Keeping It Real Through Systems Thinking

DBlade Kotelly

By David Rosenbaum
September 10, 2010

At eight years old, Blade Kotelly was coding, writing software and designing (with his parents’ permission) on his bedroom walls. He was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal for feedback he had given a company on improving its MIDI user interface . . . when he was 13. And in 2003 Addison-Wesley published his book, The Art and Business of Speech Recognition. (It would be a gross understatement to say Kotelly is achievement-oriented.)

Today, while earning his Masters in Engineering and Management in MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) program, Kotelly is working on his thesis (helping a company to develop a strategy to optimize its market position) with Professor Michael Cusumano. The opportunity to address real world challenges in his academic studies, plus access to teachers like Cusumano (who Kotelly calls "the world’s foremost authority on software company strategy") is what drew Kotelly to SDM last January (after he left Endeca Technologies, where he was Chief Designer), rather than to an MBA program.

"Because they have less real-world experience, most MBA kids are not focused on solving real problems that they’ve lived through," says Kotelly. "They’re being supplied with tools without a real understanding of how and why they were developed."

Kotelly points to Dr. Scott Keating’s introductory accounting class for SDMs: "In many schools’ MBA programs," Kotelly says, "you take accounting to learn the mechanics so you can become a CFO. In SDM’s master’s program in engineering and management, we learn about accounting’s intellectual basis because we’re engineers and appreciate the real."

"For example, we studied a case where the numbers on the books of a division in a company were estimates. On paper, the division’s accounting looked great and was useful to running the business, but in class we discovered the estimates didn’t give a clear picture into the actual finances of the business. It’s difficult to use numbers that aren’t accurate to develop strategies to build, price, and market products. The opportunity to go beyond mechanics and learn how internal accounting practices impact organizational activity in an introductory accounting class is truly unique."

Keeping things real, and making real things, is both Kotelly’s bent and his ambition — and he again points to the grounding provided by one of his SDM professors: Ralph Katz, Senior Lecturer in Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management.

"Ralph points out," says Kotelly, "that you need to include a demonstration in a presentation or strategy session. You just can’t rely only on typical methods to convey ideas. When something is made real to your audience, you can change behaviors. When it’s not real to your audience, wrong and disastrous decisions get made. This framework was a cornerstone that helped me understand successes and misses that I’ve observed in my career."

Kotelly also understands that making real things means leveraging his SDM-buttressed understanding of systems thinking.

"Everything you do connects to a system," Kotelly explains. "Even if you just make something simple, like straws. You have to design, manufacture, pack, and ship them. You have to account for costs in order to price and market them, and you have to make decisions, such as whether or not to wrap them individually or in bulk."

"SDM combines management and engineering, as well as the hard and the soft skills. It teaches you to connect the dots: from design and development (what’s the problem? how can you leverage the technology?) to manufacturing, marketing, and branding."

"Whatever you make, you have to maximize efficiency while simultaneously making things that people not only fall in love with emotionally and intellectually, but that also make society better."

Kotelly co-teaches a class at MIT called Engineering Innovation & Design (ESD.051) and hopes to inspire undergraduates to use their engineering skills to make the world a better place.