For those who aspire to one day reach that elusive corner office and become a CEO, step one used to be obvious: get yourself an MBA.
But increasingly, that first step is not so obvious. A different degree—engineering—is surging as the key for someone who hopes to run a company. What’s changed? Two words: big data.
The ability to understand and process enormous reams of data and analytics is a big reason why leaders like Google CEO Larry Page, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and Apple CEO Tim Cook have graduate engineering degrees—in addition to their MBAs.
They are not alone. An annual survey in the November-December 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review found that for the second consecutive year more of the top-performing 100 global CEOs have engineering degrees than have MBAs. To be precise, 34 of the top 100 CEOs on this year’s list have engineering degrees, while 32 have MBAs; more impressive, 10 of the top 20 are engineers.
“An engineering background imbues people with the capacity to compete and innovate in today’s business landscape, one where technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace and where almost every product or service requires the integration of multiple disciplines,” says Kenneth R. Lutchen, dean of BU’s College of Engineering and a professor of biomedical engineering.
As for the point about data, Lutchen says, the value of an engineering degree can’t be overstated. “Engineers,” he says, “are best trained to translate all that complexity into business success.”
The rise of tech
The rise of data that’s driving the engineer-as-CEO trend has been accompanied by another big factor in the swing: the emergence of more powerhouse technology companies. While the 2014 HBR survey included only 8 CEOs from technology companies, just four years later, the list is nearly triple that number: 22.
Even many companies that aren’t pure tech are increasingly reliant on technology. Former CEO Jeanne Meister (Wheelock’73) is a leading global expert on the future of work. As both an author (The Future Workplace Experience) and an in-demand advisor, Meister helps companies understand how emerging trends in technology impact the way work gets done.
She points to three distinctive skills driving the engineer-as-CEO trend.
- Engineers have unique strengths in evidence-based decision-making. They deeply understand how to organize, interpret, and process data.
- Engineers are system thinkers who take a holistic approach to analyzing the complexity of any problem and examine it from all angles.
- Engineers have curiosity, grit, adaptability, as well as the ability to stick with and solve complex business problems when things are hard and directions are not explicit.
So what do the actual engineers who’ve become CEOs have to say about this shift at the top? Three BU alums who hold top leadership roles stress several qualities their engineering cohorts possess that differentiate them from someone with a more traditional MBA background.
Engineers as problem-solvers
George Savage (ENG’81) is the cofounder and chief medical officer of Proteus Digital Health (PDH). Savage has a degree in biomedical engineering from BU, an MD from Tufts, and an MBA from Stanford. He describes engineering as “an immensely practical discipline focused on problem-solving, which is the core challenge for CEOs and entrepreneurial teams today.”
Proteus Digital Health is solving health problems by integrating multiple components. “PDH creates digital medicines, consisting of the integration of a grain-of-sand-sized ingestible sensor into a pharmaceutical tablet, an adhesive Band-Aid-sized wearable receiver, a paired mobile phone, a cloud-based personal health record, and a physician web-portal,” Savage explains. “The complete solution provides feedback to patient and physician about drug-taking and response.”
For Savage, the engineer’s multidisciplinary approach to creating value goes way beyond technology: “Creating and executing a multiyear strategy to secure global regulatory approvals, first for the technology and secondly for the integrated medicine, is one example of applying an engineering approach to solving big, complex problems,” he says.
Engineers as masters of data
Jason Colacchio (ENG’90) is president of Adcco, Inc., a company that uses data to provide actionable insights and optimized solutions to clients and their transportation fleets. As Colacchio explains it, his background as an electrical engineer is essential to how he leverages data on behalf of client companies.
“Engineers understand how to analyze data in order to support decision-making,” he says. “In today’s world of widespread data collection and use, all leaders need to be highly skilled at analyzing and leveraging data.”
Colacchio points out that most companies collect increasing amounts of data, but then have no idea how to translate the information into business insights and data-driven decision-making. “There’s a large need today,” he says, “not just in transportation, but in so many industries, to have big data conveyed intelligently and succinctly to decision-makers, and that’s something we engineers excel at.”
Engineers as collaborators
“Starting in engineering school,” she says, “you’re forced to communicate in order to collectively address challenges. It takes an interdisciplinary team with a diversity of skills, methodologies, and knowledge to create success. Being understood within a team or across company divisions, as well as connecting with your external stakeholders, is paramount for success. We engineers do that really well.”
From Pitter’s perspective, engineers are also uniquely skilled at coordinating people, processes, and complex systems to tackle business challenges. “I was trained at BU to approach challenges in a systematic manner,” she says. “You see not only the bigger picture, but how each piece of the puzzle interconnects while simultaneously operates independently.”
Engineers as lifelong learners
Engineers are also profoundly aware of the need to keep on learning because of how quickly industry can change. “What an engineer knows for sure,” Pitter says, “is that nothing stays the same. Technology evolves so quickly that you have to stay in a mode of continuous learning.”
Savage agrees. “So many businesses today leverage developments in various specialties to build integrated systems or services that provide end-to-end customer solutions,” he says. “Quite often, the connective tissue for these solutions are engineering disciplines such as radio communication, GPS, or predictive analytics.”
An engineering background “gives a CEO a leg up as a ‘native speaker’ in a world increasingly dependent upon advanced technology,” he says.
Of course, for all the skills learned from an engineering graduate program, inevitably there will be gaps—gaps that perhaps only an MBA could fill. As the latest Harvard study points out, 8 of the top 100 CEOs on its list decided that rather than pick one route or the other, they got both.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer. Send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.