Engineering and Management: Having the Best of Both Worlds

SDM alum Steve FriedenthalStephen Friedenthal

By Stephen Friedenthal, SDM ‘04
Manager, Factory Automation
A123 Systems

February 8, 2010

Halfway through my engineering and management studies at MIT’s System Design and Management program, my vision for who I could be expanded in ways that I never imagined before coming to MIT.

I’d applied to SDM thinking that I would continue working in software product management for my then-employer, General Electric (GE). I knew I had value to GE because of the specific domain expertise I’d acquired in a particular suite of the company’s software applications; however I didn’t feel I had a foundation or skill set that I could broadly apply outside of this arena. Moreover, I felt that it would be difficult to translate the value I’d provided if I moved to a different position within or beyond GE – if I even got the opportunity at all. I believed that SDM would help me make the next leap in my GE career.

Previously, I’d looked at several MBA programs because I knew I needed more management fundamentals, but I also wanted to build upon the foundation I’d built in engineering. SDM appealed to me because it offered a way to have a foot in both worlds and pursue the best of each.

Midway through SDM, I made an unanticipated decision to leave GE to provide contract services through my own consulting firm. This provided greater financial flexibility while being able to continue my studies.

On reflecting back, I realize that what I was learning at SDM – in terms of entrepreneurship, risk-taking, marketing, and developing a business — contributed greatly to my decision. Having my own business turned out to be the ultimate opportunity to put theories I’d learned at SDM into practice.

Five years later I continue to apply SDM learnings, but now as a full-time employee at A123 Systems, an international manufacturer of high-powered lithium ion batteries. A123 was previously one of my clients and as a consultant I was impressed with the company. When the opportunity came up to become the manager of factory information systems, I jumped at it.

My role at A123 is a perfect vehicle for combining my education in engineering and management with my experience in product management at GE and in software consulting. For example, my responsibilities focus on factory automation and information systems for new or upgraded manufacturing facilities being built by A123 business partners in China, Korea, and Michigan. On the technical side, I can discuss systems integration, information management, and tools such as risk-benefit analysis. In terms of systems thinking, I can look at the entire process from a "big picture" perspective, while also being able to drill down into specifics. In terms of management, I understand – and can discuss — finance, quality measurements, and process and materials flow.

SDM alum Steve Friedenthal, manager of factory automation, A123 Systems, preparing to enter the cell manufacturing suite in Changzhou, China. A123 strictly limits the number of personnel in the suite (to control humidity) and all personnel must be fully gowned to prevent any contamination in the manufacturing process.
Photo by Christopher Higgins, Oracle Business Manager, A123 Systems

For example, in the automotive industry, to be a "Tier 1" supplier, we need to have a complete "genealogy" of every battery. Not only do we need to know every nut, bolt, wire and batch of chemicals used in each individual cell, but also a full manufacturing history of the various process temperatures, voltages, vacuums and other steps in the manufacturing and automation process. This is an immensely complicated systems engineering project. An MBA graduate can often understand the management piece, but has not been educated to be able to "toggle back and forth" between the big picture and the details, and between the technical and the managerial components of large-scale projects. Real engineering involves trade-offs and judgments that call upon a very broad skill set. My SDM education enables me to do all of this and contribute on a broader level than an MBA.

I’m now overseeing the design and installation of the factory information systems of several new plants in Michigan, and abroad while also managing the adoption of new factory automation systems by our business partners in Korea and China.

My SDM education also helps me work with diverse cultures, industries, and functions because from the first day I began the program until I graduated, I worked on project teams with fellow SDM students from around the world. Moreover, because SDM students have an average of nine – and often more – years of experience in a wide range of industries in top companies and because many are successful mid-to-senior level managers, I am very comfortable with diversity and different management styles.

In essence SDM offered a great opportunity to understand, manage, and create systems and tie them together from both a management and engineering perspective. It’s a long way from the path I envisioned for myself when I began SDM, but it’s become the best of both worlds.