Working with Teams to Solve Problems: From Afghanistan to MIT Hackathons
By Thomas Mangan (LGO ‘19)
“Sir, the [cafeteria kitchen] just lost power, Christmas dinner won’t be ready in time!” As the base engineer, I’d given the colonel bad news in the past. This took the cake. Who knew a meal for 1,500 people is prepared over 24 hours in advance?
As I surveyed possible graduate programs, I thought back to this and other army experiences. I realized I wanted to help solve the types of energy related problems I’d encountered in the Army - like having power to prepare Christmas dinner. This led me to apply to the MIT LGO program and several other MBA and engineering programs.
Ultimately I chose MIT because it aligned the best with my goals of leadership development and acquiring new technical expertise. I initially thought my experiences in LGO would be siloed: leadership through the MBA, technical abilities with the SM. After two semesters, I realize I was greatly mistaken. Through Sloan I am learning about the energy industry, and my most challenging leadership experience was in the School of Engineering.
I was taken back by Sloan’s involvement in energy. MBAs from the Sloan Energy Club comprised the majority of my team for the Energy Hackathon. The optimization model we developed for solar battery storage facilities blew away my preconceptions about MBAs. Now that my required classes are done, I’m taking three energy courses at Sloan next semester. The subjects fall within departments from applied economics to systems dynamics. I’m also rounding out my finance skills so that next year I can take a class on social impact investing.
Surprisingly, my engineering class on developing simulation software included substantial leadership development. Throughout the semester I worked on a team of three to create epidemiology simulation software. A week to go, we were still pretty behind. I had never worked on a software project and it exposed me to the challenges of the tech industry for the first time. Nothing seemed to work for us. The worst part was having to present to and graded by a panel of industry experts. Think people who develop MATLAB (a far cry from pitching tents in Afghanistan). Through an all-out effort by everyone and after some highly productive brainstorming sessions, we got our software working and the presentation was well received. It turns out that the experts were just as interested in our ability to work together as our technical abilities. Luckily we delivered on both fronts.
MIT is not only presenting me with ways to develop as a leader and engineer in ways I never thought possible. It is blending the two. Besides the cold walk between some buildings, the business and engineering schools at MIT blend effortlessly. This is the integration I was looking for in a graduate program. It was the integration of leadership and engineering that brought together the herculean effort of engineers and cooks to save that Christmas meal five years ago in northern Afghanistan.
Staying Connected to Hydropower Developent in East Africa
Not many engineers carry a water filter, malaria pills, and sunscreen to work every day. However, when you work in rural energy development in East Africa, these are just as important as that TI-86 calculator that has become an essential to any engineer.
Prior to coming to MIT’s LGO program, my wife and I lived in Rwanda for two years. I was a chief engineer for a hydropower developer, and she lectured at a Rwandan university in biology and chemistry (my wife is great…you know you’ve found a good one when she agrees to marry you and move to Africa just two weeks after the wedding). We lived at the base of five stunning volcanoes, rode mountain bikes to work every morning, ate more mangoes than I can count, and hiked volcanoes on weekends.
When we came to MIT, I was worried that I would lose connection with my work and personal research from our time in Rwanda, but I was wrong. One of the best things about the program is the openness to learn, research, and push the boundaries of what students can do. Before coming to LGO, I had been working on a project looking at optimizing Rwandan energy consumption, and quickly found support in the mechanical engineering department to continue with the research. MISTI travel grants gave great opportunities to travel abroad and continue to research. I felt extremely supported in my work. Essentially, I was given the opportunity to work on this fulfilling research while taking summer and fall courses at MIT with 48 brilliant LGO minds from around the globe. It was paradise.
My project centered on reducing the diesel generation that occurs in Rwanda every year. Rwanda has a lot of good resources for hydropower, but peak energy consumption is covered with diesel generators. Without even taking into effect environmental costs, diesel is extremely expensive for a land-locked country like Rwanda. I wanted to look at the structure of feed-in tariffs for hydropower developers to incentivize them to store water during the morning and to release it during the day. This capacity would cost the developers more capital, but would obviously pay out in less diesel consumption. The problem essentially turns into a multivariable convex cost function, where we change turbine sizes and storage sizes of lakes. It requires a fairly complex model to implement multiple rivers, flows, rainfalls, and turbine sizes.
