MIT’s SDM program offers a unique
“We look for students who really want to make a commitment to systems, people who want to be technical leaders in a systems-focused area.”
– Joan Rubin, MIT
By Laurel McKee Ranger
'Two things make the MIT SDM program unique. One is our focus on systems to address development and design, and how a component functions within a system.
“The other is the experience of our student cohort. The average student has eight to ten years of industry experience. Many are already managers or directors, and they come from a cross-section of industries. Part of the learning experience here is seeing how problems are solved in different industries,” says Joan Rubin, industry co-director for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, Cambridge, MA) System Design and Management (SDM, sdm.mit.edu) program.
The SDM program, launched in 1996, is jointly offered by MIT’s School of Engineering and Sloan School of Management. It provides a masters degree in engineering and management with a focus on using systems thinking to solve large-scale, complex challenges in product design, development and innovation. Students may pursue the degree full time, part time, or as distance learners. Rubin notes that approximately 60 percent of students are full time and live on the MIT campus or in surrounding communities. Twenty percent are commuters and another 20 percent participate via distance learning.
“Students pursuing the degree full time can complete the requirements within thirteen months, but many extend that to sixteen months. In some cases, fulltime students get an internship with a company and then switch to distance learning if they are hired full time. There’s tremendous flexibility to the program,” says Rubin.
Course offerings are in three main areas: systems engineering, systems architecture and systems and project management. Students take management and technical core courses, including courses like financial and managerial accounting, technical strategy and user-centered innovations. In any two-year period, there are approximately 100 students in the program; the graduation rate is nearly 100 percent.
Flexible learning options
“This is not an alternative to an MBA,” Rubin stresses. “We look for students who really want to make a commitment to systems, people who want to be technical leaders in systems-focused areas.”
One of the most striking elements of the SDM program is the distance learning component. Advanced technology allows full participation for distance learners. “Students don’t just go online. During lectures, they virtually ‘sit’ in the class with other students. They can ask questions and be called on. And because it is synchronous, our students are very dedicated. Some of them have to get up at 3 AM to attend class because they are in India or Singapore,” Rubin says. The real-time participation of all students is crucial, Rubin adds, because teamwork is an essential part of the program.
Distance learners must come to the school for one semester during their time in the program as well as for a three to four-week initiation period during their first semester. Once each semester they’re also required to be on campus for one week. This enhances teamwork by ensuring that everyone knows everyone else by sight.
Diverse classes prepare for global business
“Business today is global. Our students come in knowing how to work across cultures,” says Rubin. The program enhances that experience and looks for diversity of experience and background in students.
Approximately 50 percent of students come from outside the U.S. The current student class includes professionals from Asia, Europe and South America. Although most have technical backgrounds, the program has included MDs and those with backgrounds in finance. The common thread is that all are high academic achievers who have demonstrated success in their careers and their ability to lead projects and programs.
Because the program includes so many non-U.S. students, the administrators don’t track minority participation. But they do keep track of the proportion of woman participating.
“The current class is thirty percent female, an increase from the past. There’s been a big push to increase that representation. We now have a group called Women in SDM, or WiSDM. Part of the charter of that organization is to build awareness of women within the program and to increase the numbers of women participating,” says Rubin.
The SDM program is pricey. The fulltime program tuition is about $75,000, the part-time commuters’ program about $86,000, and the twenty-four-month distance learners program about $100,000. About half the students pay their own tuition.
Teaching assistantships may help to defray some of the cost, but students are not offered positions until after they start the program. Approximately 20 percent of students receive full sponsorship from their employers and another 30 percent are partially funded.
Alum pays it forward
Brian Ippolito, president and CEO of Orbis Technologies (Annapolis, MD), a global IT services company, graduated from the MIT SDM program in 1998. “I was a self-funded fulltime research Fellow. I used the program as an opportunity to change careers.”
Ippolito graduated in 1992 with a BS in aerospace engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology (Chicago, IL), then spent five years in the Air Force as an acquisition officer. After graduating from the SDM program, he worked for defense contractor Northrop Grumman (Falls Church, VA) as a director of intellectual property and then as director of advanced programs. “At one point I managed 5,000 patents worth $25 billion,” he says.
In 2006, armed with the skills he had acquired in the Air Force, the SDM program and at Northrop Grumman, Ippolito decided to strike out on his own. “Big companies are very difficult. You don’t get to do corporate functions even at a high level. I wanted to run a corporation,” he says.
