Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

"My entire work life is an extension of the concepts learned in ENGS 21"

By Anna Fiorentino
July 2016 • Thayer By Degrees:

—Andrew Silvernail D’94, CEO of IDEX and new Thayer Board Member

Andrew Silvernail

Andrew Silvernail D’94 joined Thayer's Board of Overseers this year not only to support Dean Joseph Helble’s leadership but also because he believes that engineering will be the nexus of the liberal arts education of the future, and that Thayer’s unique model positions the School to be a leader in this change. The foundation for this notion was laid in 1994 when the now Chairman and CEO of IDEX was a senior at Dartmouth. Silvernail was a government major taking his first-ever engineering course, ENGS 21: Introduction to Engineering (aka "Engines 21"), and being a member of an engineering design team at Thayer ended up having a major impact on his career.

Why did you take ENGS 21?

I took ENGS 21 at the recommendation of Duncan MacLean ’94, Thayer ’95, MEM ’96 and Barry MacLean D’60 Th’61 [fellow Board member]. I wanted to get an insider’s view of how engineering and business intersect.

What did your team design? 

We designed a wheelchair that enabled easier on and off access for paraplegics and incomplete quadriplegics. We solved the problem by spending time with target customers, learning about their struggles and needs, and then designing a frictionless bearing mechanism that allowed for ease-of-use and safety.

How did it go?

My experience was a wild one. I am proud to say that after being ranked dead last after the first evaluation, our team came back and ended up winning the award for the best project. We were able to do this through a combination of engineering and non-engineering skills and teamwork. It took us a little while to get going, but we found a way to bring our skills together so the whole was more valuable than the sum of the parts. I enjoyed the entire process from the initial ideation to consumer problem insights to solving the engineering problem and ultimately building a business plan.

What was it like taking engineering with no prior experience?

I loved the course. There were times when it was difficult to keep up with the engineering students as we were solving the engineering problems, but I found my niche. My role became to help understand the target problem and help establish customer needs and parameters. I also played a key role in helping build the business plan and bringing the team together. Engineering was different than I thought it would be in terms of both practical problem solving and iterative learning. 

What did you learn?

"What I learned in the class about teamwork and problem solving has been foundational to how I’ve grown as a leader."

What was most eye opening was the power of bringing a team together. What I learned in the class about teamwork and problem solving has been foundational to how I’ve grown as a leader. Many of the same concepts are used today in our corporation of 7,000 people. In fact, my entire work life is an extension of the concepts learned in Engines 21. As the leader of an engineered products company, we are constantly working through the processes that I learned in the class. From targeting a customer to understanding needs to solving the engineering problem and ultimately delivering on a business plan, everything we do at IDEX has some element of what ENGS 21 is all about.

Could any student benefit from ENGS 21?

It is just a practical class about problem solving. Everyone can benefit from that. It brings engineering to life. The course takes the problems out of labs and classrooms and asks you to solve real problems that can make life better. Finally, if you have any interest in business, it is a terrific primer for reality.

How did you go from a degree in government to the Chairman and CEO of IDEX?

Out of Dartmouth I became an equity research associate at Fidelity Investments in Boston. While there I covered industrial companies, including IDEX Corporation. After three years, I attended Harvard Business School. I decided to make the transition from finance to industry because of my desire to lead teams. I joined Danaher Corporation as an intern at business school and then full time. While I initially worked on strategy and acquisitions, I was quickly asked to lead a business. This was where I fell in love with running engineered products companies. Since then I have been in the world of engineered products at Danaher, Newell Rubbermaid, Rexnord Corporation, and now IDEX for the past eight years. As my career developed, I continued to love building teams and solving customer problems.

How has Thayer changed since you attended? 

Thayer has changed in its ambitions, resources, infrastructure, and diversity. In the 1990s Thayer was not as integrated into the Dartmouth community. Today it is becoming one of the focal points that attract students and prospective employers to the campus.

How has your experience on the Board been so far?

Being part of Thayer as an Overseer has been a joy and privilege. Thayer is doing incredible work with students who are and will change the world. If I can play a small role in helping our students on that mission, it is time very well spent.

Tags: alumni, career, leadership, teamwork

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