Throughout the course of this project, I have felt very thankful for the opportunity to attend a prestigious school like MIT while working on concurrent, personally fulfilling research. By far, my favorite thing about MIT is that there is an absolutely impossible number of things that I can learn and study here, and that the only bottleneck in the learning process is myself. I love the vast array of courses, design competitions, prototyping workshops, research opportunities, and relationship building that is available here. When I am the limiting factor in my learning, I know I’m at the right place.
Self-reflecting on an LGO Experience
- Russell Forthuber (LGO ‘17)
Back in February 2017, I was contacted by David Hume (LGO ’16) regarding an opportunity to be a peer reviewer for a grant funding opportunity hosted by the Department of Energy (DOE). These grants provide funding to advance applied sciences in the energy industry. This specific grant focused on the marine hydrokinetic (MHK) industry; the MHK industry includes marine renewables such as wave energy or tidal energy. David passed along my contact information to one of the organizers because of our identical background and shared interest in the marine renewable energy sector. He and I were classmates at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, sailed on liquefied natural gas tankers after graduation, and at LGO took the Ocean Engineering Systems Management track. While David had a conflict of interest which unfortunately prevented him from being a reviewer, we both qualified as credible peer reviewers in the topic area based on our history.
There were several steps in this peer review process. During March I performed an independent critique of several research proposal applications. Scores were assigned across a range of criteria, and feedback on strengths and opportunities of the application were also included. In April I flew to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, for two days of meetings with other peer reviewers. During these meetings, we had in-depth discussions of each application and revised our original scores as appropriate based on the results of these discussions. Finally, these recommendations and comments were passed to a Federal Review committee for evaluation and funding decisions.
When I showed up to the meetings the first morning I was a bit nervous because I felt like the outsider in a seemingly well-connected and experienced group. However, I quickly found mutual ground with the other reviewers through various communications and influence strategies I’ve learned at Sloan. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my background of systems design engineering and the dual degree education at MIT enabled me to make comments germane and insightful to the discussions. Both the engineering and business skills I’ve learned through the LGO program were essential to successfully bridge the gap between the more senior reviewers and myself.
At the end of the first day I realized that by asking the right questions, driving discussions when necessary, and bringing up important points which others had not considered, I was just as capable as the other, more senior reviewers in the group. Indeed, the feedback I received after the second day was that my perspectives helped identify high value applications and that I would be kept in mind for future DOE merit reviews.
Self-reflecting on this DOE peer review has helped me realize how much of a transformative experience LGO has been to me. After two years of studying the LGO playbook, my classmates and I can now effectively employ the leadership frameworks, presentation skills, operations expertise, business acumen, and engineering capabilities which we sought when stepping onto campus two years ago. With this chapter of my life coming to a close I’d like to thank the staff and my classmates at LGO, MIT Sloan, and MIT Engineering for such an incredible two years! Now I’m off to Europe for two months of mountain biking and whitewater kayaking before starting at Nike in supply chain manage
Why Study Anything but Engineering?
- Jeff Birenbaum (LGO ‘18)
Why study anything BUT engineering at MIT? In my case, why study supply chain management and operations?
MIT is Infinite MIT offers cutting-edge research opportunities, access to infinite resources, and some of the world’s best professors. For instance, the university has one of three domestic tokamaks; the Media Lab works on cool “problems” like this and this; and MIT researchers have created the first robotic cheetah.
I think this is a critical part of being at MIT; it’s an environment filled with some of the most interesting research that the world can offer. One could think that as a supply chain and operations student, they would not have the same access or engagement with cutting-edge technology. This could not be farther from the truth.
Of course, it is easy to feel like you need to be involved in something truly earth-shattering. But the exciting things at MIT have not discouraged or deterred me from continuing down my planned career path. If anything, it is energizing to be closer to the work that MIT scientists, students, and professors are working on while I develop general operations and leadership competencies in LGO. MIT research adds flavor to my classes and experiences, whether a lecture on autonomous freight in a logistics class or a visit to Amazon’s robotics center near campus.
With that, here are a few reasons why I am studying supply chain management, operations, and general management.
1. Job Prospects (and Security): Every company that produces a product (and many that do not) has a supply chain. Each product differs in complexity and lifecycle, demanding adaptive thinking from experienced professionals. Managing inventory, negotiating supplier contracts, and sourcing components requires specific knowledge.
In addition, MIT is world-renowned for its supply chain and operations education with several programs that are world-renowned, including ORC, SCM, and LGO. These programs work with some of the major supply chain and operations innovators. LGO boasts partnerships with companies such as Inditex (Zara) and Amazon: companies defined by their supply chain agility.
