Monday, February 22, 2010

SDM Alum Named Boeing Technical Fellow

Hard work, continuous learning pay off for Dr. Jean Dolne

By Lois Slavin, SDM Communications Director

On January 4, 2010, SDM alumnus Dr. Jean Dolne was promoted to the rank of Technical Fellow at The Boeing Company. This honor places him among the top 1% of Boeing’s entire technical force and the top 0.5% of the company’s workforce overall.

Dolne’s selection reflects his commitment to working hard, despite difficult conditions. For example, while growing up in Haiti he experienced poverty first-hand.

"Because my parents struggled to pay $24/month for my high school tuition, I felt it was my job to work hard and study," said Dolne, who graduated at the top of his class. Dolne then traveled to the U.S. to attend the City College of New York, arriving with less $60 in his pocket. Again he worked hard, not just at his studies but also as a dishwasher and a taxi driver to pay his way through school.

Dolne graduated with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering, then earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the City University of New York.

Despite holding a doctorate, Dolne then chose to pursue the MIT master’s in engineering and management through the System Design and Management (SDM) Program. "I have a constant desire to learn more," said Dolne, who was sponsored by Boeing as a distance student and received his SM in 2008. "SDM represented a perfect opportunity to increase my knowledge in systems design, program management and system-of-systems optimization."

In fact, while a student at SDM, Dolne was awarded a Boeing Special Invention award for a technology that he helped develop to achieve real time (~ 50 Hz) wavefront sensing and imaging using Phase Diversity -- a first in industry. This Phase Diversity method works by collecting two images, one at focus and another intentionally defocused. With these two images, a maximum likelihood method is applied to retrieve the wavefront in the pupil plane and an enhanced image. Boeing awards this honor for only a small number of inventions that have proven critical to the company.

"Two SDM courses that came in handy were system design and optimization and systems engineering," he continued. "These topics helped in coming up with gradient search tools to implement the wavefront sensing approach in hardware."

In the spirit of continuous learning and working hard, Dolne is pursuing several technical interests, including statistical image processing, system design, information theory, optimization theory, decision theory, wavefront sensing, atmospheric turbulence, optical system design, wave optics, and laser systems. He is a Chairman of the SPIE Unconventional Imaging conference and in 2009, he guest-edited an Applied Optics special edition in wavefront sensing and imaging.

As usual, Dolne is continuing to work hard.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Saying 'No' to a Hobson’s Choice

By Geoff Langos Vice President of Information Technology, Vonage

In 2001 I was working for a large telecommunications company. Starting with a mere handful of engineers, I built a team that had grown to 60, was supporting thousands of end-users, and was integral to launching a new business line. The company’s management, impressed by the team’s performance, came to me and asked if I wanted to stay close to the technology or to manage people.

My answer "was yes to both."

I was being given the classic Hobson’s Choice offered to many engineers who enjoy both building things that work and managing the people who do the work: Stay in technology or hop aboard the management train and leave the bench (and their fellow engineers) behind.

I didn’t believe the choice should have to be binary, but when I looked at classic MBA programs to develop management skills I found that although some had courses on engineering management (but didn’t focus on it), most were trying to attract engineers who needed to retool and leave engineering—which I most definitely did not want to do.

For me, the answer was the System Design and Management (SDM) program at MIT, which I completed in 2004. One of the mottos at SDM is to train engineers to lead, not leave engineering.

I believe that the stereotype of the stubborn engineer who cares only about the problem he or she is trying to solve at any given moment may be exaggerated, but is nonetheless grounded in a reality that people who propose to manage them must learn to address. At SDM, the cases studied are about facing the challenge of both the technical problem plus the business problem. In other words, SDM, as opposed to the traditional MBA program, focuses on those unique problems that engineers will have to address while at the same time broadening their perspective to include such business elements as marketing, sales, and finance.

For example, one case I studied concerned a company that made pads designed to go in between machines that drove concrete pylons into the ground. The pad was designed to save wear on the machines and drive the pylons faster. The business problem was how to price and market the pad.

The average or na├»ve engineer might say, ‘Who cares? The pad works.’ But in business, as in life, there isn’t just one answer. (In fact, the pad didn’t improve performance well enough to justify a price that would ensure profitability.) You have to learn how management is going to think and how engineers are going to think.

At Vonage, one of the IT systems failed recently and I struggled to explain that it really wasn’t a technical failure as much a process and prioritization problem in getting the system upgraded to a new one. Then I remembered SDM’s accident sequence diagram, used in the System Engineering course, and returned to management able to illustrate what had happened organizationally and technically, demonstrating that the failure was not simply an IT problem. If you can’t do that, you lose credibility with the business.

Today, with my business credibility intact, I’m able to stay close to the technology and lead engineers, proving that, thanks to SDM, the Hobson’s Choice presented to engineers—technology or people—is fallacious.

Learning to Experiment; Learning to Fail; Learning to Lead

By Yoav Shapira, Vice President of Engineering, HubSpot

At HubSpot, a three-year-old Boston-based software firm that primarily builds Internet marketing tools, each month the engineering teams publicly commit to building a specific product. This, in itself, may not be so unusual. But what is unusual is that not only do the teams decide for themselves how they will build the product, the team—and the team alone—decides when it will be ready for customers. Then, and only then, do they release it.

As HubSpot’s Vice President of Engineering I believe that the process is working. I don’t know if it will scale forever, but we have a couple of thousand of real paying customers and our customer satisfaction is high.

