Thursday, April 5, 2012

Elon Musk, SpaceX, Tesla

Innovation, Global Impact, and Achieving Success

By Kayla Ngan

Elon Musk is a company creator—and an excellent one at that. In addition to being co-founder of Zip2 Corporation, Tesla Motors, and PayPal, Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). He currently serves as CEO and CTO at SpaceX and as CEO and Product Architect at Tesla. In short, he is no stranger to entrepreneurial success. From conceiving the world's largest Internet payment system, to constructing the first private spaceship to successfully return from Earth's orbit, to designing the first electric sports car, it would seem that Musk has company creation down to a science.

Elon Musk
Photo courtesy of SpaceX
On Thursday, March 15, 2012, MIT's System Design and Management (SDM) Program held its first Speaker Series event of the year by inviting Musk to speak with its fellows. The series encourages industry leaders and SDM Fellows to share insights and experiences pertinent to challenges and advancements in business and technology. The session, which was open to SDM Fellows only, was very well-received by those in attendance.

Throughout the hour, Musk spoke about innovation, global impact, and his personal philosophies on achieving success. He also highlighted the importance of diversity of skills, personalities, and mindsets that are necessary for a business to grow and prosper.

When asked how he arrives at new ideas for new ventures, Musk explained, "the Internet, sustainable energy, and space exploration were the three ways I thought technology would most affect the future of humanity and I wanted to be involved in that." He described his recognition of the "need to accelerate the advent of electric cars" and his vision for people to live on other planets and therefore making it possible for humanity to become multi-planetary. To turn these dreams into reality, Musk's solution was to start companies.

Launch of Dragon spacecraft via
Falcon 9 rocket in December 2010
Photo by SpaceX/Chris Thompson
Nowadays, Musk splits his 90-hour work weeks between SpaceX and Tesla Motors—about 45 hours per company—and claims that it's "not really that much." Through these endeavors, he has identified critical thinking, attention to negative feedback, and reasoning from first principles—the most basic, elemental laws in a given field—as crucial for thriving in the workplace. Musk explained that people should embrace negative feedback from others as if "they're giving you gold" and then adjust their actions accordingly. As for first principles, Musk stressed that fundamental truths in an industry, not analogy or past precedent, should be used to determine if a product will work.

For many in attendance, Musk's mention of first principles was a welcome reminder of what they've learned previously. As Neil Gadhok, co-chair for this event, commented, "I was glad to hear his discussion on reasoning from first principles, as it aligned with my own experience and what we have been taught at MIT. I and certainly many in the SDM cohort will keep the ESD.34 System Architecting principles and Elon's insights in mind as we return to industry."

Though Musk certainly has his hands full now with his upcoming launch for SpaceX, some might wonder what else he has up his sleeve. Musk told the audience, "Double decker freeways would be awesome."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

WiSDM: 2011 Report

By Melissa Rosen, SDM '11

Women in SDM (WiSDM) is a student-focused organization, conceived and led by women in MIT's System Design and Management (SDM) program. Its mission is to empower female leaders and to enhance the ongoing learning experience for SDM students and alums. WiSDM's five-year goal is to achieve a balanced SDM cohort.

