Thursday, February 24, 2011

Skype Chief Evangelist Joins MIT System Design and Management Program

By Ethan Gilsdorf

For Andres Kütt, Chief Evangelist at Skype and a member of the System Design and Management (SDM) class entering in 2011, embracing his inner geek is second nature.

Photo by Kathy Tarantola Photography
Kütt holds a BS in Mathematical Statistics from the University of Tartu (now considered to an MsC equivalent because the four-year program requires a publicly defended thesis); an MBA from the Estonian Business School and has also taught project management on an undergrad level. He began at Skype in 2005 as an Architecture Team Lead in their Tallinn development office, and a year ago was promoted to "Chief Evangelist." He also co-invented several patents along the way.
So why add a third degree to his impressive CV, especially after proving his mettle at one of the Internet's hugest successes? Kütt says it's because he asks himself the same question too many times — i.e., too "Why is this this way?"

As Kütt helped define Skype's technical direction and consequently had to tackle many scalability issues, he realized that his education lacked the scientific rigor to properly test his ideas. His contributions to product development felt intuitive, he said, rather rooted to an academic grounding. He felt he was operating on "pure instinct."

"If I wanted to take my job to the next level," Kütt said, "I needed the pedagogical framework and a systems thinking perspective."

But the Estonian wasn't willing to settle for any program. He wanted a top-notch education and access to world experts in their fields. The SDM Program fit the bill, offering what Kütt called "the perfect blend of leadership, management, and engineering," and giving him that structure and big picture, systems thinking perspective he craved.

Before Skype, Kütt worked for the Estonian Tax and Customs Board as Deputy Director General in charge of IT and as Head of IT Development. But his true passion is organizational behavior, particularly around technology issues. At SDM for the next two years, he hopes to pursue thesis research focused on a holistic study of the architecture of organizations while working toward SDM's master's degree in engineering and management. He envisions that this thesis might become a PhD dissertation, or a book.

Kütt's switch to a wider systems thinking view partly came about when, as Chief Evangelist, he was charged with preserving Skype's institutional memory and telling the Skype story to outside groups. "It's a narrative. We need to do a lot of work to explain who we are, what we do, and why it's important."

That narrative unfolds as easily in English as Estonian. But while Kütt, 35, may be accustomed to straddling two worlds, moving his home base was not an option. His wife Maria is currently conducting doctoral research on personnel demands in the IT sector and they are raising a two year old daughter, Anna-Liis. Luckily, the SDM Program provides optimum flexibility. As a distance learner, Kütt can attend live video classes with his cohort at MIT, while staying close to his family and continuing to work at Skype in Estonia.

While no university in Europe can better MIT's facilities, he said, and few cities can match Cambridge's flurry of academic activity, what he's most looking forward to at SDM is its unquantifiable, creative vibe. "I spend the day grinning," he said. "MIT is geek heaven squared!"

Managing the family/work/bi-cultural juggling act will be a challenge, he says, but Kütt is emboldened to go for it. "If the 'why' is there," Kütt said with confidence, "then every 'how' becomes possible."

In the meantime, Skype will certainly come in handy.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Systems-based Approach to Military Leadership

By Cody Ned Romano

U.S. Army Major Joshua Eaton is driven — both as a student and as a soldier — by the philosophy that "good leaders must also know how to follow."

When Eaton and his team managed logistical support for their Special Forces battalion encamped throughout Afghanistan, he corresponded closely with officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) working in coordination with him and his team. Their reports helped Eaton's team determine when food, fuel, and ammunition should be airdropped or delivered by ground.

During a dismounted patrol in Eastern Afghanistan, Eaton sits with the other members of the Personal Security Detachment (PSD) for the Commander of ISAF.
(Photo courtesy of U.S. Army)

Now that he is a new student in MIT's System Design and Management Program (SDM), Eaton listens carefully to his professors and classmates. This has led him to think differently about the systems that ensure soldiers' survival on the battlefield.

"SDM has already transformed the way I think," says Eaton, who started the program last month. "By incorporating leadership and business principles into an engineering curriculum, it's made me a more well-rounded systems engineer."

