Mastering Engineering Management
At 25, Thayer’s award-winning MEM program comes of age.
By Anna Fiorentino
In 1989 Shailesh Chandra Th’91 enrolled as one of four students in Dartmouth’s inaugural Master of Engineering Management (MEM) class with a plan to bring his engineering know-how to a technical management role within a business environment. Did he ever.
“The payoff has been very rewarding in the sense that I have undertaken many roles in different organizations that are both within and outside the engineering function,” says Chandra, now senior director of strategy and transformation at Cisco Systems. “After graduating from the first MEM class, I remember I had to explain to recruiting organizations what it meant to have an ‘engineering degree with significant graduate-level business work.’ I still recall them asking, ‘We are looking for chemical engineers, so why do you want to talk to us?’ ”
As the program celebrates its 25th anniversary, many more people understand the value of MEM graduates. From its early days educating a handful of Dartmouth’s continuing students, the program has achieved an international student body, enviable placement statistics, and top accolades.
Most recently, the National Academy of Engineering applauded the MEM program by honoring MEM founder and Thayer Dean Emeritus Charles Hutchinson and longtime MEM director Robert Graves with the Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education.
Achieving a record-high enrollment of 50, the 15-month professional degree program divides students’ time between Thayer and Tuck School of Business. The MEM provides students with a valuable toolkit: advanced knowledge of an engineering specialty, technical management skills, understanding of the design process and its relationship to commercializing new products, and well-developed communication skills.
With a background in engineering and management pillars, such as accounting and marketing, MEM students are equipped to rise in industry. “Graduates of this program are the first to get jobs, they have good starting salaries and are well thought of by people who hire them,” says Hutchinson.
Within just three months of graduating, 95 percent of MEM students now land jobs at leading companies in big data and business strategy analyst roles and in technology and healthcare consulting at companies such as Goldman Sachs, Eaton Corp., and Biogen Idec. A large number of MEM alumni take an entrepreneurial path during their careers: 43 percent of surveyed MEM graduates 15 years out have started at least one company.
“Alumni are out in career positions and beginning to reach levels where they are more successful than we ever imagined,” says Graves, Thayer’s John H. Krehbiel Sr. Professor for Emerging Technologies, Emeritus.
MEMs demonstrate the power of having the analytical tools of an engineer and the ability to effectively navigate their way through the business world. “They can communicate highly technical information not only to fellow engineers but to non-technical individuals across the entire organization,” says MEM graduate Ross Gortner Th’03 ’04, associate director of the MEM program since 2007. “They can solve differential equations and then can sit down with the chief marketing officer and explain how that equation affects the brand strategy of the organization.”
A NEW MODEL
“Every failure is an orphan and every success has at least 10 people who claim they started it,” says Hutchinson. But most will credit Hutchinson first for the MEM program.
When Hutchinson became dean of Thayer School in 1984, the Board of Overseers asked him to launch a program similar to the Tuck-Thayer program, offered from 1942 to 1962, in which students attended Dartmouth for three years and then Thayer and Tuck for two more years. “A huge amount of nostalgia existed around that program,” says Hutchinson. He just had to look around him to realize the Tuck-Thayer program graduates were among the most successful of Thayer alumni.
Hutchinson convened an exploratory committee, chaired by Thayer adjunct professor and Tuck Nathaniel Leverone Professor of Management Kenneth Baker. The committee, which included former associate dean and current MacLean Professor of Engineering Daniel Lynch, Dan Dimancescu ’64, and the late Thayer Professor Caroline Henderson, developed a management curriculum, including courses in corporate finance, organizational behavior, and marketing, and arranged for Tuck faculty to teach them.
“We were looking to give engineering students a sense of what happens in the real world of business,” says Hutchinson. “They didn’t know how companies worked.”
The resulting professional management track—with students receiving a Master of Engineering (ME) degree—was launched in 1989. Baker, who became program director, selected the first class of four students. Renamed the Master of Engineering Management program (and MEM degree) in 1997, the program helped pave the way for a new type of manager with both business and technical skills.
“The MEM was really the first of its kind to extract the best aspect from each school and put them together into one coherent, deliberate program,” says Gortner. “The program envisioned a more dynamic engineer who could take on leadership roles quickly.”
The first duplication of Thayer’s MEM program took place at Duke University in 1997, when Duke engineering Professor F. Hadley Cocks modeled a new program on the Thayer MEM studies his son, Elijah Cocks ’97 Th’97 ’98, had pursued.
