As promised in the previous post, below is part B of an insightful piece from guest blogger, Brandon Sights, on how he has used his MEM degree and generally how to apply yourself and navigate various opportunities in your organization….
How I Have Used My MEM Degree (Part B) by Brandon Sights
In order to complete the MEM program at Duke, you must be able to communicate effectively. This is not typically a strong skill for engineers, especially when communicating with people outside of the engineering department. In several instances, I have utilized skills learned in the program to effectively communicate with various stakeholders, including customers, fellow engineers, marketing personnel, and members of the upper management in both Trimble and our largest customer.
My job often takes me to a customer’s farm where I spend time observing, diagnosing, and fixing problems that the support team has been unable to resolve. This means that I have to be able to communicate with the farm manager to understand what is important in terms of fixing their problem, while discussing the issue in non-technical (software and control systems), yet agriculturally correct, terms. This skill was discussed in several classes, including Commercializing Technology Innovations. In that class, my team contacted laparoscopic surgeons to better understand their needs with regards to hand held tools that could improve patient outcomes while reducing costs. Because we were unable to discuss specifics about the device that we were evaluating the commercial potential of, we focused on the surgeon’s needs in the hand held laparoscopic tool space, as described with a surgeon’s vocabulary. Being able to communicate with customers about their needs, utilizing vocabulary specific to their situation, is a tool that I learned in the MEM program.
When I am fortunate enough to spend time with farmers and farm managers, I try to gain a better understanding of several aspects of their experience with our products, including:
• Outcome versus expectations, beyond just the problem we are working on that day.
• Features they wish the products had.
• Features they wish the products didn’t have.
• Their level of comfort with new technologies that we might be able to implement to bring value to their operations.
These topics were covered in several courses, including Marketing, Designing the Customer Experience, Project Management, and Innovation Management, and this is one area where I believe my MEM degree sets me apart from other engineers. I understand that the most important aspect of my job is making the customer’s experience with our product the best it can be, not just checking boxes next to a list of tasks every week. This primary reason for creating a product in the first place also translates into how I deal with our largest customer.
Already three times this calendar year, I have found myself leading the effort to resolve high visibility issues with our guidance system on one of our customer’s most important product lines. Each time, I have had to take complex control system data and system performance analysis, and communicate it to various stakeholders, from engineers to executives. In order to do this effectively, I have leveraged the report structure utilized in Project Management, and lessons from Presentation Zen, that was studied in Designing the Customer Experience. These resources have greatly affected the quality and effectiveness of the message I have presented. As an undergraduate engineering student, and an engineer, I often only focused on finding the answer to a given problem for myself (or for a class grade). Rarely did my answer need to be explained. One of the biggest lessons I learned from the MEM program was that there may be several answers to a given problem, because of the tradeoffs to fixing the problem that go beyond just the engineering analysis. The customer experience, profit margins, and intellectual property rights are three aspects which also need to be considered when making a recommendation. Being able to recognize the other, non-engineering, constraints that affect the resolution to a problem has enhanced my ability to create and communicate problem resolutions to all the different stakeholders. The “Analysis of Alternatives” section of the report outline in Project Management is the epitome of this ability to think about, understand, and make decisions based on the tradeoffs of different solutions. Communicating and convincing people that the chosen solution is the best solution is a difficult task, especially if they are biased towards another answer. In order to overcome this problem, I have utilized what I learned from Designing the Customer Experience to create presentations that thoroughly explore the tradeoffs between solutions. These presentations have been used with little modification all the way up the chain of the command of both companies. The Marketing Director of Product Management at Trimble even asked in the middle of a meeting who did my great slide designs, so I loaned him Presentation Zen.
Intellectual Property Law
While still working as a senior software engineer, I accepted a stretch assignment as the free and open source software (FOSS) representative. The role was a great way to combine my software engineering background, with the coursework from the Intellectual Property Law course, and required me to work with people from different functions throughout the company. I often found myself involved in detailed discussions of intellectual property law with engineers and project managers who had never considered the subject. It also helped me to understand the importance of ensuring that a company does not find itself in a litigious situation due to improper use of open source software packages. Overall, my efforts helped two projects deliver their systems on time, and elevated me to a position of intellectual property law authority inside of Autonomous Systems. I also saved the corporation money by performing the initial data gathering and assessment of open source licenses, saving expensive lawyer billed hours. I recently interviewed for a similar full time position at Trimble, Open Source Software Architect, but turned it down because it would have taken me away from working on vehicles on a regular basis.
I have also used lessons learned from Intellectual Property Law while trying to get my own startup company, inSightful Robotics Corp., off the ground. From using Non-Disclosure Agreements when sharing information with potential collaborators, to making sure to mark documents and emails as “Proprietary,” IP law has been a huge concern for the young company. However, the most comprehensive use of the material in Intellectual Property Law took place when I filed a provisional patent. Based on what we learned in the class, and with Dr. Boyd guiding me during my Independent Study in Entrepreneurship, I searched existing patents that may prevent my filing, drafted the initial description, diagrams, claims, etc., and took my draft to a respected law firm to finalize it. Even though they only had to make a few minor changes to the provisional patent filing, they still charged me the full law firm price. When the time came this year to file a full patent based on the provisional patent, I used what I learned in Commercializing Technology Innovations, and the fact that a recent court decision failed to uphold a similar patent for a competitor, to decline to spend the resources to file, on the grounds that it would not have been defensible. Having IP law knowledge saved inSightful Robotics Corp. time and money.
Flying back to Colorado, I’m in a good mood, despite my sore head, neck, and wrist. The data we have collected is exactly what we need to explain the tradeoffs in solving the problem we traveled to Arizona to test. The MEM degree is exactly what I needed to perform well in this role. Skills learned in the program will help me convince all the stakeholders of the best solution, the solution that best meets the customer’s needs and situation. Just in time to fly on to the next challenge.
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