WiSDM members from the SDM classes entering in 2011 and 2012 include (left to right)
Top row: Carina Ting, Kathleen Voelbel, Katie O'Brien
Middle row: Andrea Ippolito, Solhee Lee, Tina Srivastava, Genevieve Flanagan, Elizabeth Cilley, Aleksandra Markina-Khusid
Bottom row: Lesley Yu, Farrah Tazyeen, Melissa Rosen, Leena Ratnam, Haibo Wang
Photo by Kathy Tarantola Photography
In 2011, in order to build and strengthen its foundation, WiSDM focused on designing and implementing several initiatives to reach out to women who have an interest in engineering and management. These efforts included:
  • Launching a WiSDM page on the SDM website which explains what WiSDM is, why it was formed, and how to get involved. The page includes profiles of SDM students, alumnae and faculty, as well as information on other women's groups at MIT.
  • Inviting women from industry who could be prospective SDM applicants to WiSDM's annual MIT SDM Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges.
  • Hosting a pre-conference "Breakfast for Engineering Leaders" that highlighted the role of women in engineering leadership.
    Deborah Nightingale, who is a Professor of the Practice of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems, the Director of the Center for Technology, Policy, and Industrial Development, and Co-Director of the MIT Lean Advancement Initiative, presented a special keynote at this event (see sidebar).
  • Collaborating with other women's groups at MIT such as the Society of Women Engineers (MIT SWE and the Graduate Women at MIT (GWAMIT) to co-host a mentoring panel for female undergraduates. WiSDM panelists discussed their extensive industry experience and why the SDM program might be of interest to these students. WiSDM members also participated in the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership (GEL) program's weekly leadership labs by offering guidance to undergraduates.
  • Supporting the GWAMIT Fall Leadership Conference and Spring Empowerment Conference in 2011 as well as the Sloan Women in Management (SWIM) Conference in 2012. These events drew some of industry's most powerful women in engineering and management, including Marissa Mayer, VP of Google; Laura Sen, CEO of BJ's Wholesale Club; and Bettina Hein, CEO of Pixability. Hein is an MIT Sloan alum and founder of SheEOs, a network for female CEOs and founders of growth companies. Through WiSDM's interface with Hein, the group is now using Pixability's services to create a WiSDM marketing video. 
  • Welcoming nine new members from the 2012 SDM cohort. Several have already assumed leadership roles in the SDM and MIT communities. They include Katy O'Brien, Co-Chair of the SDM Leadership Committee; Elizabeth Cilley Southerlan, Social Co-Chair; and Leena Ratnam, Co-Lead of the SDM Tech Trek and an organizer for the SWIM conference's sponsorship team.
In addition, two women from the 2011 SDM cohort, Andrea Ippolito and Melissa Rosen (WiSDM President) were nominated for the 2011 SDM Student Award for Leadership, Innovation, and Systems Thinking. Ippolito is Co-Chair of the Sloan BioInnovations Conference and Co-Director of the MIT 100K Accelerate Contest. Another WiSDM leader, SDM '11 Tina Srivastava, is a mentor for GEL and organizer for the 2012 SWE Regional Conference for professionals and collegiate members which was hosted by MIT.

WiSDM's major initiatives for 2012 include the following:
  • Collaborating with MIT SWE, GWAMIT, GEL, and industry to develop and implement a mentoring program to serve women both within and outside of MIT who are interested in learning about SDM.
  • Enlarging WiSDM membership to include men to assist in reaching out and promoting SDM to prospective female applicants.
Please contact for more information or to get involved.

Professor Deborah Nightingale presents keynote at WiSDM's "Breakfast with Engineering Leaders"

Prior to the start of the 2011 annual MIT SDM Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges, WiSDM members welcomed over 30 early-to-mid-career industry women to a "Breakfast with Engineering Leaders" at the MIT Faculty Club. Deborah Nightingale, who is a Professor of the Practice of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems, the Director of the Center for Technology, Policy and Industrial Development, and Co-Director of the MIT Lean Advancement Initiative, delivered a keynote presentation.
Professor Deborah Nightingale delivered a
keynote address at WiSDM's "Breakfast for
Engineering Leaders" in October, 2011
Photo by Alex Thomas, SDM '11

Professor Nightingale spoke about the challenges and rewards of a career that combines engineering and management, as well as the value of understanding and applying systems thinking. She described her beginnings as a computer scientist in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio, and her path to MIT via the several senior executive positions she held at Allied Signal Engines.

SDM '11 Tina Srivastava welcomes
guests at WiSDM's "Breakfast for
Engineering Leaders"
Photo by Alex Thomas, SDM '11
Professor Nightingale also shared several lessons learned along the way. Perhaps the most important of these lessons was that "Systems thinking works everywhere." She explained that her background in systems engineering and her broad-based perspective in engineering and management enabled her to navigate across departments by thinking holistically about the people, processes, information, and technology involved. Her training has helped her to balance competing objectives while she held leadership positions in operations, engineering, and program management.

Other insights Nightingale provided included a discussion on the tendency of engineers to resist change and how the soft stuff is really the hard stuff. She stressed that engineers often get caught up with methods and design and forget that people are needed for implementation. She emphasized the importance of understanding workplace culture in order to better elicit and manage sustainable change.

Professor Nightingale concluded by sharing her views regarding the importance of having passion for one's work, asking for opportunities to broaden your experience, networking, and finding work-life balance.