This article from the Irish Times mentions how engineers missed the “marketing boat”.

I firmly believe that this is true. Having completed a Smurfit MBA in order to get away from being “just an engineer”, I found that my transferrable skills were virtually unknown in the working world. Those engineers on my MBA course who wanted to stay in the engineering arena found jobs fairly quickly. However, those that wanted to get away from the “pure” engineering field were destined for a longer job search.

People talk about arts and commerce as “good, general degrees” (which they are), but that is rarely said about engineering. However, the critical thinking and problem-solving skills developed with engineering are applicable anywhere. Moreover, the ability to understand other people’s complex ideas that any engineer must have in order to get the degree is directly relevant to needs-identification in sales and marketing.

Furthermore, while not considered a “creative” discipline, engineering requires more creativity than people generally realise. The ability to break down a problem and then figure out a way to solve that problem is well understood, and the phrase “problem solver” is on everyone’s CV these days. But there is a difference between someone who solves a problem by going through a prescribed approach, and someone who solves a problem in a “creative” manner.

What separates a “creative” problem solver from a “by-rote” problem solver is a deep understanding of the underlying system (usually a very complex system). This understanding is a central point in coming up with novel (“new to world”) or creative solutions that have never been used before. Engineers spend a lot of time examining systems, so the interaction between elements is something that we don’t take for granted.

An example:
Coming from an electronic engineering background, one system that I would be used to are circuits. At the digital level, every element does a specific job, has at least one input (1 or 0) coming from another element, at least one output that goes to another element…and the whole thing creates a system. At a digital level, things can have quite simple causal relationships. But beyond that, an electronic engineer must take into account the real world. Signals that are analogue are not simply 1 or 0. Current flows around a circuit board following certain paths, which can interfere with the inputs and outputs of other elements if care is not taken.

At a Toastmasters meeting yesterday, one of the topics presented was, “Does the pressure on companies to reduce price also reduce quality?”. The answers given were all given by those who thought “Yes – a price decrease must equal a quality decrease”. We’ve all seen the “Project Triangle” at some point. This clearly shows us that it is possible to produce something a low cost and of good quality if we sacrifice time. The time element can, however, be minimised by having good problem-solvers involved, allowing for good, low-cost solutions with a low time-to-market (or at least lower than that of the competition).

In conclusion, the M.O. of an engineer’s brain can be useful in so many non-engineering arenas: CRM – a network of customers is a system; Sales – understanding of customer needs boosts credibility; Strategy – the market is also a system, with cause and effect; Marketing – a campaign is a series of linked occurrences, like a system; Project Management – a project is a system; etc.

Please remember that just because we’re engineers does not make us emotionally unintelligent Dilberts. Additionally, anyone with an MBA has fundamental business/economic/strategy understanding.

And, as I’ve mentioned above, the fundamentals are what really count.

Edit (14th March 2012): This article from the Globe and Mail tells of how engineers have overtaken MBAs in leadership positions. So just imagine what an engineer with an MBA can do. (thanks to Fergus for the link)

I have recently started a job with a company called 1io. We are using the methods described by “Personal Kanban”, and the tools at in order to organise our tasks and time. It is part of the “agile” workflow used by so many software organisations.

I am finding it to be incredibly useful on many levels.

For starters, a core concept of Kanban is that there should be “information radiators”, meaning that there should be an easy way to see what is going on at any moment, without the need to go digging for any information. A Kanban board will do this by default. At a glance, it is possible to see what a person is doing at any time, what is on hold, why it is on hold, what still needs to be done, and what is important. Yes, a Kanban board can look quite full of sticky notes, but the organisation of those notes has meaning, which users can interpret quickly and easily.

As a user, I can use this radiation of information to show both my co-workers and my bosses exactly what it is that I’m doing at any given point. It also allows them to check if the next item they wish to add to my “to-do list” is more or less important than what I am working on right now. If it is less important, then they will not mind if I don’t get working on it right away. In other words, it makes it far easier for me to say, “I have to put that on hold right now, but I will get to it” because they see that I have a system in place – a system that will allow me to tackle every task without forgetting any.