Consultations between Duke and Thayer proved mutually beneficial. “I went down to do a big presentation on the MEM for faculty at Duke,” recalls Hutchinson. “I learned about their program and was impressed. They even had a piece we didn’t have.” That piece was Duke’s law school, with its expertise on legal matters relevant to business. Contracts, intellectual property rights, and other legal issues were incorporated into Thayer’s MEM curriculum. Today ENGM 188: Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship, taught by Vermont Law School Professor and Thayer Adjunct Professor Oliver Goodenough, is one of the most popular MEM courses.
The MEM program got a major boost when Professor Robert Graves was recruited from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2003 to co-direct the MEM program with Tuck’s Kenneth Baker. Graves threw himself into advocacy for MEM training. “He was able to grow the program and cement its interaction with the outside world,” says Hutchinson.
One of Graves’ tactics was to benchmark and compare the growing number of MEM programs in the nation. He and his colleagues visited various schools. “After the fourth one of these visits, we realized we all share things in common even though we were competing,” says Graves. “We agreed that the MEM skill set wasn’t as well known as it could be or should be.” Graves convened a new group, the M.E.M. Programs Consortium (MEMPC), to share best practices and strategies for making the MEM better known in the business world. MEMPC members Dartmouth, Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, Cornell, MIT, and the University of Southern California now meet regularly to raise awareness of what MEM graduates can offer industry.
Graves also increased interest in Thayer’s MEM program. He grew the MEM alumni network through annual events in Boston and New York. Working to attract more students who hadn’t gone to Dartmouth as undergraduates, he and his team doubled MEM enrollments.
Revamping Thayer’s MEM curriculum, Graves introduced new courses, including ENGG 177: Decision-Making Under Risk and Uncertainty, ENGM 186: Technology Project Management, and ENGM 188: Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship. In a major change, MEM students no longer took Thayer’s two-term ENGS 190/290 engineering design sequence (now called ENGS 89/90) because it overlapped with coursework students from other institutions had already completed. Right away the percentage of external students in the program increased. Today only 15 percent of MEM students hold a BE from Thayer, and international students, mostly from China and India, comprise 50 percent of the MEM student body.
Graves initiated a new challenge for MEM students—ENGM 178: Technology Assessment. The course requires teams of students to analyze emerging technologies for both technical and commercial viability. Teams choose from problems such as how to do away with pinprick blood monitoring for diabetics, how to use spinal implants instead of bone fusion, and how to increase crop yields while using environmentally sustainable agricultural methods.
“It’s a different way for engineers, who are used to finding one correct answer in science and math, to think. In management there are multiple correct answers, and it’s a matter of considering what is the best,” says engineering adjunct Professor Edward March, who has taught ENGM 178 and is now interim co-director of the MEM program.
Students also complete ENGG 390, a summer-long internship in a wide range of companies. “Talk about desirability—these companies have an MEM intern over the summer to get good work done well,” says Graves. Some 45 percent of students receive an employment offer from the company at which they intern, and of those students, 25 to 35 percent accept.
According to Graves, the number of companies seeking MEM interns has increased, mainly due to efforts of the M.E.M. Corporate Collaboration Council (CCC), a group of alumni and friends dedicated to opening doors for MEM students. “The council cultivated contacts for students, giving them a sounding board in the corporate world,” he says.
CCC Chair John Fletcher, CEO of the strategy consulting firm Fletcher Spaght, regularly employs MEM graduates. “Our first-choice source of new hires is Dartmouth’s MEM program,” he says. “We find the MEM graduates have the ideal mix of engineering and business capabilities and additional work experience from their internship, thus they are better prepared for our consulting business than undergraduates or other MEMs typically are.”
CCC members now offer students lectures on topics ranging from leadership to finance and work with MEM faculty and staff to improve program recruitment, admissions, and structure. Each CCC member also takes on three student mentees, offering them industry perspectives, and helping place them after graduation.
“I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to be a mentor to current students and then keep in touch with them over the years,” says CCC member Dana Haffner Guernsey ’06 Th’08, director of corporate development at Ambri, a startup company that is working to commercialize an innovative energy storage technology known as the Liquid Metal Battery. “One of the key pillars of the MEM program is its tie to the business community, and I feel that it is important for alumni to help provide that voice.”
FILLING TODAY’S NEEDS
Reflecting growing areas of student interest and corporate need, the MEM program now offers students the option of focusing their studies on healthcare systems, energy and environment, manufacturing and operations, entrepreneurship, or management of design.
