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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo SEPTEMBER  2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 1
PLANTING THE SEED - eBay's first president, Jeffrey Skoll, helps  University of Toronto students build stronger engineering careers-with business. - By Pierre Home-Douglas - Illustration by Steve Adams

By Pierre Home-Douglas

At his convocation address at the University of Toronto (UT) in 2003, Jeffrey Skoll, eBay’s first president and Canada’s fifth-richest billionaire, enjoined the graduating engineers to “give back to your community, give back to your school, give back to the world and you will be repaid many times over.” Sage advice—and something that the 34-year-old UT electrical engineering graduate not only preaches but practices as well. The Jeffrey Skoll Foundation Jeffrey Skoll, eBay’s first president, is founder of the Skoll Foundation.he founded in 1999 has financed everything from an organization that enables native artisans to sell their products online to programs that help educate girls in poor, rural communities in Africa. One of his most far-reaching gifts—at least for his fellow engineers—may turn out to be his decision in 2000 to spend $7.5 million to endow three chairs at his alma mater and establish the Jeffrey Skoll BaSc/MBA Program. The six-year, eight-month joint degree, the first of its kind in Canada, brings together what are arguably the country’s top engineering and business schools into one program and provides a fast track for the budding engineering entrepreneurs and technologically astute business leaders of the future. The first graduating class in 2003 numbered just three students; 17 students are scheduled to graduate in the spring of 2006, a number Skoll officials would like to see grow to what they consider an optimal number—25—in the next few years.

Students normally enter the program following their third year of engineering and a 16-month internship in a business or not-for-profit organization, a so-called Professional Experience Year. In the fall semester of their fourth year, students complete a condensed program of the final year of their undergraduate engineering degree. In January, the Skoll Program then places them in an eight-month management internship. Most of the companies that have been involved so far have tended to be large corporations. In the spring of 2005, the companies that signed on to have Skoll students work for them included MD Robotics, Petrocan, and the Canadian Space Agency. Susan Ludwig, manager of the Management Experience Year (MEY), says one of her goals is to develop more links with small- and medium-sized companies and financial institutions, which tend to be conservative and less flexible than engineering-related companies. “It takes an innovative company with an open-minded approach to get involved,” Ludwig explains, “but once they’ve experienced our students, they love them.” Several students also went abroad for their MEY, to countries including Taiwan, China, and Malaysia. “Asian countries seem to value our education system pretty highly,” Ludwig says.

Combined with the 16-month Professional Experience Year already completed in their undergraduate years, the MEY gives students the minimum two years of work experience that UT’s Rotman School of Business demands from MBA applicants. In their final two years, students complete the MBA part of their program, while finishing off any courses necessary to complete the requirements for the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB). The final semester includes a capstone course—“The Technology/Management Interface,” designed by Peter Hughes, the original director of the Skoll Program—to highlight the overlap between engineering and business. Some of the topics covered in the course include creativity and brainstorming, concept development, and the aesthetics of design.

The location of the program, in downtown Toronto, offers advantages unmatchable at any other university in the country. “We’re in the heart of the largest city in Canada, which is also to a large extent the economic driver of the country,” says Steve Martin, current director of the Skoll Program. “Bay Street (home to many of the head offices of Canada’s top corporations) is literally down the street. UT’s faculty of engineering is the largest in Canada, the most highly rated, and offers some of the most diverse programs available. The Rotman School of Management is highly ranked and internationally recognized. Taken individually, each of these would recommend the program; taken together, they offer an unbeatable combination.”

It Takes A Village

The majority of Skoll applicants come from electrical, computer, and engineering science, but eight of UT’s nine engineering programs have so far been been represented. Somehow that seems fitting, considering the fact that Jeffrey Skoll himself saw his work on developing eBay as an amalgam of various engineering disciplines. As he recalled with a humorous twist at his convocation address, “A true engineering challenge: How do you get millions of people together to trade in one place? (civil engineering); how will they physically transfer their goods? (mechanical engineering); how do you leverage the Internet? (computer and electrical engineering). Finally, how do you do all this while working 100-plus-hour weeks wired on coffee and Mountain Dew? That would be chemical engineering.”