This concept is, to quote Jim and Tonianne’s (very informative and well-written) book, “limiting your work in progress” (WIP). This limitation of the number of tasks that one is working on at any given moment is critical to working effectively. John Medina’s book, “Brain Rules”, also mentions how the human brain physically cannot multitask effectively. Multitasking is an inherently inefficient way of working. Kanban seeks to rectify this by allowing a person to concentrate on fewer tasks at a time, unlike the “to-do list”, which just throws every task into the “doing” pile at once. The Kanban board then allows all others to see what is one one’s plate at any time, demonstrating that one is not slacking off.

Beyond this information radiation, it is both mentally and physically satisfying to see one’s tasks go from the backlog, to “ready”, to “in process” and then to “done”. Each time a task is moved to “done”, the brain releases a bit of reward, which is motivation for doing more. Furthermore, even the number of tasks doesn’t seem so overwhelming when there’s a system in place and one can see the tasks getting done.

Finally, as a recent MBA graduate who was job-hunting for a few months, every interview I did asked about previous achievements. A CV should also have these achievements listed in order to attract employers. In other words, I should have been taking note of all my measurable achievements over my working life in order to use them in the future. Moreover, it is vital when filling out an annual review form to have a list one’s achievements for the year.

Kanban can help with this.

Everything in the “done” column of a Kanban board is something that can be pointed to along with the phrase, “I did this”. It is not necessary for one to create a special document and remember to update it regularly, if the collation of completed tasks is already part of one’s daily process. Of course, some of the tasks will be small and not relevant or worth mentioning on a CV. But even these small tasks usually serve as reminders of the larger project upon which we worked.

This is also a reason why I am using an online tool for my Kanban board alongside my office whiteboard – I won’t have to trawl through physical post-it notes in order to see my achievements.

Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day.
Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for his whole life.
If that man innovates fishing methods, he’ll catch more fish than he needs, thus being able to sell the surplus fish, the technology, or both.
In other words, innovation will give the man disposable income.

I attended the Dublin Investment Summit on Friday 30th September 2011. CEOs, entrepreneurs, authors and investors were present to discuss business topics relevant to today’s economy. There were also pitches from companies that were looking for investment (including some very exciting nanotechnology from Vasorum and Alta Science).

The overriding message from both the summit and from my recently completed MBA is that innovation is king in today’s world. Hypercompetition is where companies and firms try to both increase their own competitive advantage and erode the competition’s advantage. This erosion is only avoidable through either patents or constant innovation in the marketplace. This continuing innovation keeps changing the goalposts so that the competition cannot keep up.

Patents give legal protection in their jurisdictions, but cannot offer protection against underlying ideas. In fact, one company present at the Dublin Investment Summit (SolarPrint) has not patented its technology, claiming that the ideas are too valuable to be released into the public domain. A founder, Dr. Mazhar Bari, explained that keeping the technology secret would hinder the competition more than having a patent.

This could become a growing trend in the marketplace, as companies (especially startups) work to retain their competitive advantage. However, I do not think that it is a sustainable model. Loose lips or a defection from within that company could lead to the underlying idea leaking to the public domain. Keeping something secret is a very shaky premise for a business model. Furthermore, the technology could be impinging on another patent. This is what patent examiners and search firms do: they find out if an idea is either patentable or infringing.

Enter constant innovation!

At the summit, there was a copy of Innovation Demystified by Richard Lawler to be given away. This book is a compilation of simple techniques designed to unlock one’s creativity. I have not yet read this book, but a glance through it spoke to me on a creative level. It’s the whole “walk away from the crossword for a while, and the answers become obvious” idea.

Personally, I use juggling, painting and lock picking as ways to take my mind off issues at hand. However, I think that I will purchase this book for it’s desk-ercises as well its simple mind distraction techniques.

But it does show that everyone can be creative if they put some time into it. This innovation is key in today’s business marketplace, and having some staff doing full-time innovation work on products, marketing, strategy and even the company’s business plan is essential.

In times of hypercompetition, innovation is the means to survival.

