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ILP Institute Insider

November 8, 2012

Building the Next Generation of Engineering Leaders

Teaching tomorrow's industry leaders to communicate, coordinate, advocate, anticipate, and generally “get it done.”

Gary Abramson

Anyone hoping to discover the ingredients for a successful career in engineering would be savvy to ask someone like Joel Schindall. Heading out of MIT with a stellar academic record in 1967, at the height of a heady time for American engineers, Schindall ascended and moved through senior roles in defense, aerospace and telecommunications over three decades, while implementing advanced communication systems such as the Globalstar mobile phone system based on a constellation of low earth orbit satellites. Eleven years ago he returned to MIT as the Bernard Gordon Professor of Product Development in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, developing cutting edge technologies such as nanotube-enhanced ultracapacitors and also leading MIT’s charge to develop the next generation of engineering leaders.

Joel Schindall
Gordon Engineering Leadership
What you might be surprised to hear from Schindall, however, is just what this new generation most urgently needs to learn. Suffice it to say that it goes far beyond engineering.

“When I talk to any of my colleagues from industry, they immediately start telling me about young hires who are strong technically, but don’t have a clue how to coordinate a project,” Schindall says. In today’s global economy, engineers have to tackle global uncertainties. “Are the parts coming in on time? Are the people interfacing with China really getting the job done? Will the earthquake in Thailand set us back? They need people whom they can give this responsibility,” Schindall says. They need people who can communicate, coordinate, advocate, anticipate, and generally “get it done.”

Partnering with some of today’s leading companies to help create these 21st-centutry engineers is Schindall’s mission at the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program (GEL), where students are challenged to do the type of problem solving that is not at all typical of engineering classrooms around the nation.

“We’re teaching our future engineering leaders how to move forward with incomplete information,” Schindall explains in a long conversation at his MIT office where he co-directs the program, now in its fourth year. “If you pass out a problem set to MIT students and part of the information is not there, they would typically say “that’s not fair, we need all the information to develop provably right decisions.” But in industry, a lot of the time you don’t know even ten years later whether you made the provably right decision. It’s a ceaseless optimization challenge.”

American industry urgently needs engineers who can function in such an environment, but it is facing a critical gap. “When I was a young man in the ‘60s and ‘70s, engineering was exciting: we were going to put a man on the moon, Silicon Valley was expanding,” and places like NASA, Lockheed or General Dynamics were drawing much of the best talent, Schindall recalls. Schindall’s own career took him to division manager at Watkins-Johnson, president of Loral Conic, Sr. VP and Chief Engineer at Globalstar, a satellite mobile phone system, and VP and Chief Technology Officer at Loral Space and Communications. But in the last two decades, the job magnets have been finance, consulting, and the dotcom boom, while the more traditional fields of defense, aerospace, gas and oil, and automotive were seen as less attractive.

Today, Schindall argues, engineering industries offer the opportunity to solve some of the world’s greatest problems. “My daughter works for Save the Children. It’s clear that this helps people. However, students at MIT are in a position to do something even more noble–to develop and implement the technology to solve the problems of energy, food supply, starvation,” he says with building passion. But to reach such heights, they will need to develop abilities not traditionally taught in engineering classes.

In what Schindall envisions as a national model, the Gordon-MIT Leadership Program has developed an integrated undergraduate co-curriculum to create these new leaders that focuses on key three areas: invention of new technical components; innovative design of new products, processes and systems; and leading implementation of these developments, goods and services.

“These kids need to expand their idea of what is engineering: it is figuring out what society needs, making things to meet those needs, and then marketing them,” Schindall says. Schindall himself has taught a required senior course in communications skills, including units on conceptual thinking, giving presentations, how to be effective in industry, cross cultural skills, and engineering ethics, and he now co-teaches a course in Engineering Innovation and Design to teach “design thinking.”

Starting with their sophomore year at MIT, students can enroll in the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program, the initial offering of the GEL program, to receive coaching on how to work effectively in industry as well as help in finding an internship. Almost 500 students (nearly half of MIT’s undergraduates) are involved in this program. In their junior year, about 100 students are admitted to the GEL One-Year Program, where they take weekly Engineering Leadership Labs (ELLs), two leadership courses, and connect with mentors and program alumni. About one third of those students are selected to continue as seniors in GEL year-two, a more intensive program, taking two more short courses with additional leadership responsibilities, further ELLs, and internships. This entire sequence focuses on experiential exercises with direct mentoring and feedback to develop the students’ ability to function effectively in the engineering workplace.

Partnering with industry

Perhaps one of the most important features of the program is its close involvement with industry. Some companies volunteer to mentor GEL students, some are donating money to develop these students, and naturally, some are collaborating on recruitment. “The companies who partner with us are raving about them, asking if there are more (students) like that,” Schindall says with pride. “They say the students take responsibility, make themselves heard, and advocate for ideas that may be radical in the company since there are not always too many millenials there.”

Companies are so eager to acquire new employees with those qualifications that in some cases they have reached out directly to GEL. One such case is Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) whose engineers work closely with their counterparts in India and found they were lacking in cross-cultural and other skills to make the collaborative relationships work. The curriculum being developed with AMD may eventually be shared on a wider basis. Other examples are Lockheed and Apple, who provide internships and mentors, have hired a number of GEL graduates, and sit on the program’s Industry Advisory Board.

The program works within companies as well, with the intention of fostering leadership and other non-core engineering skills. One example is NextEra Energy, the former Florida Power and Light, that requested a leadership program from GEL to address the communication skills challenges of its employees who are increasingly interacting with residential customers when wiring homes or reading meters. The program is also discussing training programs at General Dynamics and Lincoln Labs and has developed engineering leadership and design thinking programs that will be offered this summer through MIT’s Professional Education program.

Program Impact

GEL students are working at, among other companies, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Airbus, Inc., Adobe, Booz Allen Hamilton, BT, Power Advocate, Levitronix, Pelton & Crane, Apple, and Google, and serve in the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy.

The impact of the program is already becoming evident among recent graduates and global companies. At BT (British Telecom), one GEL intern became involved in a global project (UK, US, Australia and China) to look at the customer response to one of the company’s video-on-demand pages. The intern, Tanya Goldhaber, proposed a re-design, seized an opportunity to explain it directly to the CEO (who liked it!), and after BT did focus groups in Boston, helped to develop and roll out the new model. Her boss at BT wrote back to MIT: “She has changed our thinking and given us new directions to follow, all this in eight weeks!”

“Ultimately, this project for me has embodied a lot of what GEL is about–working in a multi-disciplinary team on a complex problem with an international scope,” Goldhaber wrote back from England in a newsy email to her GEL mentors. “I want to credit GEL with a lot of my personal and team successes on the project.” And two years later, the proof really is in the pudding. Goldhaber, on a Marshall at Cambridge University, is still working for BT.