After I graduated from MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) program in 2006 and began working at HubSpot, I needed to confront what I believe to be a basic truth learned in my SDM Systems Engineering class: Even though I have the experience and the responsibility, I’m not always going to be right. So, instead of saying to my team, ‘This is the decision and this is how we’re going to execute it no matter what,’ I’ve learned to develop a culture of experimentation and to trust the team.

The results have led me to believe strongly in the value of experimentation. At HubSpot, as at many start-ups, bandwidth is limited and resources are scarce so prioritizing is hard. Nevertheless, we’re still willing to pursue projects we know might fail, even though they are significant projects for us and can last from one week to a month. Our purpose in doing them is not solely to ship something to customers but for our teams to share with each other what they’ve learned from failure, as well as success, and strengthen HubSpot’s capabilities.

If this sounds like an engineering-centric culture, it is. When I was a Senior Software Engineer at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, I began doing a little unofficial mentoring. I enjoyed it and decided to learn to become a manager. However, I didn’t want to leave engineering. I also didn’t want to stop being creative or stop building things, which I knew was the fate of many engineers who got their MBAs and went into management.

From what I’ve observed, in most traditional MBA programs it’s sort of expected that when you graduate you don’t go back to building stuff. That’s not only unfortunate, it’s also a widespread problem.

This is complicated by the fact that in order to advance in most companies – and to get more status and more money -- you must manage people. This means spending time writing performance reviews, focusing on HR policy, and doing PowerPoints and Excel. The sad thing is that you’re probably still a terrific engineer and your organization is losing out by not utilizing your technical talents.

One of the sad consequences of this is that although companies hire young engineers who are really very good, after a very short time they say they want to be managing a team because they know that’s the only way to advance.

The SDM program was good for me because it taught me how to stay creative and keep building stuff while also being a manager. It’s part of the culture. Pat Hale, SDM’s director, shows it by example. He’s the director of an academic program, but he’s also President of the International Council on Systems Engineering. He’s hands-on; he’s not a pure academic, so he’s a strong power of example.

The SDM culture is also enhanced by the backgrounds of the students admitted into the program. They are early-to-mid-career engineers from a wide range of industries around the world who want to build as well as lead. These SDMs can create value at the intersection of engineering and management by leading, by doing, and by creating a culture that can advance by learning from experimentation, failure, and success.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Engineering and Management: Having the Best of Both Worlds

By Stephen Friedenthal, SDM ‘04 Manager, Factory Automation A123 Systems

Halfway through my engineering and management studies at MIT’s System Design and Management program, my vision for who I could be expanded in ways that I never imagined before coming to MIT.

I’d applied to SDM thinking that I would continue working in software product management for my then-employer, General Electric (GE). I knew I had value to GE because of the specific domain expertise I’d acquired in a particular suite of the company’s software applications; however I didn’t feel I had a foundation or skill set that I could broadly apply outside of this arena. Moreover, I felt that it would be difficult to translate the value I’d provided if I moved to a different position within or beyond GE – if I even got the opportunity at all. I believed that SDM would help me make the next leap in my GE career.

Previously, I’d looked at several MBA programs because I knew I needed more management fundamentals, but I also wanted to build upon the foundation I’d built in engineering. SDM appealed to me because it offered a way to have a foot in both worlds and pursue the best of each.

Midway through SDM, I made an unanticipated decision to leave GE to provide contract services through my own consulting firm. This provided greater financial flexibility while being able to continue my studies.

On reflecting back, I realize that what I was learning at SDM – in terms of entrepreneurship, risk-taking, marketing, and developing a business -- contributed greatly to my decision. Having my own business turned out to be the ultimate opportunity to put theories I’d learned at SDM into practice.

Five years later I continue to apply SDM learnings, but now as a full-time employee at A123 Systems, an international manufacturer of high-powered lithium ion batteries. A123 was previously one of my clients and as a consultant I was impressed with the company. When the opportunity came up to become the manager of factory information systems, I jumped at it.

My role at A123 is a perfect vehicle for combining my education in engineering and management with my experience in product management at GE and in software consulting. For example, my responsibilities focus on factory automation and information systems for new or upgraded manufacturing facilities being built by A123 business partners in China, Korea, and Michigan. On the technical side, I can discuss systems integration, information management, and tools such as risk-benefit analysis. In terms of systems thinking, I can look at the entire process from a "big picture" perspective, while also being able to drill down into specifics. In terms of management, I understand – and can discuss -- finance, quality measurements, and process and materials flow.

For example, in the automotive industry, to be a "Tier 1" supplier, we need to have a complete "genealogy" of every battery. Not only do we need to know every nut, bolt, wire and batch of chemicals used in each individual cell, but also a full manufacturing history of the various process temperatures, voltages, vacuums and other steps in the manufacturing and automation process. This is an immensely complicated systems engineering project. An MBA graduate can often understand the management piece, but has not been educated to be able to "toggle back and forth" between the big picture and the details, and between the technical and the managerial components of large-scale projects. Real engineering involves trade-offs and judgments that call upon a very broad skill set. My SDM education enables me to do all of this and contribute on a broader level than an MBA.

I’m now overseeing the design and installation of the factory information systems of several new plants in Michigan, and abroad while also managing the adoption of new factory automation systems by our business partners in Korea and China.

My SDM education also helps me work with diverse cultures, industries, and functions because from the first day I began the program until I graduated, I worked on project teams with fellow SDM students from around the world. Moreover, because SDM students have an average of nine – and often more – years of experience in a wide range of industries in top companies and because many are successful mid-to-senior level managers, I am very comfortable with diversity and different management styles.

In essence SDM offered a great opportunity to understand, manage, and create systems and tie them together from both a management and engineering perspective. It’s a long way from the path I envisioned for myself when I began SDM, but it’s become the best of both worlds.