The 9-year career that led Eaton to MIT began with a B.S. in systems engineering that he earned from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2002. He received infantry training, then attended Ranger School, which, he says, prepared him a great deal with regards to small unit tactics and leading soldiers under other than desirable conditions. This grueling combat course rendered him hungry, cold,and sleep-deprived, but he emerged from it ready to lead soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, Eaton says that what most prepared him to lead Special Forces Soldiers was the year-long Special Forces Qualification Course.

Eaton and his team trained more than 100 Afghan soldiers, a job that required them to address the cultural dimension of systems. In a mud hut of a mountain village, Eaton and his team ate traditional Afghan meals and communicated with troops who spoke Dari, Pashto, and Farsi. Managing and leading these men helped prepare Eaton for the promotion that would require him to provide logistical support to his Special Forces battalion.

Eaton and his Special Forces Detachment conducted a Humanitarian and Assistance (HA) mission in Eastern Afghanistan in order to provide food, cooking oil, supplies, clothing, and blankets to villages in remote locations. They also met with tribal elders and villagers to develop relationships in the area.
(Photo courtesy of Josh Eaton)

Eaton first heard about the SDM program from his former infantry company commander, SDM alumnus Nathan Minami. Minami has served as both a leader and mentor for Eaton for years and strongly encouraged him to pursue his advanced degree in the SDM program. Given his own wealth of expertise and experience, Eaton wanted to surround himself with classmates who, as professionals, had also managed large-scale systems. In the SDM program, he has found peers whose resumes are as varied as they are extensive: one of his classmates is a career physicist; another one is a corporate engineer.

By leveraging his classmates' range of experiences, Eaton -- who was promoted to major in early February -- has been able to tackle problems that he says push him beyond his "comfort zone." His most recent assignments were to build a robot, and to research ways for a company in Mexico to expand its market share.

"Systems thinking is about increasing efficiency and lowering costs while keeping stakeholders in mind," Eaton says. "In my last job, the stakeholders were soldiers who needed supplies to complete their mission."

Soon Eaton will incorporate what he has learned at MIT into a curriculum of his own. After he graduates from the SDM program, he will accept an offer for a teaching position in the Systems Engineering Department at West Point.

"As a cadet, I looked up to teachers who had been to combat," says Eaton, who has since been awarded the Bronze Star Medal with "V" Device for valorous actions against enemy forces. "They shaped who I was at the time. Now here I am, nine years later, going back to West Point as a teacher to share my experiences in leadership with the future leaders of our military."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

SDM Student from Cairo Prepares to 'Add Value to Country'

By Kathryn O'Neill

When Fady Saad left Cairo to join MIT's System Design and Management Program (SDM) this January, he did not know that democracy protests were about to break out in Egypt—but he did know his country was in need of system-wide change.

"I believe that the future of Egypt...will strongly mandate the need for professionals who will be able to design, build, and manage systems," Saad wrote in the statement of objectives he sent to SDM with his application.

Egypt has two critical needs, according to Saad: it needs a systematic way of building and developing organizations and a better educational system.

"Many times we have problems in different organizations, and they're interrelated. For example, in government offices, people aren't helpful. Why? When you trace the problem, you find people aren't...compensated properly," he said. "Then you look at university and find that entrance isn't based on proper criteria. It's not about individual capability -- it has to do with test scores. The high school system is promoting memorizing information; it's not encouraging thinking."

Saad said the "paradigm shift" in his own thinking came as a result of the education he received at American University in Cairo, as well as from being a Boy Scout Leader. "In Scouting I learned a lot of things—especially about developing and educating people," he said.

Saad, who joined the Scout movement in 1996, was particularly impressed by the way that certain principles—e.g. be prepared, trustworthy, helpful—form the foundation for the organization. "When you look at the principles that gave birth to [Scouting] activities, you find that principles are very important," he said.

SDM student Fady Saad at the World Scout Scientific Congress, Geneva, Switzerland, 2007, where he was invited to present his World Bank prize-winning essay, "Organizational Systems & Agents of Change."