Since its founding in 2006, Orbis has experienced steady growth and last year reached its target revenue of $10 million. Today the company provides services and products for companies that have or are migrating to cloud infrastructures.
Ippolito sees his participation in the MIT SDM program as a crucial factor in the founding of Orbis. “One of the key features of the program is the pace and volume of work. The tempo and expectations absolutely reflect what it takes to found a company. SDM trains you for a marathon. You will never in your life find a better group of peers,” he says.
The depth of the SDM engineering program and the breadth of the business program broaden a student’s vision, according to Ippolito. “You get in because you’re good at something, but you learn to be good at everything. The program gets you out of your comfort zone,” he says.
As a result of his experience, Ippolito is now helping one of his employees, Judi (Phatty) Arbuckle, attend the program.
“It’s much harder for technology managers now than it was ten years ago. There’s very little room for mistakes. One of the big changes occurring in this decade is the death of middle management. Management at all levels must be engaged in the technology and also understand the business side. You have to have managers and project leads who can grow into senior roles in five years now. Everything is evolving very quickly,” he says.
“The perfect fusion” of tech and MBA
Judi “Phatty” Arbuckle, a senior software developer at Orbis, started the SDM program in January 2013 and plans to finish in 2015. She is pursuing the distance-learning path, working full time and going to class part time. The company partially funds her schooling.
“The amount of work involved depends on the semester. In the spring I was taking fifteen hours of class a week, basically a full load, but now I’m only doing nine to twelve hours a week. There’s a lot of classwork, but Orbis is really supportive and I can work extra hours after our core time to get my Orbis job done,” Arbuckle says.
She found her January on-campus experience both enjoyable and valuable. “My class built a lot of great relationships, which helps when you’re taking video classes. And virtual attendance allows you to dialogue with other distance students,” she says.
Arbuckle sees the program as the perfect fusion between a technical masters and an MBA. “There are so many MBAs out there now that they don’t have as much value as they once did. This degree gives me a leg up on the competition,” she says.
Arbuckle, who grew up in Bozeman, MT and has a 2002 BS in computer science from Alabama A&M (Huntsville), spent six years at General Dynamics (Falls Church, VA) in Scottsdale, AZ as a software developer. In 2008, she took off to play semi-pro volleyball in Poland and then returned to Alabama in 2010 to work for a small software company. In 2011, she joined Orbis.
One challenge Arbuckle faces as a distance student is maintaining a work/ life/school balance. Another is her desire to be in two places at once. “MIT has so much you can participate in, but even on campus, there is not enough time to reap all the rewards,” she says. “The people in the program are amazing. There are people from Gallo, SAP, Amazon, IBM, Microsoft and John Deere in my classes. The number of possibilities to learn… it’s phenomenal.”
One SDM fulltimer takes full advantage
Marianna Novellino is a fulltime student in the SDM program. She started at the same time as Arbuckle, and plans to graduate in December 2014 or spring of 2015. Novellino was self-sponsored during the first semester, but is now doing research on environmental issues in India for the Tata Group (Mumbai, India), which is sponsoring her education.
“I’m originally from Venezuela and this is a great opportunity for me. My background is in water treatment, so this project is a good fit and involves both social and environmental issues,” she says.
Novellino entered the program because she felt it offered one of the few good mixes of technology and management. She appreciates that all her peers have technical backgrounds and real-life experience as well. “That’s great, because those who go straight from undergraduate work to an MBA program don’t always see the application of knowledge. Here it’s more realistic, a mix of real life and academics,” she says.
Novellino is a co-founder of the MIT Product Management Club, which promotes a better understanding of the role of product management. It’s open to all MIT students, not only those in the SDM program. She also participates in the Sustainability Club and WiSDM. “It’s a challenge to participate in everything here, but I really enjoy it.”
Since coming to the U.S., Novellino has changed careers. She received a BSME from the Universidad del Tachira (San Cristobal, VZ) in 2001, but decided to pursue a masters in civil engineering with a specialty in environmental issues, which she received from the University of Dayton (OH) in 2004. During school she worked for ATS Engineering (West Chester, OH) doing consulting and project engineering in the water and wastewater area. In 2005, she took a position as an applications engineer with Parkson Corporation (New York, NY), a water and wastewater equipment manufacturer. In 2012, she was promoted to the position of product manager for filtration technology.
Novellino is unreservedly enthusiastic about MIT’s SDM program. “The interaction with the students here is fantastic. They come from so many different backgrounds, countries and experiences.”
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