Combining practical experience with these companies and MIT education creates graduates who are typically ready to tackle some of the most complex challenges in today’s supply chains.
2. Mobility and Growth : Corporations are more diverse and global now than they have ever been. As a result, providing employees with opportunities across the spectrum of operations is becoming more and more important. To spur this type of development, many companies have created leadership development and rotational programs.
These programs help to fast-track your career in a way that a standard job cannot offer. Young professionals often get the opportunity to experience two to four different jobs at several different sites during their time in these programs.
In addition, the millennial generation has been classified as “nomadic” and “adventure seeking”. Operations can offer a career that caters to that. Over the last four years, I have had the opportunity to work in four states and several of my colleagues had the opportunity to work abroad. For those of us that thrive on adventure, this career path can be very attractive.
3. Workplace Engagement and Relationships : Supply chain and operations is personal. Whether you are working with a diverse team on a manufacturing line or conducting price negotiations, the task is just as technical as it is about intuition, wits, and experience.
In my experience, successfully negotiating price reductions or convincing manufacturing veterans to change their process has been extremely motivating and rewarding.
4. Cutting-Edge Technology : Say you want to get involved in the development of the next iPhone but did not study electrical engineering or computer science. For most, there would not be a place on that team.
However, operations management and supply chain always get a seat at the table because if Apple could not effectively manage the scale of over 200 million devices per year, another company would likely rule the smartphone world today.
Pursuing a supply chain and operations education is a great way to gain access into some of the world’s coolest innovation while not having to have such a specific skillset that some industries require.
My Degree by the Numbers
- Jeff Birenbaum (LGO ‘18)
Two teams, 11 unique personalities, seven months, 14 classes. A return to New England Patriots nation after a six-year journey where I resided in three different states (and one district). An opportunity to complete two masters’ degrees in two years supported by 27 global corporations. Adding to the mix: travel to 22 states and countries while playing on four intramural sports teams.
As one would expect, MIT students like to characterize everything with numbers. My experience as a Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) Fellow thus far has been much more about the people, such as my experience this past summer with my first-semester team.
First, some background. The 48 students in our cohort were divided into eight teams of six students, and each team was responsible for completing projects and classwork associated with the summer curriculum. The teams were announced at our welcome reception. We didn’t know how critical it would be to rely on each other during our first three months at MIT.
Team 6 Möbius (my team): A naval aviator and officer from Texas; an international energy and policy consultant previously based in China; a tractor engineer and father from the Midwest; a prior McKinsey consultant with brilliant energy (and Mario Cart skills); and a go-getter robotics enthusiast originally from Asia.
At face value, it almost sounds like a “so-and-so walked into a bar” joke. While the first semester included regular stops near campus (think Muddy Charles, The Fields, and Aeronaut Brewery to name a few), the experience of working on this diverse team through the summer core was truly exceptional from an intellectual and personal growth perspective.
Before attending business school, I dismissed the idea that the forced team-learning environment I was joining could be so practically and profoundly valuable. I thought that with my few years of experience on the manufacturing shop floor and in corporate roles had exposed me to enough different teams to be effective in all settings. I was wrong. After experiencing the summer core semester with Team 6 Möbius, I learned more about team dynamics, building and managing professional relationships, and driving results than anywhere else I had been before.
For teams at MIT (specifically in the business school), technical skills are just as important as the ability to convey complex information and teach your classmates. Students come from a variety of backgrounds. MIT Sloan gives you a unique opportunity to learn about all industries and career paths, from development consulting in Africa to finance on Wall Street. As a result, students here may find they are teaching others just as much as they are learning from the professors.
Sometimes those lessons are practical. Our team created an optimization model for the NY-ISO electrical grid, attempting to model the utilization of New York power plants according to energy demand based on different statewide conditions (weather, future potential shutdown of the Indian Point Nuclear Facility, etc.). Two of our teammate’s experience in the electrical grid was the basis for the team being able create an accurate model, but this required sacrifice on their part to teach us the relevant material so that all teammates could contribute to the final product. I still draw upon this project in other classes.
And sometimes those lessons were profound. In one instance, a teammate confronted me with feedback regarding my propensity to prioritize efficiency over other others’ learning. In procurement, the name of the game was agility when it came to completing strategic sourcing projects and driving cost savings activities.
