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Experts meet on the Hill to explore engineering leadership issues

Published: Friday, April 3, 2009

Updated: Sunday, April 5, 2009 09:04

Engineering Panel

Meredith Klein/Tufts Daily

Four industry experts provided thoughts on engineering leadership in a panel in Anderson Hall yesterday.

Industry experts gathered yesterday afternoon for a panel on engineering leadership, drawing on their experiences to give advice to and share thoughts with about five dozen students, faculty members and others gathered in Anderson Hall.

The moderated discussion took on an array of aspects relating to successful leadership attributes, including effectively interacting with others, having a vision for projects, providing solutions to real-world problems and possessing strong technical expertise.

Harvard Professor of Computer Science Margo Seltzer said that leadership is about passionately convincing colleagues to run with a leader's ideas.

Seltzer, who is also a professor in Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, spoke of an experience she had in a leadership position at Harvard.

"My job was to craft a vision of where computer science was going," she said, explaining that she worked to include all relevant faculty members in the process. "A leader means that you get everyone working toward a common goal and that everyone feels that they have ownership of that goal."

And, Seltzer added, it's important for leaders to recognize when they are wrong.

Jon Hirstick, founder and former CEO of SolidWorks, a maker of popular 3-D design software, told a story about how he overcame obstacles within his company.

"I was anxious to reach new users," he said, adding that he worked very closely with one colleague on proposed user-friendly changes, trying hard to convince upper management. "Engineering is all about people and technology and where they meet ... Leadership is about realizing something."

Zvi Rosen, another panelist, has worked for years in the public and private sectors trying to create collaborations between government, industry and academia.

When he worked for the Massachusetts state government, he explained, he was tasked with developing a long-range "road map" plan that involved many different sectors of government. "They were able to overcome ... their sense of obligations to [where] they came from, and focus on the task at hand."

Navy Cmdr. Bruce Nevel (E '88) took a different approach, speaking from his experience in the military.

He explained that a leader needs to have control of his team and do the optimal work possible to guarantee success.

"You need to be large and in charge," he said.

From building water wells in Kenya to reconstruction projects in the Middle East, Nevel said that engineering leadership involves a certain level of integrity. "There is an obligation that ... you've got to have the integrity for a long-term shelf life."

The discussion often returned to the subject of interacting with colleagues and subordinates.

"[Leadership is] about understanding people really well," including creating a clear vision for members of a strong team, Hirstick said. "There's always people involved in engineering."

But Seltzer argued that the qualities the other panelists identified were specific to engineering leadership. "The things you learn about leadership and teamwork and collaboration do carry through into a gazillion other areas in life."

A question-and-answer session followed the panel discussion.

The event was part of the School of Engineering's Dean's Lecture Series and came about in the context of two years of work on shaping engineering curricula, Associate Dean of Engineering Lewis Edgers (E '66) said before discussion began.

He told the Daily after the event that it had succeeded in keeping the audience engaged and that panelists praised students' questions from the question-and-answer session that came at the end of the presentation.

"This program was to have real engineering leaders talk from their experiences ... so that you can appreciate the complexities of engineering leadership, the trials and tribulations of engineering leadership," said Edgers, who is also a professor of civil and environmental engineering. "All the participants are accomplished in their respective fields. They have delivered real, realistic results and have made significant contributions, so they are speaking from the down-and-dirty details and the lofty visions."

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CORRECTION: Friday's article "Experts meet on the Hill to explore engineering leadership issues" inaccurately referred to Harvard's Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences. In fact, that entity changed names in 2007, and is now called the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

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