, Steve Imrich of
Cambridge Seven Associates, who talked about form and function, which has so many parallels to my business. Ever since I heard him speak, I have worked to integrate into my designs what Imrich calls the “magic”: some interesting and highly beneficial feature that the customer doesn't expect and hasn't thought about.
In addition to all I’ve learned through SDM, I’ve also made terrific contacts, both to my talented cohort as well as to MIT’s faculty. So I have no regrets about working so hard to get through the program. I always wanted to go back to school, and I don’t think I could have found a better fit. After all, MIT is the gold standard.