Having finished my MBA, I am now looking for a job. This, in turn, has led to some watching of daytime television during meals. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed watching cartoons, and it is no different these days. However, I have noticed new business subtexts in some of these cartoons, whether intentional or not.

Spongebob Squarepants

Spongebob Squarepants

Spongebob Squarepants is particularly rich in business lessons, two examples of which I shall outline below.

  1. The Krusty Krab Company Culture

    In the cartoon, the main character, Spongebob, works in a fast food outlet called the Krusty Krab. He loves the work and lives for being the best at flipping burgers and for the extra work that his boss, Mr. Krabs, demands from him.Mr. Krabs drives the business by the bottom line, always on the look out for profit, but he understands the importance of giving customers what they want. Spongebob buys into this philosophy wholeheartedly, and is a very satisfied employee, routinely going above and beyond for the good of the customer.

    Squidward, on the other hand, is the other employee at the Krusty Krab. He only works there because he has to, and he does not buy into the customer service philosophy. In fact, Squidward routinely wishes that he would be fired, allowing him to move on and fulfil his dream of being a famous and respected clarinet player. He does not care about the organisation, nor does he care what happens to it. The minimal work he puts in for his job reflects this lack of commitment.

    Business Lesson Bit

    These dynamics highlight the importance of fitting with a company’s culture. If one does not fit with the culture, one is going to feel demotivated and work only the hours that one must.

    If, however, one is a perfect fit for an organisation’s culture, then one will be motivated to work above and beyond, contributing 110% to the “cause”. I can’t help thinking that, were Mr. Krabs to address Squidward’s lust for the clarinet by, for example, providing him with training or a gig at the restaurant, then Squidward would also be a more motivated employee, buying into the company’s customer-focused ethos.


  2. Sandy Cheeks and Customer Needs Identification

    Sandy Cheeks is a squirrel that lives in an air bubble dome at the bottom of the sea. She is an inventor and scientist, always coming up with new gadgets. In one episode, we see that her bosses are simians when they come to run an inspection on her progress.

    Sandy Cheeks

    Sandy Cheeks

    None of the inventions that she shows them are (in their eyes) impressive. They would all be very useful for a human’s day-to-day life, and certainly impress the other residents of Bikini Bottom (the name of Spongebob’s town), but they do not address any of her bosses’ needs.

    Just after Sandy’s bosses have decided to shut down her dome for cost reasons, Spongebob and Patrick find a forgotten-about invention – a gadget that peels bananas. The simians are enthralled by this, and immediately agree to continue funding Sandy’s venture at the bottom of the ocean.

    Business Lesson Bit

    This is a common occurrence in everyday business, especially in startup companies, where the inventor sees huge utility in a gadget, but neglects to find out if it addresses any real consumer needs. A moral might be that, if other people aren’t as excited about your business idea as you are, the business plan might need to be changed.

    Remember: no plan survives first contact and ideas cannot be precious (especially first ideas).

(originally posted here on 10th June 2011)

Undertaking an MBA changes the way one’s mind works.

In fact, right there is an example; I would previously have written “your” instead of “one’s”. Formal writing is inherent throughout the many assignments that we have done this year. But the changes have been far, far more serious than changing my word-usage.

The changes have also affected my pub chat.

Recently, sitting in Murray’s bar on Bow Lane, Dublin, I was talking to a friend about charity events. Specifically, she perceived the spending of money on charity events such as black-tie balls as a waste of money.  In other words, she proposed that the money spent on them should be put towards the charity itself, thus earning the charity more money.

In reply, I began by explaining a fundamental business concept that the price of a product or service has to exist somewhere between its perceived value by the consumer and the cost to produce that good or service:

Benefit (value to the consumer) – Price – Cost

In the case of charity events, the perceived value of a ticket to a black-tie ball is greater than the value of a ticket to a session down the pub. Of course, the costs of organising a black-tie ball are higher than the costs of organising a session in a pub.

I continued by explaining that the difference between the money that can be raised through the sale of black-tie event tickets and the costs of organising said event (especially for charity) far exceeds the profits that can be made by having the same people down in the pub for a networking session.