One of the obvious appeals of the Skoll Program is the opportunity for students to jump-start their business and engineering career. As chemical engineer Elissa Schamm puts it, “Since I had a strong interest in a career in business, I saw a lot of value in being able to get exposed to business earlier and finish my MBA sooner. I chose the Skoll program because it gave me the opportunity to fast track into the MBA program without having to work for several extra years in a position that wasn’t aligned with my career goals.” Fellow 2005 Skoll graduate Hao Hu says simply, “I saved a couple of years. I’m graduating with an MBA and an engineering degree this June, and I’m only 25.” Program director Martin points out that engineers often become managers of one sort or another, often after only a few years of work experience. “The business theory and experience garnered from our MBA program short-circuits the normal engineering career path, getting graduates onto the management path more quickly and with better tools to ensure their success,” he says. “In general, Skoll students start in higher positions, sooner and for more money than would otherwise be possible.”

But the fast-tracking is only one of the appeals for Skoll students. Computer engineer and Skoll grad Hu says the program gave him the chance to develop and polish his presentation and writing skills. “I never had a chance to do any presentations as an undergrad. I also didn’t like public speaking at all. But the Skoll school gave me the confidence to speak in front of others. Now I feel really comfortable talking about a product by myself.” There is also the newfound understanding of the world of business and its interconnectiveness to engineering, as Schamm found. “I really enjoyed getting exposed to all the different aspects of business—strategy, finance, operations, marketing, business development, negotiations, and economics,” Schamm states. “Coming from an engineering background, you really have only an understanding of very basic economics and finance as they apply to engineering projects.” She adds that, “engineers tend to get caught up in solving all the technical problems, without giving much thought to higher-level strategic and management issues.”

Fellow classmate Marcus Lam agrees. “Engineers need to be motivated by understanding what they are making.” That feeling was reinforced when he worked, as part of his Management Experience Year, in Silicon Valley at ATI Technologies, a computer graphics company. “Of course, with computer chips, the faster the better—but how fast? What are consumers demanding right now and what are they willing to pay for it? You could spend all your time in research and development putting out the fastest chip, but what will be the cost and will people buy it?” Lam took advantage of an exchange program in his second year of his MBA studies at Rotman and spent four months in Melbourne, Australia, taking five courses at Melbourne Business School. “I’ve done a lot of work in Taiwan, and I wanted to take some marketing courses with an Asia-Pacific focus.” His courses covered subjects like marketing to the Asian world and governance in Asia from professors who were specialists and had direct experience in the area.

How well do Skoll students make the transformation from studying engineering to studying business? Judging by the most recent Rotman’s dean’s list—pretty well. Even though Skoll students make up only 10 percent of the Rotman population, they formed 58 percent (10 out of 17 students) of the dean’s list in the spring of 2005. According to Martin, this is largely due to the fact that engineers learn good problem-solving skills in their undergraduate program. “Undergraduate engineers learn to cope with an entirely unrealistic course workload by working smart, especially since no amount of working harder will suffice,” he says. “They learn to form study groups, teams, and partnerships that allow them to focus on the important bits and leave the rest. Thus, given the very good foundation afforded by engineering school, which lays all the groundwork to train excellent problem solvers, a follow-up at business school makes complete sense.”

Obviously there are no guarantees that providing engineering students with a business background will turn them into savvy entrepreneurs. Skoll himself speaks about the time he was approached by a fellow named Pierre Omidyar in the mid-1990s with the idea of building a company to buy and sell merchandise online. “With my Stanford MBA in hand,” Skoll recalls, “I knew I was right on the money when I said, ‘Pierre, what a stupid idea.’” Fortunately, Skoll changed his mind, accepted the job as eBay’s first president and helped turn the fledgling company into one of the biggest success stories in Internet history. Still, the program he financed should go a long way to filling a gap that Skoll noticed at UT almost two decades ago. “I got a good technical education at the university,” says the man Business Week magazine described as one of the past decade’s most innovative philanthropists. “What I didn’t get was a perspective on what to do with it all and how to build a career. That’s what the Skoll Program will offer.”

Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer in Montreal.


PLANTING THE SEED - By Pierre Home-Douglas
JOLLY GOOD FELLOW - By Thomas K. Grose
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REFRACTIONS: Discarding the Library  - By Henry Petroski
A NEW (VIRTUAL) CHAPTER - Getting students to use digital libraries - By Jo Ellen Myers Sharp
TEACHING: Gaming the Curriculum  - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
ON CAMPUS: Doing Time - By Lynne Shallcross
BOOK REVIEW:  War in the Sky - By Justin Ewers
LAST WORD: A Winning Profession - By David Wessel


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