An MBA or an MIT Master’s in Engineering and Management?

Charles V. Atencio, SDM ‘09

By Charles V. Atencio, SDM ‘09
April 21, 2010

Almost mid-way through my engineering consulting career, I found myself wondering whether to pursue an MBA or a Master’s in Engineering and Management.

I had gone into engineering design after graduating with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, working mainly on infrastructure for pharmaceutical enterprises. At first, it was interesting—you have to understand the needs of the stakeholders and the business ecosystem—but after a while I realized that you never really owned your product. You designed it; you oversaw the construction, and then you turned it over to someone else. You were part of facilities and part of the operational budget, not strategic and definitely not viewed as adding value to the enterprise – which was what R&D did. And when I met with clients and asked questions such as, "How does this product contribute to your overall business strategy?" they weren’t really interested in hearing from me. Such issues were never considered part of the scope of the engineering consultant. Not content with this state of affairs, I decided to broaden my horizons.

I briefly considered pursuing an MBA, but didn’t want something so rigorously focused on profit margin. There is more to an enterprise and its organization than financial statements. To me, MBA schools are commoditized and, generally speaking, they concentrate primarily on the bottom line.

I wanted to leverage the fact that I’m an engineer and a technophile and integrate that with business. Then I found the System Design and Management (SDM) program, which allowed me to remain an engineer and still ask the big picture business questions. SDM opened new career options for me by bringing forward latent talents and now, after a year-and-a-half in the program, I can see myself working in one of two areas: product management or change management.

The System Design and Management program has also provided opportunities to further develop my leadership abilities. I have had many opportunities to help make a difference in SDM and the greater MIT community.

A good example of this was when I helped establish an SDM mentoring program for the MIT undergraduate students in the Gordon Engineering Leadership program. Leadership does not only entail "getting things done", but also enabling others to realize their own potential. This skills of managing and leading others is crucial for SDM grads as they move forward in their careers towards executive level positions.

In terms of product management, the System Design and Management program has taught me to understand not only the needs of the engineers and researchers developing a technical product, but also the needs of those in finance and marketing. Engineers typically don’t focus on business strategy, and businesses don’t understand technical development. As an SDM graduate, I can connect the two and create a synergy between technology and business strategy in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is one way that an SDM is able to go "beyond the MBA".

In terms of change management I could, for example, help a company with its acquisitions. Acquired assets all have their own IT systems, business processes, and organizational structures and you just can’t say, "Here’s your new platform; here’s your new organization," and expect to get the integration and alignment you need to be successful. You need to manage the change and in order to do this you need people who understand IT systems, the organization, and the political and financial implications of changing them. MIT’s System Design and Management program has prepared me to do this.

Hiring an MBA to do either of the above could be tricky. In both situations, it’s important to hire someone who is capable of keeping up with the pace of technological change, who can interact effectively with the different cultures and agendas within an organization, and who can articulate the business case to all. If you don’t hire someone with the "big picture perspective" and the technological experience that SDM grads have, your company might miss out on a new wave of customers and end up playing catch-up, which is not a good place to be in today’s economy.

Charles V. Atencio, SDM ‘09