Beyond Engineering to Enterprise Leadership: A New Toolkit

SDM Fellow Matt Harper

By David Rosenbaum

SDM fellow Matt Harper has been a chief engineer and a product manager (most recently at Prudent Energy International). He’s led teams, launched products (including battery stacks to smooth the spikes produced by wind turbines and solar cells), and registered patents. He amassed a toolkit of skills that allowed him to analyze problems as an engineer, including system design thinking. But two years ago he woke up thinking, "I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do. What’s next?"

SDM Fellow Matt Harper in the product verification lab at Prudent Energy, Beijing, China.
Photo by Mr. Eldon Mou.

Harper, who graduated in 2000 with a B.A.Sc. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of British Columbia, wanted "to learn how to engage customers and stakeholders while integrating engineering and operations." He needed, he realized, a broader toolkit.

Harper never seriously considered an MBA program ("I’d be sitting among a bunch of 25 year olds with, at best, no more than a few years of real business experience," he says) but at SDM "I sit among men and women with deep experience across a broad range of industries, a deep experience from which I can learn."

At SDM, Harper will not only earn an MS in Engineering and Management, but he’s also acquiring a toolkit he believes will enable him to lead an organization at the highest levels. In addition to taking courses in leadership, systems architecture, product design and development, and marketing, he also chairs MIT SDM’s Industrial Relations Committee (IRC) which engages with SDM’s industrial partners while providing career development opportunities for the SDM cohort.

IRC hosts events designed to introduce industry to the SDM cohort and visa versa. Its focus is on exploring the value SDM grads, grounded in engineering, management, and systems thinking, can add to any organization. IRC also sponsors a speaker series that exposes students to industry leaders. This year’s luminaries have included Microsoft Senior Director of Technology Jim Miller talking about Cloud computing reliability; National Renewable Energy Laboratory Executive Director Neil Snyder discussing carbon dependency reduction strategies, and Crosscheck Systems founder and CEO Mamoon Yunus delving into the entrepreneurial mindset.

Another IRC goal is to give SDM students opportunities to work on real business problems—a process that benefits partner companies as SDM fellows are often successful executives themselves.

For example, IRC recently brought a company that builds large-scale power conversion products for tying solar power to the electric grid together with a group of students working on a project for SDM’s leadership and management lab. Grid operators are conservative and change—e.g., deploying new technology—is culturally and organizationally difficult.

"The challenge for this company," Harper says, "is how to go beyond the traditional sales model and get to partnerships and co-development arrangements that will add value on the managerial and strategic sides of the business. To do that, you have to understand buyer psychology."

Psychology rarely is part of the engineering toolkit. But through his engagement with IRC partners and his SDM studies, Harper is learning how to integrate buyer psychology into his systems engineering expertise. The result is an engineer with a new toolkit, better prepared to lead not only an engineering function but an entire business.