In the MIT academic environment, I realized that balancing learning and efficiency was a critical element of success. Taking time to understand new environments and my teammates’ wishes is a lesson I will take forward when working in any team in the future.
Both practical and profound is how I would describe my first semester at MIT; it has been easy to find sources of inspiration from other students, professors, and the community as a whole.
After all, without the people and community to draw upon, my two years at MIT would be just another four semesters of classes after 17 years of primary and undergraduate education and 16 years of the Patriots dynasty.
Studying Water Use in India
I’m Nupur Dokras (LGO ’17), and I recently travelled to India as part of MIT’s D-Lab course, where I worked with in a team of MIT students to study water filtration in Uttarahand. Read my full blog post here.
The purpose of the project was to gather market data for a current MIT research project under Rohit Karnik, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Amy Smith, Senior Lecturer, Department of Mechanical Engineering and Founding Director of D-Lab. We wanted to understand what rural people in India need and prefer to better develop a low-cost water filter.
We started our project in Dehradun where we met with local partner organization People’s Science Institute (PSI). Over a period of three weeks in India, we travelled to Almora, Kapkot, and Bageshwar, three towns at the base of the Himalayas, to conduct research. We worked with local university students as interpreters. We hiked up and down the hills and approached villagers to conduct interviews. After completing nearly 100 interviews and a few design workshops, I was able to use what I learned in classes such as Global Engineering and New Enterprises to develop a set of market findings.
The interviews gave me an inside perspective on villagers and their way of life. Some people had to walk for over an hour to gather their water several times a day. For many, providing food for the family takes precedence over water quality. Filters and maintenance parts were difficult to find in local markets because the villages are so remote.
This trip reinforced my studies here at MIT, but it also absolutely changed my outlook on life. Not only did I learn about water filtration and water use, but so much more about a simpler way of life. I saw students walking for an hour each way to attend school. I laughed with a child as he ecstatically ran across the field when we fixed his broken plastic flip flop with duct tape. I tried on a crop basket and felt the enormous weight of the mustard plants against my back as I climbed the hills. Families greeted me with a cup of chai even though they had only enough electricity to power three LEDs for the entire house. I watched ladies lug gas tanks for cooking from the base of a hill to their kitchens.
I have visited Mumbai and Delhi for family trips before, so I did not expect to be affected by culture shock. However, rural India was a different experience. I realized just how much of an adventure we were on when we had to go to ten different stores to find bottled water and had to drive for another hour to find toilet paper and gasoline! The food, though incredibly spicy, was so fresh and some of the best Indian food I have ever had. When handed an orange in a village, I was promptly given salt and spices to smear on the peeled orange. The mix of tangy and spicy flavors was unforgettable!
This experience gave me a new appreciation for India’s beauty and a simple life. Additionally, I have a new perspective on how to view day-to-day challenges. They pale in comparison to other larger issues in the world. I know I wouldn’t have been able to learn many of these life lessons solely from the classroom. I am incredibly fortunate to have had this opportunity and will never forget the relationships I made, experiences I had, and lessons I learned.
What I Learned [Before] My Summer Vacation
I began thinking about writing a blog post on my drive from Boston to Seattle for my internship at Boeing a few weeks ago. All I could think about what how crazy the last few years have been. A year and a half ago, my girlfriend and I lived in Atlanta. She was teaching pre-school and I worked for GE. Now, we’re married and Abby will be joining me in Seattle for the summer. First of all, I want to digress and comment on planning a wedding during LGO. There was one LGO that got married the first week of summer classes and there were two LGO 17s that moved to Boston, planned a wedding, and got married right after our first year. It wasn’t easy, but we found time to plan our weddings, get involved with committees and clubs, and make great friends during our first year.
During my drive, I had over 50 hours and 3500 miles of driving to reflect on the last year. From not being engaged and working at GE to being married and driving to my internship in Seattle, my life is completely different. I can’t say that it’s all been stress-free, but I have learned a lot during the last year. This might be a little cheesy, but here a few of the memorable lessons that I learned during my first year of LGO.
- Many LGO 17s would agree that the best piece of advice we heard during our first year came during a leadership and ethics seminar. Our speaker said that many of her LGO classmates lived outside of their means and ended up trapped in jobs/lives that they didn’t want. Her advice was to live within your means so that you can quit your job at any moment and transition to something that you truly love. I know that we’ve all heard this advice before, but it was refreshing to hear it from a successful LGO alum.
