While many consider the study and application of engineering to be a branch of science involved only with design and structures, James Contardi, 1985 Iowa State electrical engineering alumnus, argues that engineering is more of a way of thinking. Contardi’s extensive career has brought him around the world and back, allowing him to grow primarily in the area of sales and sales management; something he feels is an important skill for all engineers.
Originally from Minneapolis, Minn., Contardi decided to attend Iowa State after high school, following in his father’s footsteps by declaring himself as an electrical engineering student.
After his sophomore year, Contardi served two summers as an intern for Control Data, now General Dynamics, in his hometown of Minneapolis. He spent two summers at the internship, using advanced CAD tools to create circuitry on computers for the defense department. While this work proved to be interesting, it taught Contardi that this was not something he wanted to make a career of.
During his senior year at Iowa State, Contardi attended one of the many career fairs held over the course of the year. There, he noticed a variety of companies searching for engineering students to fill technical sales positions.
“I recognized that sales wasn’t a strength of mine,” explains Contardi, “but I knew being able to sell was important so I thought that a position like this would be a great opportunity for me to grow right out of college.”
After interviewing with IBM, he landed an entry-level sales position in Dallas, Texas. One of the highlights of the position included working on the General Motors account, IBM’s largest account worldwide at the time. Over the course of his nine years with IBM, Contardi advanced to sales manager after the company financed his MBA education through Southern Methodist University.
Reflecting on his experience, the importance of knowing how to sell is something he hopes engineering students will understand. “They are going to be working for companies or other entities in the business world, and regardless of their title, they will all need to know how to sell,” he explains. “Whether they are selling their ideas, selling their skills, or promoting their ideas, it’s a necessary ability to have.”
When IBM began to go through some changes, Contardi opted to join startup PC Service Source, serving as vice president of sales. PC Service Source specialized in managing out-sourced supply chain activities for the high tech industry. During this time, PC Service Source made the Business Week “Hot 100” fast growing companies list.
Four years later, Contardi left the startup and accepted a job with i2 Technologies, a supply chain management software company. Entering the company as a sales manager, Contardi did an extensive amount of traveling, ultimately moving to London to serve as president of the European business.
Now back in the States, Contardi’s has sought out another new challenge. He currently works for First Data Corporation as senior vice president of product solutions and strategic sales, or head of one of the sales divisions for the company. Contardi is in his fourth year with First Data, a corporation well known for its global payment processing that is positioning it to capitalize on the coming wave of mobile payments technology.
As he now lives in Atlanta, Ga., where First Data is headquartered, Contardi finds it difficult to make regular trips make to Iowa State. He does however find time to check in with many of the university’s athletic programs, finding joy in the fact that the football team is once-again nationally ranked.
Contardi says he has many fond memories of Iowa State and wishes the best for young engineers studying there today.
“Students should be mindful of the fact that engineering is a way of thinking that can be applied to classic engineering problems as well as any sort of problem,” he explains. “Being an engineer is a good discipline to have, regardless of how you plan to apply it.”