“The MEM program is more relevant to engineers in today’s society than probably ever because innovation and entrepreneurship, which are all around us, require skills at the intersection of technology and business,” says Professor Benoit Cushman-Roisin, interim co-director of the MEM program. “We now live in a world that is crucially dependent on technology.”
“Every company—and I mean every company—is now directly connected to technology,” says Gortner. “When MEM students tell me they want to get into marketing, it’s not the Don Draper marketing of the 1960s that they are talking about. They are referring to big data and data mining and extracting analytical insights.”
Today some 70 MEM programs are producing graduates ready to fill industry needs. Prepped to step into middle management roles and rise quickly to senior positions, today’s Thayer MEMs typically see starting salaries that are $10,000 higher than average BE salaries.
Since its beginning, the MEM program has sent 648 graduates into the business world. Many, including Jessica Tice Pray Th’02, associate director of program management at Genzyme, and Ariel Diaz ’02 Th’04, who founded the online educational resource Boundless, regularly come back to Thayer to share their knowledge and advice with students and fellow alumni.
The successes are points of pride for Graves as he leaves the MEM leadership.
“At my age I can look back at having raised three of my own children and helped them through career development and see that a student may have the skills but not the confidence yet. That is something they cultivate in the MEM program,” says Graves. “To see young alumni coming back to events year after year and the amazing grace they now exhibit as middle managers and so forth, to see them giving advice to other alumni still trying to find their way, is heartwarming.”
And from the program’s first class, CCC member Shailesh Chandra is one of them.
“I have had the good fortune and benefit of the mentoring I received from the professors in the program that I wouldn’t have gotten with just an engineering-focused course of study,” says Chandra. “Now, by mentoring the MEM students, I can pay back in a small way the benefit I received.”
—Anna Fiorentino is senior writer at Dartmouth Engineer.
Exit Interview: Professor Robert Graves
After 11 years co-directing Thayer’s MEM program, Robert Graves, Thayer’s Krehbiel Professor of Emerging Technologies, Emeritus and an adjunct professor at Tuck School of Business, retired at the end of Spring Term. Graves, an expert in industrial engineering and operations research who previously taught at Georgia Tech, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, answered our questions about his time in Hanover.
What initially drew you to Dartmouth?
The educational philosophy at Dartmouth of strong respect for and trust in its faculty to pursue their work in teaching and research as talented professionals was attractive to me. In addition, the Thayer School approach to project-based, hands-on coursework was an excellent fit with my views and experience in engineering education.
Why are you such a strong advocate for the MEM degree in general and Thayer’s MEM program in particular?
My work with industry and government agencies convinced me that there is a great need for significant improvement in our country’s competitiveness in the world. One way to support this is to pursue research in materials, devices, and other areas of technology. But these efforts are necessary while not always sufficient. For example, new devices need to be brought into use and demonstrated to be more effective or less costly in the marketplace; it is the technology managers, product managers, and technology leaders who do this, and it requires distinctly different talents from those of researchers. MEMs are a perfect fit for these roles. Similarly, the processes or operations of many of our companies and agencies may be in need of improvements in efficiencies and performance as compared with those of competitors in the world where labor is less costly. Innovations in these processes and their implementation also require the kind of skills that MEMs have.
Thayer’s MEM program is a high-quality program. In the last decade, it has grown in student numbers, strengthened its curriculum, and widened its reach globally. It is well respected in the world and its alums have proven their success year after year in securing positions and growing their careers.
What’s ahead for you?
I am working on a project for Thayer that involves developing a prototype of a public forum of chief technology officers and vice presidents of technology addressing the strategic significance of finding and keeping high-quality technical talent for technology firms and technological competitiveness. I am also writing a textbook on technology assessment with Professor March to be used in our ENGM 178: Technology Assessment course and perhaps at other places.
What will you miss most about Thayer?
Colleagues and friends in Thayer and Tuck and the MEM students and alums. It has been a steady inspiration for me to see them prepare for and then grow in their careers with success.
Resumes: MEM Alumni Reflect on Their Experiences
Shailesh Chandra Th’91
Senior Director of Strategy and Transformation, Cisco Systems; Member, MEM Corporate Collaboration Council
Being part of the first program, back when it was just a master’s in engineering degree with a specialization in management, was a little bit chaotic in the sense that we did not have precedents about what the electives and M.B.A. courses would be like. I remember discussing a case study in a marketing class on crisis management. It was interesting to observe the number of varying opinions and options of how to handle the situation. It taught me that there is always at least one other point of view to any situation and the value of considering that view.
