The Value of SDM To My Career, Eric Cahill

Eric CahillBy Eric Cahill, SDM ’02, TPP ’02

Project Management Specialist
Space and Communications Division, The Boeing Company
July 10, 2002

In June 2002, I graduated from MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) program and the Technology and Policy Program (TPP). I received SDM’s SM in Engineering and Management, granted jointly by the MIT Sloan School of Management and the School of Engineering, and an SM in Technology & Policy, granted by the Engineering Systems Division as part of the TPP element of my course of study.

I came to this path not by any deliberate grand strategy, but from my passion for certain subjects emerged. Although I started out in MIT’s City Planning program to leverage my Navy experience as a civil engineer, SDM and TPP better fit my desire to affect technological progress that benefits communities by engaging problems with complex industrial, public policy, and scientific dimensions. These programs seek to equip students with informed strategic decision-making tools that demand a “big picture” systems approach to problem solving.

My motivation stems from my upbringing in Southern California, where I witnessed the gradual deterioration of air quality in counties adjacent to Los Angeles. On the high-school track and cross-country teams, I remember how difficult the simple act of breathing became after a mere half-hour of outdoor exercise. While at USC as an undergraduate in aerospace engineering, I recall the view of the L.A. basin from the air upon flying into LAX. A purplish-brown haze obscured views of even the tallest skyscrapers of downtown. It reminded me of a cesspool and I thought to myself, “My God, we live in that…”

I knew intuitively that this couldn’t be good from a health standpoint, but I was faced with a dilemma: As a product of Southern Californian culture I loved cars, but hated them for the damage they were doing to an otherwise idyllic place to live. Always the engineer, I wanted to find a solution that might preserve California’s love affair with the car while eradicating the negative impacts of car exhaust.

Something as innocuous as car exhaust in actuality spans multiple levels of complexity and demands a full spectrum of expertise to effectively address it, ranging from atmospheric science and public health to marketing strategies. Decision-makers must consider the full spectrum of knowledge available on the subject to construct the “big picture” representation of the problem. Doing so enables the identification of potential obstacles at the outset, where appropriate risk management methodologies can most cost-effectively overcome the problem.

Labeled a “pragmatic idealist” by some of my classmates, my goal is to make positive progress happen. Doing so requires a skill set unique among trained engineers – breadth of industry and government decision dynamics and the tools to effectively articulate a systemic and integrated approach to challenging problems that demand informed decision-making. The SDM and TPP programs allowed me the flexibility to tailor a graduate education that equipped me with the frameworks for analysis and decision-making tools to achieve my career goals.

I pursued both SDM and TPP programs because affecting change means recognizing and appreciating the origins of problem complexity and the need for leaders to work cooperatively to overcome it. Equally as important is the need to align business goals with those of the society it serves. When leaders rely too heavily on a narrow pool of expertise, they often overlook the confounding problems that emerge from the multidimensional interactions of complex issues, handicapping otherwise sound policy objectives and necessitating the commitment of even greater resources.

I was concerned to learn that most organizations fail to practice a systems approach as a matter of course. Alignment of incentives is essential to achieve the mutual aims of organizations and society, yet we often operate in a day-to-day mode with many inherent misalignments that waste resources in an effort to “swim upstream.” I read a lot about leadership in my SDM classes, especially about Ivan Boesky, Michael Milkin, and the unfolding scandal at Enron. In each instance, there was a misalignment of incentives and the events that occurred are outcroppings of that misalignment. This awareness, this systems approach, is urgently needed in today’s business environment.

Thanks to SDM and TPP, I’ll never look at the world in the same way again. While the education comes at a premium, the risk has already more than paid off. When I left the Navy for school, the only funding I had for this $125,000 education was the $550/month stipend provided by the GI Bill. But the combination of lucrative part-time teaching and research assistantships (usually demanding no more than 8-15 hours per week), and the very fortunate fellowship support from the Hugh Hampton Young Leadership Memorial Fund knocked the tab down to a very manageable level. All told, I will graduate with less than $20,000 in student loan debt, an amount wiped out by my signing bonus from Boeing. Resourcefulness pays off!

I finished my coursework in March and joined Boeing’s Space and Communications division in Anaheim, California as a project management specialist in April. My work in SDM equips me with the capacity to scrutinize project processes from a system-wide perspective to ensure that the complex tasks of designing and developing products are achieved in ways best aligned with company strategic objectives.

From an educational standpoint, I believe SDM is both the crest of the wave and the tip of the iceberg. Yes, it’s on the cutting edge, but it is also forming the foundation of a systems approach that will prove the model for a graduate education that best serves industry, government, and society now and in the future. I can see it extending beyond engineering to many fields, especially healthcare and law. When there’s a systems approach, it’s always evolving.