Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Looking for reproducible results

By Ted Smalley Bowen

James Truchard
James Truchard and his partners at National Instruments (NI) saw a business opportunity in one of the most routine tasks in science and engineering — the design of test and measurement systems. With a little tweaking, a common set of building blocks could meet a wide range of requirements, sparing labs the effort and expense of inventing their own systems. Four decades after the company's founding, NI's products help control everything from kindergartners' Lego robots to the CERN Large Hadron particle accelerator.

Truchard, NI's co-founder, president and CEO, met with fellows of MIT's System Design and Management Program on June 12, 2012 to discuss his experience guiding the University of Texas spinoff from startup in 1976 to the 6,300-person publicly traded company whose 2011 revenue topped one billion dollars. In the second SDM Speaker Series event of the year, the engineer-turned-executive described some of the factors that helped him and his partners successfully harness their technical ideas. [Note: Truchard was contacted after the event for this article.]

Truchard's formula involves a strong dose of prudence. A PhD in electrical engineering, he co-founded NI while working fulltime as a managing director at Applied Research Laboratories at the University of Texas at Austin. The company was self-financed and he moonlighted for three years, putting in some 100-plus hour weeks and sacrificing time with family, but it helped keep the company autonomous.

Bootstrapping can be difficult, but "people get venture capital and end up owning four percent of the company. And you need an exit plan, which is a challenge if you're trying to plan long-term," he said.

He emphasized the need for startups to generate revenue quickly. "He first established contacts with institutions and academia and understood their needs before starting to develop products," said SDM Fellow Marwan Walid Hussein. "This meant that his first products were relevant and on trend."

Truchard focused on the balancing act required to maintain a technological edge while managing a large organization. NI offers employees, many of whom are hired right out of school, technology and management tracks, allowing them some flexibility in shaping their careers.

"He sees it as a challenge finding a balance between being a technically driven company and one that's top-heavy with management. There's really no single good answer for this," said SDM Fellow Rajesh Nair, whose resume includes several startups. "I was also interested in his discussion on how you get creative types, who are by definition non-conformists, to focus and work together."

The company allows employees to pursue their own projects within regular work hours, and has hired and bolstering R&D during economic slowdowns. "In 2001 and 2009 we used the opportunity to pick up some talent and scale up R&D, where we had been under-investing. We told Wall Street what we wanted to do and warned them profit would be down," he said.

This reflects Truchard's preference for long term planning. In his summary, yearly plans address budgets, projects, and personnel assignments; five-year plans identify market opportunities and promising technologies (which for NI include electric cars and mobile devices); the 10-year horizon deals with the company's evolving vision; and a 100-year span is useful for airing the company's philosophy, which stresses innovation, integrity, and respect. "If you do that, each 90 days should add up and you just publish the results," he says. "There's some scrambling, but long-term should trump short-term."

Chunguang Charlotte Wang SDM '10 and SMART Coops Team Win Community Choice Award in MIT IDEAS Competition

Chunguang Charlotte Wang
By Lynne Weiss

Charlotte Wang of MIT's System Design and Management Program (SDM) and her teammates received a Community Choice award of $1,500 in MIT's annual IDEAS Competition and Global Challenge. SMART (Sustainable Management of Agricultural Resources and Trade) Coops is a mobile banking and payment platform to connect farmers in the Philippines to their agricultural cooperatives and in turn to banks, input suppliers, government agencies, and crop buyers via SMS text messaging.

The Philippines, with a young and educated workforce, has a growing economic presence. Agricultural production increased by 4.3% in 2011, but poor infrastructure limits agricultural efficiency and farmers typically earn about $4 a day, much less than their counterparts in China or Brazil. There are about twelve million farmers in the Philippines, with about 85% of them considered small. Agricultural cooperatives allow farmers to act as a single entity when applying for loans, buying inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides, selling their products, and investing in infrastructure such as refrigerated warehouses, rice mills, or fish-canning facilities. Even so, the network of small-scale farmers is fragmented and farmers often pay as much as 20% interest on loans. The goal of SMART Coops is to provide farmers and their cooperatives with tools that will give them more power in the supply chain.

MIT's IDEAS (Innovation, Development, Enterprise, Action, and Service) Competition is an invention and entrepreneurship contest that rewards projects for underserved communities. Now in its 11th year, it is known as "the Oscars of social impact at MIT," according to Alison Hynd, one of the 2012 presenters. The Community Choice awards were given to the three teams to receive the most on-line votes.

Wang heard about SMART Coops when Danny Castonguay, Sloan '13, sent an e-mail to the Sloan community asking for help from people experienced with start-ups. Wang said she was immediately attracted to the opportunity to use her background with strategy, policy, and processes on a project to aid people in the developing world. Prior to entering the SDM program, Wang worked for Washington State to implement a new HR system and bring lean processes to state-controlled liquor stores. At MIT, she was part of the PolyChroma team that won the Berkeley-Stanford Green Entrepreneurship Competition in 2011, and she and her husband Zhiyong Wang, SDM '11, entered the 2011 IDEAS Competition and Global Challenge with their Inner Mongolia Sustainability Project (EnerLong) which seeks to minimize soil erosion in Mongolia through sustainable energy development. Wang said she responded to Castonguay's e-mail right away and met with him and Leah Capitan, another member of the SMART Coops team.