It was at this point I realised that I have changed. My pub arguments have become far more coherent and informed…especially given the number of pints I’d had. So I decided to sit back, relax and watch the end of the Eurovision.

(originally posted here on 4th May 2011)

We full-timers now find ourselves mostly finished with classes, but still very busy. The company project is what we do in lieu of a thesis and is a lot more practical. Instead of simply researching a theory we get to go out into the real world (scary after six months of school!) and solve a real company problem. We are, essentially, cheap consultants.

The company project is a great opportunity to push ones boundaries and try something new. Coming from an electronic engineering background, I wanted to challenge myself in an area with which I was unfamiliar, and signed up for a project involving strategy for Ogilvy Ireland. My partner on this project, Gemma Ginty, found it through the CEO of the Ogilvy Group, JP Donnelly. JP is also a Smurfit MBA alumnus and a board member of the Smurfit School.

The first and most important thing that needs to be done when helping a customer to solve a problem is understanding that problem. In order to really understand a business problem, one first has to understand the business itself. To that end, we spent the first week of this project reading a lot of background material on the advertising business and the challenges it now faces due to social and technological changes. This immersion in the business not only gave us a deeper understanding of the industry, but also added to our credibility when speaking to people involved with that industry.

We then interviewed key players from different parts of Ogilvy Ireland to get their views on what was required. This is also a very important part of any potential change, from the “people problems” side of things (props to Ian, John and Pat for pushing the human element during our classes). A basic tenet is to include as many stakeholders as possible during the planning phase and listen to their feedback, so that as many parties as possible feel ownership for any change. As a consultant, one doesn’t want to crash into a company and step on toes, because it’s a sure-fire way to create resistance to any ideas that one might have.

Gemma brainstorming with Post-It notes

Gemma brainstorming with Post-It notes

Both Gemma and I found getting under the skin of the industry to be extremely rewarding. This basic understanding allowed us to engage in some creativity with respect to our aims and proposal, and we engaged in some divergent and convergent thinking, advice from our Entrepreneurship lecturer, John Cashell. To this end, we found ourselves covering syndicate rooms with post-it notes, trying (and succeeding!) to come up with ways to tackle the core problem.

As of the time of writing, we are still slap in the middle of the company project, so there is not yet any conclusion to this tale. What I can say for sure, however, is that an MBA gives one a different view of the world and a deeper understanding of business as a whole. This understanding can be used to really get to the core of problems that one is trying to solve, and develop an innovative solution. In this day and age, innovation is the key to success in any business.

(originally posted here on 18th April 2011)

The full-time MBA social committee organised a trip to Leitrim Quay as a last weekend away before we started into our company projects. Unfortunately, some of the guys that signed up were unable to make it, due to course workloads and the MBA rugby world cup that was happening the following week in Duke University (which Smurfit won! Go team!).

Justin and Tham sailing the boat

Justin teaching Tham to sail the boat

However, some of us were able to head down. On the night of Thursday 31st March, five of us headed down to check the place out and, more importantly, grab the nicer beds. We arrived late, so it wasn’t until the following morning that we were up and about and playing with the boats.

One of the Vietnamese girls from the class, Tham Nguyen, had never driven a vehicle in her life. So we decided that a very slow boat on the river Shannon was good place for her to start. And she loved it! We, of course, loved it too because it meant that we could sit back and drink beers while Tham guided the craft for us.

We took a cruise down to Carrick-on-Shannon for our day trip, where I found a chipper that sells battered Mars bars. It was one more item marked off the bucket list and, at 1,000 calories, one large step closer to kicking the bucket. We also visited the Costello Memorial Chapel, the smallest chapel in Europe.

Upon arrival in Carrick-on-Shannon, we noticed a bar with a mooring called Ging’s. Before we took the boat home that afternoon, we decided to stop in there for a pint and some games of pool. Tham had also never before played pool, so it was quite a day for her. She beat both Justin and me before we called it a day.

That evening, more of our classmates arrived down and we ended the night drinking and chatting in one of the houses until the wee hours.

Jamie and Cian relaxing...

Jamie and Cian relaxing…

Tham the Skipper

…while Tham is at the wheel