Professionally, Saad already has significant experience as a change agent. In 2007, he played a central role in managing the merger integration program of Nokia Networks and Siemens Communications in Egypt. "We had a factory and two premises—700 employees—and we had to pull everyone together to form one team," he said. "I compiled a proposal for the country director highlighting the importance of having a change management program—not to leave it loose."

Communication was one key element—Saad said he advocated for communicating "even too much." Another was inspiring people to lead change in their own areas—Saad quoted Mahatma Gandhi, "Be the change you want to see in the world."

Layoffs were necessary, but Saad said, "My concern was how can we lay off the people in a respectful, dignified way without frustrating those left behind." The plan used an Excel-based tool to help decide how many people each department would cut, and required a lot of preparation—on compensation, individual assessments, security—before the layoffs were even announced.

In the end, Saad said, "What we did in Egypt was a success story for the whole company."

Nevertheless, a few years later, Saad sought change in his own career. His job was "not addressing my passion, which has to do with building organizations, building systems, and educating people," he said. He applied and was accepted into a top MBA program, but before beginning classes, he discovered SDM by chance.

"The MBA was not a 100 percent match for my passion. SDM was a 100 percent match. So I had to switch everything over," he said. Saad arrived with his wife and 3-year-old daughter on January 1st -- just in time to begin SDM's month-long January session.

Now, even bigger changes are under way back home, and Saad said he believes the time is right: "Already sacrifices have been made, and I'm a believer that if you want to change, change altogether—don't put an new patch on old clothes."

Egypt needs organizational systems and informal educational opportunities such as Scouting, Saad said, so he is looking forward to helping the country move ahead.

"My passion is for building organizations and human development. I hope by the time I receive my master's in engineering and management from MIT, I will know more about this and be able to add to the body of knowledge of those two fields," Saad said. "I might look into how to build a nationwide educational system."

Monday, February 14, 2011

SDM Students Visit Satcon

By Karl Critz, SDM ‘10

In December, 2010 a group of SDM students visited Satcon, a Boston-based developer of solar cell inverters. They met with Program Manager Mark Prestero (MIT '79), who detailed the company's rapid growth and expansion of system engineering functions. He noted that inverters convert a solar array’s DC signal to grid-frequency AC, so Satcon must ensure that the equipment functions properly as part of the overall electrical grid.

The SDMs toured the on-site prototyping and test facility, impressed by the company's ability to engage in rapid design iteration.

(Left to right) Satcon Program Manager Mark Prestero with SDM students Dennis Evans, Donny Holaschutz, Felipe Grillo and Kurt Keville, and SDM alum Charles Atencio.

Photo by Karl Critz (trip organizer)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Using Systems Thinking to Design the Smart Phone of the Future

By David Rosenbaum

MIT System Design and Management (SDM) student Irfan Mohammed, whose SDM thesis focuses on emerging strategies for developing and marketing mobile computing platforms—specifically how Apple, Android, and Symbian will be competing and how they should be competing—points to a man tapping at his cell phone and says, "That's the key computing device of the future.

"Imagine," he continues, "the man places his phone on the table. It projects a screen onto the wall behind it and a keyboard onto the table in front of him. Now you have a fully functional computer that you can carry around in your pocket."

Mohammed believes that in the battle between the iPhone and Android, the latter has the upper hand. This is due to the fact that Android's open source platform is decoupled from the hardware (the physical phone), and allowing greater scope for innovation. "Apple's approach requires the company to produce both hardware and software," he says. "Google and Android just need to produce software." And, as Mohammed wrote in MIT Technology Review last August, "In the end, it is not the phones but the applications which make a particular mobile platform popular."

For Mohammed, former vice president of product development at Bangalore-based Sourcebits Technologies, the world's largest provider of mobile applications, the synergy between his career and his SDM training is obvious. But at first his path to his eventual SDM degree in engineering and management was not so straightforward.

Mohammed began as a software engineer, developing and managing products for Verizon from 2001 to 2008 and, like many engineers who achieve a measure of success, he soon was charged with leading teams. Although confident that he could direct engineers, he still felt he "lacked the tools to be in that position. I needed an end-to-end systems view that took into account all of the stakeholders, market conditions, and the impact a new product could have on the market.