"These efforts are never a one-person thing," Wang said. She explained that her background in processes, energy sustainability, agriculture, and social policy was useful to the SMART Coops team, but that Leah Capitan brought the necessary knowledge of and connections to the Philippines. Castonguay and Capitan will spend the summer of 2012 in the Philippines to develop a collaboration between SMART Coops and the University of the Philippines in Manila through MIT AITI (Accelerating Information Technology Innovation).

Wang, who received her degree from SDM in June 2012, said she did not expect to work on projects such as SMART Coops, PolyChroma, and EnerLong before entering the SDM program. But she recalled that during her first week at MIT, Pat Hale, Director of the System Design and Management Fellows Program, urged Wang and her peers not to limit their thoughts to what they had done in the past or imagined they would do. Wang said SDM courses gave her a strong foundation for branching out into new areas of research. "They push you," Wang said. "Courses like System Architecture are really hard! My brain was aching when I took it—but it gave me the tools for in-depth thinking about the details of a project and at the same time the ability to keep pulling back to look at the big picture."

Wang's plan for the immediate future is to continue work on Enerlong. The goal of this innovative technology design and consulting start-up is to provide comprehensive advice on sustainable development by using data about energy consumption, transportation routes, and population density to formulate designs for smart growth and energy management as well as operations services to fuel China's rapid economic growth.

This summer Wang will be a Senior Fellow in the first Harvard China SEED (Social responsibility, Empathy, Empowerment, and Dedication) Camp. The Harvard China SEED Camp connects Chinese students studying abroad to networks of social innovators and entrepreneurs within China. Wang hopes her future will give her a chance to teach as well as entrepreneurial opportunities. "I envision myself as a bridge between the United States and China," she said. "I hope to see EnerLong succeed and would love to share my experience with others."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Nirmalya Bannerjee, SDM '11: Connecting the Dots with SDM

By Cody Ned Romano

Nirmalya Bannerjee
Photo by Kathy
Tarantola Photography
A former project manager for Apple, Nirmalya Banerjee sums up his experience in SDM by drawing upon the wisdom of his company's founder. "Embrace different opportunities," Steve Jobs said, "because you never know how and when you'll be able to look back and connect the dots."

Banerjee's resume is a testament to Jobs' advice. An Indian national scholar in mathematics, Banerjee began his career as an electrical engineer, followed it with an MBA in marketing and went on to work as an SAP consultant. After five years as a consultant, he wanted to grow and explore new horizons.

Interdisciplinary courses such as System Dynamics drew Banerjee to SDM. He also appreciated that SDM integrated engineering and management via systems thinking. Diving into the curriculum, Banerjee earned close to 178 academic credits in just 13 months. This included studying Negotiation at Harvard Business School and learning basic Chinese. "SDM", says Banerjee, "was an immensely enriching experience. It provided unparalleled opportunities to learn and compete with the best and brightest minds and to network with industry leaders of the future."

"SDM is the place where I'm trying to connect the dots," Banerjee said. "It is where I'm trying to integrate all that I've learned through my education and experience to develop a holistic perspective for the future."

In addition to his formal studies, Banerjee worked on an MIT project aimed at improving public health in India. Nearly half of Indians who develop cataracts go blind because of untimely detection. The equipment for detection is too expensive and is not readily available in the rural medical centers. To facilitate this, Banerjee, along with his team, helped develop a plan for delivering affordable technology for residents of Indian cities and villages — a smartphone app and a clip on device that scans the eye for cataracts. Their project won the MIT Global Challenge Choice Award, which provided $10,000 in funding.

Prior to matriculating at SDM, Banerjee worked at Apple Singapore as a project manager where he led a team of 32 consultants who supported the SAP system, Banerjee focused on developing innovative process changes to tackle global challenges. A significant change he initiated by involved redesigning the Asia Pacific month-end closure process of business activities. This resulted in greatly reduced closure time and created more opportunities for the business teams to carry out critical order fulfillment operations. These new processes introduced by Banerjee have since been standardized as the team's regular business processes.

Banerjee's SDM thesis, which reflects his continuous commitment to redesigning and simplifying complex business processes examines conflict mediation in the multi-vendor scenario from a systems perspective. It provides a quantitative angle to a qualitative concept, such as conflict and mediation in a multi-sourcing environment, using system dynamics modeling and sensitivity analysis. "Other project managers should be able to use my research to identify which conflict factors should be the key focus areas for information technology project managers in a multi-sourcing environment and which mitigation strategy(ies) work(s) best to increase the productivity and output of their teams," he said.

After he graduates from MIT in June 2012, Banerjee will work for Open Access Technology International (OATI), an energy software company located in Minneapolis. There, as a development manager, he will apply systems thinking to create software solutions for emerging fields like smart grids and energy trading. By moving into the energy sector, the professional who began his studies in electrical engineering is coming full circle. Yet he will enter the industry with a fresh perspective, having integrated all that he has learned, embracing the new opportunities and continuing to practice what he learned at SDM — connecting the dots.

"This is an ongoing process for me and I will continue to interface with both MIT and SDM," he said. I want to contribute to the program and the Institute in any way possible, and use my education to make a larger impact someday. This is when I will know that I have finally connected all of the dots."