The MS/MBA Program: Engineering, Design, Business

Emily Batt, Contributor

This academic year, Harvard Business School, along with the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), launched a joint MS/MBA program. Over two years, students earn an MBA and an MS in Engineering Sciences concurrently, focusing on a specialty of their choosing. I feel lucky to be among the other 28 MS/MBA students, whose ingenuity and intuition for technology have astounded me from day one. My classmates are electrical engineers, software developers, product managers, security experts, mechanical designers, and entrepreneurs. I witnessed my classmates’ engineering prowess this January during the Technology Venture Immersion course, when in just 48 hours, every team built a working electro-mechanical product—some of which boasted computer vision and iOS apps. The following week, we honed decks and pitched startup ideas to panels of VCs and tech leaders.

The intent of the MS/MBA program is to train future leaders of technology ventures by combining a foundation in general management with expertise in design and engineering. For me, it meant the chance to strengthen my leadership skills and develop a more informed worldview without abandoning the technical rigor I’d developed in my career. Many of us had seriously weighed engineering graduate school but recognized the opportunity to maximize our impact through the new HBS program. Of course it’s possible to pursue technology leadership without these degrees, or any degree, for that matter. But for me, the program represented an exciting chance to learn from an esteemed set of peers and meet leaders of global technology ventures.

In the first year, MS/MBA students complete the full RC curriculum, plus attend a monthly engineering seminar on the SEAS campus. These sessions are a rubber-meets-the-road guide to launching and sustaining technology ventures; they cover the ins and outs of intellectual property and the patent process, the challenges of bringing technology-push products to market, and the realities of an entrepreneurial lifestyle.

In addition, the first year includes two intensive engineering courses in August and January that precede the business school semesters. The school year began with an immersive systems-engineering class, fitting 13 weeks of material into 13 days. The course covered statistics and control systems. All-day lectures were followed by problem sets and programming exercises. For the final project, we modeled the dynamics of a technology business to explore its sensitivities to various inputs. My team studied organ-on-a-chip companies, which use stem cells and microfluidic devices to replace or augment in vivo drug testing. We centered our simulation around a company whose technology was developed in a Harvard lab at the Wyss Institute.

The systems-engineering course also served as a helpful re-entry to the world of academia. The rigorous schedule meant spending long hours camped out in the SEAS buildings—the classroom became a shared studio workspace for studying, collaborating, commiserating. For many of us, differential equations felt like a distant undergraduate memory; it turns out that bonding over Laplace makes for fast friends.

It felt like returning home with family when we came back to the same SEAS classroom for the intensive in January. The course, Technology Venture Immersion (TVI), was divided into two segments: the first focused on product development, and the second on developing business models for technology companies, which overlapped with elements of Startup Bootcamp. We kicked off with 10 electrical and mechanical lab exercises. The following two days were spent building physical products: in just over 48 hours, teams had built autonomous self-driving robots—some boasting computer vision, others impressive industrial design—self-watering plant pots, blinds that respond automatically to sunlight, an iOS app that talks to an IoT device, and a Bluetooth communication system.

In between build sessions, alumni entrepreneurs visited the class and shared stories of their startups. “This is definitely the first time I’ve ever seen a double gear box in an HBS class,” said Mick Mountz (MBA ’96) with a laugh. Mountz, a mechanical engineer, was the founder and CEO of Kiva Systems, which was acquired by Amazon Robotics in 2012 for $775 million. He walked the class through the story of Kiva, from building their first prototype and winning their first customer to pursuing sales at the top 100 e-commerce companies through ultimately selling the company to Amazon.

Throughout TVI, other speakers included Jules Pieri (MBA ’86), founder and CEO of The Grommet; Ian Ferguson, lead engineer and first hire at Formlabs; Dave Gerhardt, VP of Marketing at Drift; and Chad Laurans (MBA ’06), founder and CEO of SimpliSafe.

The second portion of TVI focused on several themes of Startup Bootcamp: Business Model Design, Early-Stage Marketing, Seed Finance, and Early Team Assembly. Many teams used this chance to solicit feedback on ventures they will continue developing this semester and beyond.

During EC year, MS/MBA students will take electives at both HBS and SEAS. Engineering courses must be clustered around a theme—say, data science, robotics, or nanodevices—but the program offers flexibility to meet the cohort’s diverse interests. In addition, a few custom courses at HBS will integrate technology and strategy in more intertwined way, much like they overlap in the real world. As Harvard looks to open its new engineering building nearer to HBS, I’m excited to see this integration deepen.

Emily Batt (MBA ’20) is a joint MS/MBA student with the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. She was previously a product design engineer and product manager in hardware and software technology companies. She was trained as a physicist, loves the arts, and always has too many tabs open.