When Iowa State electrical and computer engineering chair Arun Somani sat down for a chat with former College of Business associate dean Anthony Hendrickson in 2004, it was no surprise the two men discussed the potential for a concurrent BS/MBA program for engineers. Indeed, it would have been surprising had they not: Somani’s two sons and a daughter-in-law—all engineers—hold the master of business administration as well.
“A family of MBAs!” Somani chuckles.
Six years on, the concurrent BS/MBA for engineers is an unqualified success. In fact, 37 of 67 students enrolled in Iowa State’s full-time MBA programs this academic year have engineering backgrounds, with 23 of those in the concurrent program.
The result, the program’s proponents say, is a class of potential industrial and even political leaders with high-level skills in both business and engineering—and an even higher-level perspective on the complex relationships of the social, financial, and technological systems that form the modern business playing field.
Thinking beyond technology
Engineers are no strangers to thinking in terms of systems, as a generation of students has trained to look beyond particular disciplines to apply their analytical skills to technologies that may include electrical, mechanical, chemical, and other components. That’s just one reason business considers engineers attractive candidates for leadership positions—including the executive suite.
Business, Somani feels, is simply one more component in the larger engineering system, and the logical extension of an undergraduate education for engineers seeking management careers. Both public and corporate policy, he stresses, are increasingly impacted by the intersection of technological with business or financial issues.
If policy is to have a sound footing, then, it must necessarily be informed by leaders who understand both business and technology. And if engineers are to influence institutional decision making in either the public or private sphere, they need to expand their knowledge beyond technical matters.
“If we want engineers’ voices to be heard in making policy,” says Somani, “it’s in our interest to encourage our people to get, if not business degrees, then more business savvy, so they can talk the language of economics, the business world, and capital markets—not just from a technological silo.”
Even mainstream businesses outside the traditional tech sectors have come to recognize the value of the higher-level analytical skills engineers cultivate as undergraduates and actively groom them for leadership positions. “That’s precisely the reason most financial companies now recruit students from engineering schools and then send them for MBAs after,” notes Somani.
An instinct for leadership
Brandon Kennedy and Allison Machtemes are two candidates any company would jump at the chance of placing on the fast track to its executive suite. Both second-year MBA students, they’re also scholars in the College of Engineering’s Engineering Leadership Program (ELP). Designed to groom elite students for leadership in business and government, ELP gives participants a healthy dose of ethics and public policy beyond their limited coverage in the undergraduate engineering curriculum.
Yet though ELP may make them more attuned than others to the broader responsibilities of their profession, neither Machtemes nor Kennedy necessarily consider themselves on a mission to save the world. At least initially, the rigors of the engineering curriculum leave little room for other considerations. And for these students, the MBA represents primarily a practical means to a professional objective.
“I started out in engineering saying I’d be done in four years,” says Machtemes, “move on with my life, get my PE license. Then, after going through the curriculum two years, I decided I didn’t really know how to run a business or manage people, how to select projects—a lot of the higher-level stuff you’d do as a manager. I felt there was a whole aspect missing.”
Machtemes took classes in engineering economics and project management in the College of Engineering, but felt those were not enough to meet both her needs and ambitions. And though she had positive experiences during her internships at Boeing and with a Des Moines construction group, she had few female role models. As a woman and aspiring business owner, Machtemes says, the MBA will give her confidence to assert herself in the heavily male-dominated field of structural engineering.
As for Kennedy, the MBA is just a natural progression of the business instincts that led him to seek the broadest possible education at Iowa State, where he has minored in entrepreneurial studies. In fact, Kennedy did not even consider seeking a degree in engineering until his junior year in high school—and then decided upon mechanical engineering mostly for the flexibility it would afford him as an aspiring entrepreneur.
“Mechanical made you a very well-rounded engineer,” observes Kennedy. “I thought it would give me the most options and help me determine what I wanted to do.”
On the verge of graduation, what Kennedy wants today is to parlay that flexibility as a mechanical engineer with the broad management exposure the MBA affords him, in order one day to establish his own engineering consulting firm.
“I thought the best way to get that experience would be to start working in an engineering company,” Kennedy says, “something fairly large, highly technical, and that has many different business units so I can get a wide range of experiences in advance of developing something on my own.”
Dreamers are doers
That broader exposure begins with a rigorous MBA curriculum that drills these young engineers in the fundamentals of accounting, marketing, logistics, finance, and management, among other areas. But first students must shoulder an accelerated general education and engineering curriculum through their first three years at Iowa State. Then, over the next two years, they’ll take a combination of business and engineering courses that will prepare them to graduate holding both the BS in their specific engineering field and an MBA, all in five years—one less than if they had pursued the degrees separately.
