Jon Hickey, SDM ’12: Systems Thinking and Complex Project Management

Jon Hickey By Lynne Weiss
May 18, 2012

Why would someone with two master’s degrees want to pursue a third? Ask Commander Jon Hickey, SDM ’12, whose career spans 18-years in the United States Coast Guard (USCG).

"MIT is what initially attracted me because I had served under many Coast Guard officers who had attended MIT programs," said Hickey, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering and a second master’s in project management. "What I saw in these mentors was what made them superior problem solvers: an ability to turn issues on their side, develop solutions, and foresee unintended consequences."

MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) program attracted him next. Although he also considered another program focused primarily on leadership, Hickey says that SDM "appealed to me because it offered opportunities to refine and improve my existing technical expertise as well as to strengthen my skills in leadership, management, and systems thinking."

In Hickey’s first SDM course, Dr. Qi Van Eikema Hommes’ "Systems Engineering," he was part of a team that worked on a project to apply the Systems Theoretic Accident Model and Processes (STAMP)–based Process Analysis (STPA) to avoid hazardous conditions during integration of renewable energy systems into the electrical grid. Hommes worked closely with the team, then encouraged them to write up their project and submit it to INCOSE—the International Council on Systems Engineering. The paper was accepted, and as lead author, Hickey will present it at the organization’s annual symposium in Rome in July 2012.

As valuable as the SDM classes are, Hickey said his SDM cohort is equally important. Although his fellow students are also mid-career professionals (several of whom, like Hickey already hold two master’s degrees), he said the diversity of their roles, experience and industries and SDM’s team-based class assignments help enlarge his capacity for seeing situations from various viewpoints. Moreover, the bonds he is forming will last throughout his professional career.

After he receives his MS in engineering and management this summer, Hickey will move to New Orleans to oversee a $4 billion project devoted to building a new fleet of USCG patrol boats that will meet modern maritime safety, security, and stewardship mission requirements. Armed with his SDM education, he will use systems thinking to address the technical, managerial, and socio-political components of this multi-year effort and to emulate what he so admired in his USCG mentors who also studied at MIT: the ability to turn issues on their side, see the unintended consequences, and solve complex problems.

Jon Hickey
Photo by Kathy Tarantola Photography