By Ethan Gilsdorf
February 24, 2011
For Andres Kütt, chief evangelist at Skype and a member of the System Design and Management (SDM) class entering in 2011, embracing his inner geek is second nature.
Kütt holds a BS in mathematical statistics from the University of Tartu (now considered to an MsC equivalent because the four-year program requires a publicly defended thesis); an MBA from the Estonian Business School and has also taught project management on an undergrad level. He began at Skype in 2005 as an architecture team lead in the company’s Tallinn development office, and a year ago was promoted to "chief evangelist." He also co-invented several patents along the way.
So why add a third degree to his impressive CV, especially after proving his mettle at one of the Internet’s hugest successes? Kütt says it’s because he asks himself the same question too many times — e.g., saying too often, "Why is this this way?"
As Kütt helped define Skype’s technical direction and consequently had to tackle many scalability issues, he realized that his education lacked the scientific rigor to properly test his ideas. His contributions to product development felt intuitive, he said, rather than rooted to an academic grounding. He felt he was operating on "pure instinct."
"If I wanted to take my job to the next level," Kütt said, "I needed the pedagogical framework and a systems thinking perspective."
But the Estonian wasn’t willing to settle for just any program. He wanted a top-notch education and access to world experts in their fields. The SDM Program fit the bill, offering what Kütt called "the perfect blend of leadership, management, and engineering," and giving him that structure and big-picture, systems-thinking perspective he craved.
Before Skype, Kütt worked for the Estonian Tax and Customs Board as deputy director general in charge of IT and as head of IT development. But his true passion is organizational behavior, particularly around technology issues. At SDM for the next two years, he hopes to pursue thesis research focused on a holistic study of the architecture of organizations while working toward SDM’s master’s degree in engineering and management. He envisions that this thesis might become a PhD dissertation, or a book.
Kütt’s switch to a wider systems thinking view partly came about when, as chief evangelist, he was charged with preserving Skype’s institutional memory and telling the Skype story to outside groups. "It’s a narrative. We need to do a lot of work to explain who we are, what we do, and why it’s important."
That narrative unfolds as easily in English as Estonian. But while Kütt, 35, may be accustomed to straddling two worlds, moving his home base was not an option. His wife, Maria, is currently conducting doctoral research on personnel demands in the IT sector and they are raising a 2-year-old daughter, Anna-Liis. Luckily, the SDM Program provides optimum flexibility. As a distance learner, Kütt can attend live video classes with his cohort at MIT, while staying close to his family and continuing to work at Skype in Estonia.
While no university in Europe has better facilities than MIT, he said, and few cities can match Cambridge’s flurry of academic activity, what he’s most looking forward to at SDM is its unquantifiable, creative vibe. "I spend the day grinning," he said. "MIT is geek heaven squared!"
Managing the family/work/bi-cultural juggling act will be a challenge, he says, but Kütt is emboldened to go for it. "If the ‘why’ is there," Kütt said with confidence, "then every ‘how’ becomes possible."
In the meantime, Skype will certainly come in handy.
Photo by Kathy Tarantola Photography