The reasons a given student might choose so rigorous a course of study are as diverse as the students themselves. But the candidates have much in common. They are all, obviously, ambitious and industrious. Further, they tend to be strongly independent, seeking to forge professional and even personal identities apart from the mainstream choices of many of their peers.
And yes, they tend to be classic overachievers—even for engineers.
Thinh Luong is a case in point. A refugee who left his native Vietnam at age 7, Luong came to the United States in 1995 and eagerly seized every opportunity that came his way. By the time he entered Iowa State as an electrical engineering major in 2007, he had already placed out of many of his general education requirements and so started the EE curriculum a full year ahead of his classmates. Currently a third-year undergraduate, Luong is already in the concurrent program, on track to leave Iowa State with both a BS in electrical engineering and his MBA after only four years.
But this doer is a dreamer as well.
“I dream of having my own business, of having that entrepreneurial experience,” Luong says. “That’s my motivation for having the MBA. I look forward every day going to the MBA classes to learn how I can make this dream a reality.”
Perhaps most significantly, though, students in the concurrent program recognize that meaningful career advancement requires them to obtain both knowledge and credentials beyond their core engineering disciplines. For Luong, that recognition came during a summer internship with IBM. Should he sign with the company after graduation, his mentors told him, he would be in entry-level positions the first couple of years and then must decide whether to focus on either a management or technical career track.
“I didn’t know which role I would prefer,” Luong says. “So I decided to make sure, when the time came, that I would have the option to choose either one and be comfortable with it. I left the internship with the mindset that being flexible with both my management and technical skills would help me in the future.”
Inside the box—then out
Now in his last year in the concurrent program, Scott Groh advises incoming students in the industrial engineering department and often recommends the BS/MBA to those expressing an interest in business. Nor does he hesitate to expound the benefits of engineering perspectives for the MBA program.
“Engineering in its purest form is simply problem solving,” Groh says. “You’re figuring out how to design something from scratch or solve a process problem. Engineers break it down into smaller pieces that make it easier for others to help solve those parts of the problem that otherwise might seem too big a task.”
Yet despite this ability to segment and compartmentalize aspects of a challenge—indeed, because of it—engineers need to see the bigger picture as well, and Groh feels that’s where the MBA has particularly benefited his education. For though the program gains significantly from the analytical skills of engineers, its greatest value for all students lies in the diversity of experience and viewpoints the program brings to problems.
“As engineers, we follow a different type of thought process,” Groh says. “I hadn’t even thought about this until I got into the program and started working with people from different backgrounds.
“One person in particular in my group wasn’t very technical,” he continues, “so I didn’t always value their ideas. Only after working with this diverse group awhile did I realize I was the one who was thinking ‘inside the box’—it was really an eye-opener.”
Ultimately, it is the freedom of getting out of that engineering “box” that most appeals to these aspiring managers and entrepreneurs—all the while respecting the special qualities of the engineering perspective that makes them so attractive to the business sector in the first place. Combined with their disciplined analytical skills, these young engineers’ general exposure to a wide range of business practices gives them advantages no student schooled in business or engineering alone could possibly enjoy.
“Once you have that general knowledge of all the different operations going on in the company, you can work in so many different areas,” Groh says. “You can work in engineering, certainly. But you can also work in logistics or facilities or accounting—whatever you really want to do. It allows you to take horizontal or vertical career moves with a lot more flexibility.”
Benefits for both sides
Beyond the increased enrollments from the west side of campus, the College of Business acknowledges the critical contribution its large engineering contingent makes to MBA studies at Iowa State in general, and to the concurrent program in particular.
“I’ll be frank,” says Brad Shrader, University Professor of management and a member of the MBA core faculty. “From my limited perspective, the engineering students improve our pool. Our GMAT scores go up; our rankings go up. They’re bright kids, so we win on that.”
Still, notes Arun Somani, the benefits cut both ways: if exposure to broader management practices and perspectives benefits the engineer, then exposure to the rigorous analysis of engineers should be no less beneficial to the business student. And that’s a prescription Somani doesn’t hesitate to offer.
“I could say to the College of Business, ‘if you’re really serious about this,’” Somani offers, “‘then your students need to have some technological background, some engineering grounding in order to be persuasive.’”
There is no graduate degree in technology equivalent to the MBA. However, Somani notes, the College of Engineering does offer a minor in engineering studies that’s available to any undergraduate student on campus, including—especially—business students.
“And,” he adds with a collegial smile, “that would be beneficial for them.”