13 Questions with Derek Ferguson, 2016 Engineering Management grad

EPD: What have you learned from the program that you have been able to directly apply in the workplace?

DF: The MEM program has taught me important management skills that I can directly apply to my new position as a team leader. Specifically, I’ve been applying the skills I learned in scheduling so that we can plan all of our departmental projects for next year. While attending these planning sessions, I have been able to make sure my team has work that is even through out the year, allows for a realistic 80% of their time, and is challenging work that will keep them motivated. Aside from straight managing, I’ve also been directly applying my leadership skills to make sure our team is continually improving, and that each team member has a clear development plan to progress in their career.


EPD: What was your favorite thing about the program? What was your least favorite thing about the program?

DF: My favorite thing about the program was the collaboration with the rest of the cohort. We were able to learn from each other, as well as support each other when we were struggling with the courses. The least favorite thing about the program was having less face to face interaction with the cohort. It was nice meeting with the cohort once a year, but it would have been nice to increase that frequency to twice a year or more.


EPD: What attracted you to UW-Madison’s program? How did you find out about it?

DF: I was looking for an advanced degree that would help increase my knowledge in management and leadership. I thought that the only choice was an MBA, but while investigating MBA programs I happen to come across the MEM program at UW Madison. I immediately liked that the MEM program is designed for management of technical and engineering roles, which is different than business planning. I enjoy my engineering role, and would like to remain in the engineering realm for my foreseeable career. The MEM program will allow me to do that.


EPD: How were you able to balance the demands of a full-time job and going to school? What was a typical “day in the life?”

DF: The MEM program was included in my Individual Development Program at work, so my manager and I were in agreement that a small amount of time (i.e. 1 hour a day) could be allocated to course work. As the courses progressed, many of the projects directly applied to projects I was working on at work, so the course, and professional work would overlap. For my personal life, I knew going into the MEM program that the time demand would be high, so I put some things on hold, like large home renovation projects, or hobbies like rebuilding my classic ’66 Mustang.


For a typical day in the life of a MEM student, I would get home from work around 5pm, and then give myself 1.5 hours of personal time to eat, work out, and relax/unwind. I would then set aside two to three hours every weeknight to work on MEM course work, with more time needed when deadlines approached. Saturdays where typically reserved for my then fiance, now wife. Sundays I would catch up on any chores, and then spend 3-4 hours preparing for the next week’s courses, typically reserving that time to complete the required/optional reading assignments.


EPD: How supportive were your boss or coworkers of your decision to pursue the degree?

DF: My boss was very supportive of my pursuit of the MEM degree. From a development standpoint, this was the education I needed to help slingshot me into the next phase of my career. Also, my boss was going through an MBA program at the same time, so he and I often shared “war stories”, and he was able to relate to the desire to develop management and leadership skills. My coworkers were equally encouraging, and as a secondary result, I feel that it helped make them aware of educational opportunities to help them in their careers.


EPD: What advice might you give to someone considering the program?

DF: Make sure this program is right for you at this point in your career. The MEM program is highly geared towards on-the-job training, so many of the skills will not apply to a new engineer in the beginning of their career. Like a muscle, all of the management and leadership skills you gain in the MEM program need to be exercised regularly, or else you’ll lose them. Make sure you’re in a position where promotion to a management/leadership role is possible in the near future. This is not to say that some of the skills you learn won’t apply to non-management roles, but being mid-career will make their applications easier.


On a personal level, when considering the MEM program, think about your family, wife, girl friend, friends, and any other commitments you might have. Your personal activity level will drop significantly, so make sure you communicate that to the people who are close to you. Be very frank in telling them that the MEM program will be a significant time commitment, and that you will need their support and understanding to get through it. That’s not to say that you can not have a personal life and be in the MEM program. There were people in my cohort who had gone through personal and family tragedies, marriages, birth of babies, and major career changes, but if you have visibility to those events ahead of time, it is something you’ll want to take into consideration when thinking about the timing of the MEM program.


EPD: Were you interested in pursuing an MBA at some point? If so, what made you choose MEM over business school?

DF: Yes, I was interested in pursuing an MBA around the same time I decided to apply for the MEM program. My interest in an MBA program was simply because that seemed like the logical career development path that all mid-level managers were taking. It was also around that time that I had heard from several colleagues that they either got a MBA and never used it, or used their MBA to get a business planning job, and found that they missed their engineering job. I had also looked at getting a Master’s of Science degree, but after speaking with a couple academic advisers at different universities, I found that with 10 years of professional experience there was no real benefit to pursuing that path. I then began to research management degrees, and I saw the MEM program at UW-Madison. I was immediately intrigued by the curriculum and what it had to offer for me. It seemed exactly what I was looking for; something to give me the management and leadership skills I needed to move into that role within my company, but also allowed me to remain in an engineering discipline. It took me a little while to convince my manager at the time that the MEM program is what I needed, but once he saw the benefits compared to an MBA, he was very enthusiastic about it as well. In the end, I like understanding the business side of my company, but my heart will always be in the technology that keeps us moving forward.


EPD: If there was one thing you could have done differently, what would it be?

DF: Worked ahead on my course work when I could have. There were many times that I would feel burnt out, or my energy level would be low, so I would do the bare minimum to get by for that week. I would then be scrambling later in the semester to get a project done and think to myself why I hadn’t put a little more work into the project earlier on.


EPD: Can you sum up your experience completing a master’s from UW in one word?

DF: Exhilarating