Engineering Management Masters Accelerates a Career

January 1, 2004

By David King

What one word best sums up the results of Andrew Gonce's MEM degree? Acceleration. Not a bad choice for an engineer who spends much of his time working to improve the Ford Mustang.

"What I learned in earning my MEM degree helped to accelerate the start of my career," Gonce said, and his achievements certainly support his statement. After completing the MEM degree at Duke, Gonce had several job offers from which to choose, but Ford rose to the top. The excitement of moving to a place where he had never been and working for a large, established consumer products company such as Ford, proved to be two main deciding factors.

Gonce entered the Ford College Graduate Program in 2000 for two years of rotating assignments. By selecting a variety of six-month positions, he gained vital insight into the many aspects of such a large company that made him an even more well rounded engineer. The MEM program prepared him to take assignments as diverse as Mustang Program Management and Vehicle Personalization Finance. Success in these varied disciplines allowed him to choose where to go next at Ford Motor Company.

In the late nineties, Ford implemented the Six Sigma program in an effort to leverage engineering skills to attack specific quality and waste problems in assembly plants, labs, and offices. This is what Gonce chose to do, and in the fall of 2002, he began his training as a North American Core Engineering Black Belt. Having always wanted to pick up new skills and to learn how to make things work, Gonce enjoyed being able to combine all his interests through Six Sigma. Six Sigma uses a rigorous statistical base to focus efforts on the root cause of problems and to prevent any recurrences. Using his training, Gonce was able to save over one million dollars and correct three significant quality issues at two North American Assembly plants. One particular project gave Gonce an opportunity to really ‘get his feet wet,' working in Louisville Assembly Plant's Paint Department and inside the paint spray booths.

"Without the experience in an assembly plant, I would never have truly understood how the company runs its business and how money is made," Gonce remarked, reflecting on his Six Sigma experiences.

Though one might never guess it, considering his success at Ford, Gonce was not always so sure where his engineering degree would take him. As a Duke undergraduate in mechanical engineering, he made the usual treks to the career fairs his senior year. In three previous summers, he had worked as an engineering intern at Lockheed Martin, but he did not know if this what he really wanted to do. He was tempted to follow other friends into the world of consulting, but felt instead that he would gain more by pursuing Duke's Master of Engineering Management degree. Gonce's expectations of his one-year MEM degree probably resonate with many young college graduates.

"I wanted an opportunity to make myself more attractive to employers, while figuring out what I really want to do, and ‘rounding out' my engineering education." Gonce knew he did not want to be a “technical, Ph.D. type of engineer” because he was really drawn to understanding the process of how a whole business works. For him, the MEM degree seemed the perfect fit, and so Gonce entered Duke's MEM program in the class of 2000.

As he had hoped when entering the program, Gonce found that the MEM degree truly helped round out his engineering education. While, as an undergraduate, Gonce did not have either the time or opportunity to step outside his focus in mechanical engineering, the MEM degree allowed him to network and learn from engineers from all different backgrounds. In addition, by attending technology fairs and developing projects, Gonce was able to apply what he learned in the classroom.

“In undergrad you mostly get theory. There's often not enough time for application. However, in the real world, perfect lab conditions don't really ever happen,” Gonce says lightheartedly.

Even in non-laboratory situations, MEM classes continued to provide the ‘real world' perspective often lacking from traditional engineering instruction. Gonce reflected, “My best class was Product Liability and Management because I saw so clearly how the engineering discipline fit with the real world. You learn that, obviously, some things matter more than others. Now [at Ford], when I am in a testing group and something breaks on a car, there are consequences.”

Gonce also highlighted his introductory Management class, “because it pulled all the disciplines together.” Gonce remarked, “you can not afford to engineer, working by yourself and reading books to figure a project out. That is not how companies work. The case studies we used in class are comparable to my Six Sigma teams with manufacturing, engineering, and finance all involved. Whether you like it or not, bringing people together and communicating with them is how the most important work is done.”

In addition to receiving the benefits he had expected from the MEM degree, Gonce remarked that some of the greatest benefits of the degree were things he could not have expected.

“One of the greatest surprises was the students,” Gonce said. New viewpoints from students with different perspectives were key to much of what Gonce took with him. “These students come from different schools, different parts of the country, different internships, and some come from having already worked for several years in the world of engineering. When you are working on a project team, these different perspectives increase the likelihood of being able to see if a particular plan would actually work.”

Gonce gives credit to his MEM degree for teaching him where he could take control. Gonce said, “Knowing your skills allows you to put yourself in a position to succeed.” Again, the word acceleration fit Gonce perfectly. Time and time again, Gonce has noticed that his MEM degree has pushed him a step ahead.

“When given a project, you might be just one week ahead of others on the learning curve,” Gonce said. For instance, when Gonce was given the task of coming up with a pricing strategy for after-market navigation systems, nobody had to walk him through the process, and he ended up finishing two weeks ahead of schedule. “[The core of the project] was understanding price competition and position statements,” Gonce said, “just like case studies we did in class. I was able to understand how it fits together. Being ahead of the learning curve by a week may not seem like much, but your performance review will reflect it. You can deliver quicker [results], and that matters.”

Most importantly, the MEM degree simply gave Gonce the necessary skills to communicate with all areas of the company. “Relating to people has been so important in my job,” Gonce said, “Some of these communication skills came straight from my Management class.” Understanding how business works has benefited him immensely. “No matter whether your company is big or small, every time you start with a business plan. No matter the project, you have to back it up with numbers,” Gonce said, adding, “You never can overlook the basic stuff.” With his experience in the finance department, Gonce has been able to work with the financial advisors and project auditors. He uses what he learned from marketing when developing special projects.

Looking back, Gonce can now offer some advice to those enrolled in or considering the MEM program. Remember that even with your MEM degree, it takes time to move up through a company. Temper your excitement with realism. Do not forget the intangible skills you gain while learning from others' experiences and from your communications with those from different environments. Chances are these skills will be very helpful.

For those considering the MEM, Gonce recommends it wholeheartedly. “The MEM offers you a lot of exposure quickly. It gives you what you need to know that lets you progress much quicker.” Though finding it a natural transition from his undergraduate degree, Gonce gained insight he would never have predicted. His MEM degree has put Gonce on the fast track, and that is a place where he feels more than comfortable. As for Gonce's next step, he was recently accepted into the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, where he hopes to study entrepreneurship.