"I thought that I should get an MBA."

Mohammed, who received his bachelor's in engineering in electronics and communications from Osmania University, in Hyderabad, India, and his M.S. in electrical engineering from the University of South Florida, was derailed in his initial pursuit of an MBA when he instead took a job as senior technical consultant with Murex, a firm that makes a software investment tool that has 60 percent of the world's market share. Mohammed was responsible for the on-site implementation and integration of the Murex tool, his first time in a primarily customer-facing role.

Again, he began applying to MBA programs. It was during this process that Mohammed met SDM Director Pat Hale and discovered SDM.

"My value proposition," says Mohammed, "is my deep technical expertise. An MBA would be specific to marketing and finance and although that's important, I wouldn't be leveraging my experience. At SDM, I'm learning business strategy and gaining the ability to analyze the market landscape. I'm learning how to map product design and development needs to systems architecture." In fact, he was hired by Sourcebits before he had even completed his first year at SDM. "In retrospect," he concludes, SDM was "the obvious — and the best — choice."

Monday, February 7, 2011

Using Systems Thinking in Bundling Products and Services

By David Rosenbaum

MIT System Design and Management (SDM) student Aravind Ratnam constantly looks for connections and bundles.

Ratnam believes in connecting products and services—as well as products and products—to make offerings more attractive to customers. "Restricting your strategy to selling one-offs is both myopic and obtuse" Ratnam says bluntly. "You can add more value bundling as a package. Look at the telecommunications industry, adding service on top of service. This is basic consumer psychology: the more complete your package, the more attractive your value proposition."

Ratnam observed this effect at an entirely new level during his stint in high fashion retail: luxury is not about just the clothes and accoutrements themselves, but also about the refined in-store experience provided by the ambience and the discerning sales force. "It's all about getting the fine details right," Ratnam observes.

SDM's focus on multidisciplinary systems thinking stimulates the ability to perceive these connections. Ratnam came to SDM because as he progressed from roles in laser science to strategic account management at Cymer Inc., which makes powerful UV lasers, he saw holes in the business side of his own education. He would come up with whiz bang technical solutions to problems, but ones that often did not speak to the company's business leaders.

"As engineers, it's easy for us to get siloed within the aura of all the cool stuff we create," Ratnam said. "However, engineering doesn't have marketing's customer focus, and marketing doesn't have engineering's product excellence focus. Each group thinks that they know best and end up blaming each other when business is down. The sad part is that both are on the same team.

"At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how good your product is if you can't sell it," he continues. "The way to do it is to be open about the technical side of the product (its strengths and weaknesses) and work closely with your customer, while being authentic in your sales and marketing. In doing so, you offer a personal package that your competitors cannot match. In this day and age where you're typically one of the many players in the market, signature is everything. Without uniqueness, your product doesn't exist since there is no personality—customers buy from people, not from nobodies," Ratnam says.

SDM has taught Ratnam to see his deep technical expertise in a broader context as he applies the finishing touches on his management and systems thinking skills. Ratnam's career goal is to excel in designing and managing technologically complex products, while nurturing his innate creativity and flair for self-expression. It has also taught him how to penetrate the psychological dance of negotiating and given him the soft skills necessary to lead teams, not to mention recognizing the importance of making connections.

Applying his systems thinking skills, Ratnam is helping develop unified strategies for sustainability for the Azores, as part of the Azores program. Using Prof. Ed Crawley's decision support tools, Ratnam is finding optimal ways to connect Azorean resources to architect sustainable systems to improve Azorean life. "This isn't exactly my core competency, but that doesn't matter" he remarks. "I have now been trained in how to think more broadly. Now it is just a matter of putting all those connections together."

Ratnam graduates from SDM later this year and is looking for all these connections in a career that will allow him to use the end-to-end management tools that he has gained at MIT/Sloan within SDM and grow as a leader in a role that is "unquestionably global."

As Meyer Wolfsheim told Gatsby in "The Great Gatsby," life is all about "gonnections."