- Find a work/life balance – school and work are important, but so are staying healthy, meeting new people, and trying new things. I still struggle with this, but these are important things that will allow me to get the most of of LGO and life.
- It’s OK to say “I don’t know. Can you help me?” This happened very early on during LGO when I struggled with a few classes. I knew that LGO would be hard, but I didn’t expect to be completely lost during the summer. Luckily I learned to ask for help and my classmates and teachers were more than willing to take time to help me. I am continually shocked at the kindness and willingness to help that my classmates have shown each other throughout our first year.
- You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating. I realized early on at LGO that I like to think things through slowly and methodically. I also realized that it takes me more time than some of my classmates to recall certain things that we’ve learned. I realized during a leadership class over the summer that taking time to think about something can be extremely beneficial. We are always trying to multitask, especially at LGO, but I rarely found creative solutions or solved problems while multitasking. I believe that there is a time and a place for multitasking, but disconnecting and concentrating on the problem at hand can produce great results.
- Getting angry can make you temporarily dumb. This came up in a negotiations class that I took in the Spring. Our professor explained that getting angry temporarily changes your brain for up to 17 minutes so that you are actually temporarily dumb. I used to get really frustrated at work and learning about this side effect of anger/frustration/impatience made me seriously consider if allowing myself to get angry was impacting my work more than I realized.
Overall, the most important lessons that I learned from my first year at LGO were not technical. While I loved learning about supply chains, manufacturing, finance, etc., and I’m sure they will help me in my internship and post-LGO career, I was really shocked by all of the meaningful, non-technical things that I learned. These most certainly differ from all of my classmates’ lessons learned, but that’s the beauty of MIT Sloan and LGO. Everybody gets exactly what they need out of them.
Nick Arch, LGO ‘17
MIT Sloan MBA & SM in Mechanical Engineering
One week until the 2016s graduate…and Matt Damon returns (?) to campus to deliver the 2016 Commencement Speech. We’ll finally get to answer everyone’s burning question…does he really like apples? (via GIPHY)
Best Thesis Nominees for the ‘16s! #MIT2016 #lgoonthego #mymitsloan #engineer #thesis #gradschool #aroundmit http://ift.tt/1st8pOF
Disaster Relief Housing in PDD
Jordan Charles ‘17
This past Saturday marked culmination of my semester-long design project for the class Product Development and Design (PDD). The class is uniquely MIT and is a melting pot of the MIT community. Students include PhDs, MBAs, SMs in engineering/architecture, and undergraduates. In addition, there are several students from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) that chose to enroll every year. The goal of the class is to come up with an innovative idea for a physical product, build a prototype of that product, and develop a comprehensive business plan to bring that product to market.
My team developed a new concept for disaster relief housing that focuses on modularity, customizability, reusability, and elements of human centered design to enable both physical and psychological recover from natural disasters. My team consisted of two MBAs, two LGOs, and a designer from RISD. Our solution was a ‘LEGO-style’ structure made from thermoformed squares that snap on to a skeleton-structure made out of connected pipes (no tools required!).
My team presenting to the class (you can see our 1/3 scale prototype in the center of the room behind me)
One of my favorite aspects of the class was the marriage of technology and business. If was fun to not only engineer a physical product, but also consider the business implications of that product throughout the design/development phase. The class really personifies of the spirit of LGO (the intersection of engineering and business). Our final product was a holistic solution that is both functional AND marketable.
I also really enjoyed working with a diverse team. We primarily built our prototype at RISD in Providence RI so we had the opportunity to interact with the RISD ecosystem and even got to use their photography studio to snap some professional shots of our finished product.
Our prototype in the studio – pictured on the right is a load test where we (nervously) placed 150 lbs on the roof of our structure. To our relief, it didn’t break!
The final pitch day was a highlight of the class as all 12 project teams were given 30 minutes to present their prototypes and business plans. Many teams are planning to patent their ideas and continue developing them in order to take them to market. Some of my favorite ideas included:
• A wireless credit card-sized external cell phone battery
• Educational toys for kids with disabilities
• A smart bike parking solution
• An integrated CPAP/EPAP machine to relive snoring
Additionally, some teams got really creative for their presentations, buying team t-shirts and even surprising the audience with elaborate costumes. In the end, the pitch day was a fun celebration of all of our hard work and innovative ideas.
Team Snap-Safe-Shelter-System. (L-R) Anthony, Katie, Miriam, and me