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Here's why engineers are better managers than MBAs

Here's why engineers are better managers than MBAs

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Howard E Michel has been with The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) for four decades now. New York headquartered IEEE is the "world's largest association for the advancement of technology" and has over 4,00,000 members spread across 160 plus countries. As President and CEO, Michel spends his time evangelising the cause of technology across the world.

Howard E Michel's Biodata

He is the President and CEO, IEEE

Education: Ph.D. in Computer Science & Engineering, Wright State University, 1999 M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 1988 M.S. in Systems Management, University of Southern California, 1981 B.S. in Electrical Engineering, New Jersey Institute of Technology, 1975

Been with IEEE: over 40 years

Beyond IEEE: A consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense and private industry, specialising in the area of embedded systems, avionics, instrumentation and systems engineering

Little known fact: Had a long and distinguished career as a US Air Force pilot, satellite launch director, and engineer.

In a free wheeling chat with Corporate Dossier in Mumbai, Michel shared his thoughts about the state of engineering education in India, why his sisters did not go to college and why engineers make better managers than MBAs. Edited Excerpts:

What are the changes you see in IEEE and engineering over the decades?

IEEE didn't exist before 1963. There was the AIEE —American Institute of Electrical Engineers— and IRE — Institute of Radio Engineers. They go back 100 years. AIEE was founded by people like Thomas Edison. The only electrical engineering at that time was power distribution and that industry grew and a little bit later, IRE was founded. The membership took off and much more electronic engineering and much less electrical engineering came up. They merged in 1963 to become the IEEE.

I teach computer engineering. When I studied engineering, there were no computers. Nowadays, people do multi- disciplinary stuff. You don't build the projects sitting in a cubicle. You work with people from other disciplines. People work in a problem space. They don't care where the technology comes from, but they want a solution. That has changed.

If you take CEOs or founders of major corporations globally, especially in the US, you find that most of them are engineers. Do you think engineers are betters managers than MBAs?

I think they are. The reason is engineering teaches you how to solve problems. You find out what the requirements are, what is the real issue you are trying to solve. Then you look at ways of solving that. Then you organise those things and check for options and take those options and you work on a plan to get them forward. You look at the real value of the results. In engineering, no matter what you are doing, that kind of problem solving skill follows through.


Can you elaborate a bit on that? How do the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg do this everyday problem solving? Is it only because of their engineering background?

Maybe you go into engineering because your mind works that way. My older daughter is an artist. She sees things differently than I do. My younger daughter is a lot like me. She takes things apart and puts them together. My younger daughter looks at the big picture, the colour. Most engineers learnt engineering even before they went to college by taking things apart to see how things work and then trying to put these things together in their mind. That's what engineering is and that is the kind of problem solving you see.

What are the leadership qualities that you see in an engineer?

In terms of engineering skills, it is not the hard science we think of. Everybody needs to work with people and communicate. What we teach in college now is the technical skills. All the engineering graduates know how to apply a formula. What they don't learn in school is how to work with people who have different skills. The complete skill set is what is required to solve a problem. It took electrical engineers, electronic engineers, marketing people to develop your phone. All these went into the design of this. These are the skills one needs.

You were an airforce pilot. What are things that you learned during those days which you apply in your day to day management of IEEE?

When I was an engineer I used to take things apart. As a pilot, I used to take situations apart and try to anticipate. So, if you are flying a plane and if you are thinking about what is happening, you are behind the plane, they say. The plane is in front of you. You anticipate and try to analyse the situation. I think the same thing applies in engineering. The people who invented technology that we need before we know we need it are the ones that are successful. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs. They anticipated and created what everybody in this world takes for granted now, but they saw it before we saw it.

How is managing an organisation like IEEE different from managing a corporation?

The real hard problems in this world are related to people. People who don't understand technology think that technology is hard but you can learn some rules and you can manage it. It is much more difficult to manage a room full of people who have different opinions and different backgrounds. It is like herding cats. As the President of IEEE, I don't have any special powers other than to influence people on how we can go about a specific project.


What plans do you have for India?

India is very important for IEEE. We have more than 4,00,000 members in the world of which 48,000 are in India and 34,000 of these are students. After the US, India has the highest number of IEEE members. Students are the future of the profession and of IEEE. We have ten major divisions globally. The tenth region is Asia Pacific and the head of that division is from Bangalore. I was in Chennai for a conference on Humanitarian Technology and this is the kind of thing that we can do well in India —develop local people with local needs. We look to deliver local value in a global context. The first country where we developed that was Japan, the second is India. We have around 1600 conferences every year and almost 9% are held in India. India, in terms of technology is important to us. We are also involved in educational activities.

How do you see the future of engineering education in India? Do you think the IITs are at par with global standards?

The IITs have a worldwide reputation. The best students at the mid-tier universities are as good as the top students at top universities. We just don't have many of them. There needs to be a structure in place for all levels. Somebody who wants to go to a university to get a job and contribute to the society should not feel that his education is less valued than the person who wants to go to an IIT and get a PhD and do research.

What do you think of the gender disparity in engineering even in developed countries?

I think it is a complex issue. In the US, I think it might be driven by the media. There are no TV shows which have an engineer as the hero. Sports figures are on the headlines. In some sense, it may be a cultural thing. Women want to make the men in their lives feel superior so they don't want to look like they are smarter. In high school especially, women don't want to appear smarter than the boys. They don't want to appear better. It is complicated. I don't know if that is the same issue in India. In my family, my sisters didn't go to college, my brother and I did. That was the mindset in US in the 1960s and early 70s. My daughters went to college and there was no doubt they will go to college.

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