The most valuable skill provided by the program was introducing and making students familiar with the language of business—from asset management to zero-based budgeting—that allows the MEM graduate to rapidly integrate into the business work environment.
Sean Casten Th’98
President and CEO, Recycled Energy Development; Member, MEM Corporate Collaboration Council
I knew I wanted to combine engineering and business after earning an undergraduate degree in biochemistry followed by years of post-undergrad cancer research.
During my internship, which involved helping a biotech startup scale up their technology, I inadvertently mis-transcribed a number in a presentation I gave—I was off by an order of magnitude. The senior vice president of production immediately said, “That’s the great thing about academia: Units don’t matter.” It was way better to learn that lesson in a safe environment than in front of an employer post-graduation when the personal stakes were higher. And it’s a line I find myself consistently using on smart new hires to keep their own hubris in check.
Sometimes my job is technical, sometimes it’s financial, sometimes it’s legal, and sometimes it’s managerial. But it’s a rare day that I don’t find myself drawing on something I learned in Professor Richter’s thermodynamic class or Professor Joyce’s organizational behavior class.
Marc Fenigstein ’01 Th’03
CEO and Cofounder, BRD Motorcycles
My situation was a little unique in that I had started a company with a Tuck student, Ned Coletta Tu’03. The MEM program gave me an opportunity to work more closely with him, utilizing the engineering and advisory resources of both Thayer and Tuck, while filling in some significant and directly relevant knowledge gaps in my engineering and business expertise. It was perfect for my admittedly unusual needs.
What Thayer and the MEM do best, and what has been most valuable to me, is working on open-ended problems, with no one best approach or methodology, that require multidisciplinary thinking and teams. The MEM and Thayer are fantastic pools of talent for a startup like ours. It is very difficult to find engineers with intellectual breadth and curiosity, multidisciplinary experience, and the ability to work in ambiguous environments on these problems. Thayer produces exactly that.
Jessica Tice Pray Th’02
Associate Director, Program Management, Genzyme
In my senior year at the University of Rochester, where I did a degree in chemical engineering, I decided I didn’t want to just do engineering. I wanted to have a broader perspective and focus more on the business aspect as well. That’s what drew me to the MEM degree as a hybrid marrying the technical piece with the business aspect.
I liked that there was a lot of group work. It was very helpful to learn how to work in teams to achieve a common goal. Throughout my career, the teamwork aspect has been helpful. Even if you’re not working as part of a team within a company, you’re still always going to be working with a number of different functions. Being able to have cross-functional interactions and being able to work with different team members who have different personalities and ways of going about things has been very helpful.
The MEM teaches you to think from a technical and a business perspective. Even if you’re working on a project in industry that’s very technical, being able to see from a holistic perspective how things fit together is very valuable.
Dana Haffner Guernsey ’06 Th’08
Director of Corporate Development, Ambri; Member, MEM Corporate Collaboration Council
I loved the idea of learning how to apply the technical knowledge from my engineering classes to solving real business and societal challenges. It’s one thing to do a problem set or a lab assignment, but another to learn how to apply those problem-solving skills to commercialize a product or solve a real customer dilemma.
To be a great engineer it’s critical to be a good listener, communicator, and problem solver. I think the MEM degree can help further this part of your education, in addition to learning how to apply technical knowledge in a business setting.
I have a background in engineering and want to learn more about business and management. I knew about this program three years ago. I got to know a Thayer alum, Li Jincheng Th’12, who was a graduate of my undergrad school, Shanghai Xi’an Jiaotong University. He told me about the MEM and from that time it was my dream program.
The MEM program is composed of students from everywhere. There are a lot of students from America, China, India, and every place. People hang out together for dinner and lunch and people are doing work in the MEM Space at Thayer, and the atmosphere among the students is really good. People try to get to know people from different countries. We have fun together. It’s a good preparation for us for our future careers.
I really liked the technology assessment class. We had to pick a topic and do research with teammates. The teammates are selected according to our choices of topics, so we work with people who share an interest. My topic was water purification technology. We had three people on the team: one from China, one from Mexico, and one from America. We had different geographical knowledge, so it was really interesting for us to discuss where the technology should be implemented and what the technology should be for the place we picked. The project helped me to build my confidence. One teammate was from Princeton and the other from Dartmouth. We worked together and did a good job, and it gave me confidence that I could do well at Dartmouth and discuss things well with native speakers.
I love the program. It’s even greater than my expectations.
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