PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - MARCH 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 7
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UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT - Illustration by Michael Lotenero

By Alice Daniel


With his electrical engineering degree in hand, Erik Neff went to work for a major software company in the late 1990s and had the kind of experience that can derail a career. The product he helped develop, a program that would proactively manage and monitor customers' computer systems, was technically brilliant but received very little business scrutiny before it was marketed. "We didn't take into consideration a number of customer needs," Neff says. "Security was a big problem. As an entry-level engineer, I did my job. But in hindsight, I see the problems very clearly."

In part, the dot-com boom was responsible for the lack of business insight within the company. "People were being hired right and left and not necessarily with the right skills," Neff says. But at the same time, Neff realized he needed more exposure to technology's business side if he wanted to climb the management ladder. He opted to return to school and get a degree that would give him business skills within a technical setting: a master's in engineering management (M.E.M.).

Like Neff, a growing number of engineers are choosing to complement their technical skills with business training. In the last decade, that number has accounted for a major increase in the number of American colleges and universities offering master's degrees in engineering management. In 2002, 269 schools offered management degrees, a 69 percent increase from 1994, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in New York.

More degree programs are being offered because the demand is there from engineering students, says Robert Graves, co-director of the M.E.M. program at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering. Some of these students have gone into engineering because they're good at math and science, but as they continue their studies, they realize they don't want to take a straight and more narrowly-focused doctoral engineering path, Graves says. Instead, they prefer to start their own company or take on leadership and management responsibilities relatively early in their careers.

In addition, accreditation requirements have resulted in a strong technical focus in the undergraduate curriculum, which means fewer business-related classes for undergraduates. If students want to pursue finance, business, and law-related classes, they need to consider a master's program.

Christine Schoaff chose to get an M.E.M. at Dartmouth because she wanted to start her own company, Endless Loop Software. "The degree has been useful because it allowed me to run a company and understand the basics of product management, project management, and engineering and business. It basically helped me make engineering profitable," she says. While a college graduate usually needs experience before going back to get an M.B.A., the M.E.M. programs are targeted at such early-career engineers.

Just as students are demanding more business skills, companies are also looking for employees with both technical expertise and management abilities "It's getting rarer and rarer for a college graduate to walk out of an institution and sit in a cubicle designing widgets in isolation," says Brad Fox, executive director of the M.E.M. program in the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University. "Engineers can't work in a vacuum anymore. They have to interact with business." Some technology-driven companies will "effectively grow their own engineering experts," according to Graves. But other companies are more strategic in recruiting engineering graduates who also have a highly developed sense of marketing, finance, and organizational behavior. "They should be able to communicate but also to determine when an elegant engineering solution may be far too expensive and the less elegant but more economical approach makes more sense," Graves says.

Fox says the increase in management degrees is driven by two factors: globalization and the speed of communication in today's marketplace. "In the past, innovations might take years to implement, but today's companies are required to innovate much more quickly and communicate that innovation much more effectively," he says. "Globalization drives the need to understand both business and engineering." As products such as microprocessors become more and more sophisticated, marketing departments need to become more technically savvy, he says.

In light of these factors, University of Southern California (USC) engineering dean C.L. Max Nikias has moved aggressively to design a new M.E.M. program in the Viterbi School of Engineering. "Technology innovation is going to be a major driver of economic development in the near future," he says. "Part of my ambition as dean is to position the school to capture this new wave of opportunity." Most of the 99 students enrolled in the M.E.M. program take the courses online through the school's Distance Education Network, the largest E-learning engineering graduate program in the country.

USC also recently announced the creation of the Stevens Institute for Technology Commercialization, which will facilitate the design of engineering management courses. The institute will have a dual role: One is the operations or business side of tech commercialization, and the other is education. "We want our engineering students to have some basic knowledge of tech commercialization when they earn a degree," Nikias says. In fact, USC plans to offer an undergraduate minor in engineering management next year.

Finding the Right Program

Although management degree programs are proving very useful for many students, Graves says it is important to study schools carefully before applying to a program. "Institutions that think they're positioned to offer those programs offer them, many of which are outgrowths of traditional industrial engineering master's programs," Graves says. "But simply labeling a program as engineering management may not be enough to distinguish it. Some programs exist on paper but may not exist in practice."

When Erik Neff began looking at some of the more popular M.E.M. programs, he found that each was a little different from the other. "It's not as much of a standard curriculum as you would find with an M.B.A. There are so many different applications of technology. Every school has its strengths and weaknesses. Duke has a strong business and law program. With USC, the focus was a lot more technical," Neff says.

Neff chose Duke, which offers a collaborative program among the university's engineering, law, and business schools. Courses emphasize such skills as understanding customer needs, selling and justifying ideas, working in teams, and being able to translate complex ideas into a layperson's terms. "Financial skills are also valuable because every business is driven by profits. You must be able to think about projects in terms of money," Fox says. A number of Duke graduates have even gone on to pursue law careers. Some write patents and others are patent attorneys, options that likely hadn't occurred to them as engineering undergraduates. Students also do a three-month internship working as an engineer or manager in an industrial environment.

Neff is now working for a pharmaceutical company, but he maintains a relationship with his alma mater. He initiated the development of a course at the company called the Industrial Practicum, which gives Duke M.E.M. students industry experience while they are still in school. Students learn about project management using a technology called Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), which goes a step further than the traditional bar code system. Instead, a microchip is imbedded into a product so it can be read from 10 feet away. The many applications for RFID include inventory management and the identification of counterfeit drugs. Students educate GSK employees about RFID by putting together educational modules and project plans that stress both a technical and business angle. "It's a win-win situation. Students get practical experience, and they're bright and well educated, so we get some free work out of them. They get an opportunity that you can't create in the classroom," Neff says.

Engineers who choose M.E.M. programs over M.B.A. programs do so for various reasons. An M.B.A. is a more general degree for people with a multitude of backgrounds, and the M.E.M. is for the more technically minded, Fox says. Even a graduate with a technical M.B.A. is often hard-pressed to distinguish him or herself in the high tech industry. Yet experience is key: "Someone who is grounded in engineering is much more accepted as a leader or coordinator in the role of team manager. There is the practicality of how a company goes about staffing its strategic product development needs," Graves says.

USC Dean Nikias believes those who have engineering and business skills are going to be leaders in this century's high-tech industrial revolution. "We have only scratched the surface," he says. "We ain't seen nothin' yet. There will be an explosion of technology in the next 20 years. Those who have the skills to take this technology and start new businesses, they're going to be the winners in the long run."

Alice L. Daniel is a freelance writer based in Fresno, Calif.


A CLICK AWAY - By Barbara Mathias-Riegel
YOU CALL THIS SCHOOL? - By Pierre Home-Douglas
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REFRACTIONS: Keeping Things in Perspective - By Henry Petroski
UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT - Engineers seeking advancement are getting degrees in engineering management. - By Alice Daniel
BOOK NOTES: Getting Smart
TEACHING: Making Them Want to Stay - By Phillip Wankat & Frank Oreovicz
ON CAMPUS: The Write Time and Place - By Robert Gardner
LAST WORD: Inside Washington - By Jim Turner

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