By Alice Daniel
ENGINEERS SEEKING TO MOVE
UP THE CAREER LADDER ARE GETTING MASTER'S DEGREES
IN ENGINEERING MANAGEMENT.
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
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
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
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,"
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