Education Guide 2020: Science and engineering grads blaze a different trail to business leadership

If you're looking to boost your cred as a manager, an MBA has long been the degree of choice. But increasingly, B.C. post-secondary institutions offer programs for scientists, engineers and other technical professionals with leadership and entrepreneurial.

Credit: Nik West

E@UVic alumnus Hunter Macdonald joined with three of his classmates to launch digital startup Tutela Technologies

If you’re looking to boost your cred as a manager, an MBA has long been the degree of choice. But increasingly, B.C. post-secondary institutions offer programs for scientists, engineers and other technical professionals with leadership and entrepreneurial

Hunter Macdonald made a life-changing discovery while studying mechanical engineering at Montreal’s McGill University and interning for NB Power in New Brunswick: he didn’t want to spend his career writing reports about hydroelectric dams. “I realized that I needed to create something for myself,” the 2010 graduate recalls. “It wasn’t working for me to just go work at a power plant and do maintenance on things that other people built 80 years ago.”

Macdonald saw that he needed to become an entrepreneur, despite having no concept of what product or business he wanted to create. He learned about the Engineering Entrepreneurship@UVic program—a one-of-a-kind master of applied science degree centred on building a business—and moved to Victoria in 2011.

Stephanie Dalo, meanwhile, had been designing and restoring bridges for about five years as a structural engineer for AECOM in London, Ontario, when she decided she wanted to expand her horizons and start incorporating ideas about sustainability into her work. How, for example, can engineers design buildings with smaller carbon footprints? Dalo, a 2007 civil engineering graduate from the University of Windsor, enjoyed her job but felt constrained when it came to taking those ideas further.

“It’s either out of my jurisdiction and I really have no say over it, or it’s above my pay grade,” Dalo remembers thinking. “I want to be a leader in sustainability. I want to be able to encourage and influence engineers, and really shift the way we focus in this industry.”

She contemplated different engineering graduate degrees, but when a friend told her about UBC‘s master of engineering leadership (MEL) program and its urban systems stream, she quickly saw that it would give her the broader perspective she needed to achieve her goals.

“It had that business component, and it has the technical side—that urban systems side,” Dalo explains. “I needed to stop thinking of just bridge engineering and really think about urban infrastructure, building systems and how they connect together.”

Scientists and engineers who want to make a bigger impact often need to put aside their microscopes and CAD software, and learn to lead organizations and teams. Until a dozen years ago, engineers like Macdonald and Dalo had few specialized educational pathways available to further their careers. Many still learn their business and leadership skills on the job to earn promotions or after they start their own companies. Those seeking formal education often choose the MBA route—generalist business degrees that prepare students for a broad range of roles across different industries.

A growing number of B.C. institutions, however, are creating programs specifically to help people become leaders in science- and engineering-driven organizations. The Entrepreneurship@UVic program and UBC‘s MEL degrees are two examples, but more graduate and undergraduate options, as well as diplomas and certificates, are becoming available.

Some schools design their delivery models to fit working students’ schedules. SFU‘s 11-month, part-time Invention to Innovation program helps scientists commercialize their discoveries. BCIT‘s bachelor of technology degree in technology management runs part-time, offers courses on two campuses and online and gives students up to seven years to finish.

Leaders wanted

Students and industry alike are driving demand for education that helps learners leverage their technical know-how with business and leadership skills. Raghwa Gopal is president and CEO of Innovate BC, a Crown agency that connects innovators with funding, resources and expert guidance. He says the province’s growing tech sector is hungry for technically savvy leaders.

A baby boom of companies founded five or six years ago has blossomed; now they are looking for senior and mid-level talent to help them expand. They’re growing from a few employees to a few dozen. “When you only have a handful of companies doing that, it’s not a big deal,” Gopal explains. “But when you have 300 or 400 new companies starting on a yearly basis and then maturing and growing—starting to scale up—that creates a lot of demand.”

Macdonald knows about scaling up. He and three E@UVic classmates co-founded Tutela Technologies as their master’s degree project in 2011. Based in Victoria, the startup crowdsources anonymous mobile usage data for the telecom industry. The business grew from its four co-founders to a team of 50 by last summer, when Boston-based Comlinkdata acquired it. Macdonald will remain in the only professional job he’s known, as Tutela’s CEO.

The E@UVic degree compresses coursework into the first two of its five semesters, while the students are planning the company they will start. For the rest, students build their business under the careful guidance of faculty members, investors and tech industry partners. It’s hands-on, real-world, up-all-night learning that continues after graduation as the venture grows.

“It’s a crash course in becoming a business leader—under fire—while developing very complicated tech,” says E@UVic founder Thomas (Ted) Darcie, a professor of computer and electrical engineering.

“Everything was harder than I ever could have imagined,” Macdonald reflects, on Tutela’s journey from concept to acquisition. “But maybe it’s for the best that I didn’t know it was going to be so hard when I started.”

Darcie and program co-manager Stephen Neville handpick three or four students for each team. They must have engineering degrees and strong technical skills, but also leadership potential and ambition. Nurturing the young engineer-entrepreneurs is so labour- and resource-intensive that the program has fostered only seven companies—involving 22 students altogether—in 10 years. 

Darcie, a former VP at AT&T Labs, says E@UVic commits to each team the support it needs to succeed. He dismisses the approach taken by traditional incubators—spreading resources thin across multiple startups and betting that a fraction will reach the market. “It ends up being so inefficient in terms of human capital,” Darcie laments. “Not to mention the financial capital.”

Credit: Adam Blasberg

Stephanie Dalo wanted to scale up her leadership skills and start engineering greener cities

Technical direction

Not every scientist or engineer with leadership ambitions wants to become an entrepreneur or CEO. Dalo, who finished her 12-month MEL degree at UBC in December, hasn’t solidified her long-term post-graduation plans; she transferred to AECOM‘s Burnaby office and squeezed in some on-call work while she was in school. She imagines that her leadership career won’t stray too far from engineering, though. “I can see myself wanting to know certain technical details, but not being the one who’s sitting there, going through manuals and figuring it all out,” she says. “But I would definitely want to be on the ground because I think when you’re on the ground, that’s when you see what’s really happening.”

The MEL degree is tailored for engineers like Dalo, who want to lead technical teams, and perhaps larger multidisciplinary teams down the line. The program offers courses in eight engineering disciplines, including urban systems, clean energy and advanced materials manufacturing. Sixty percent of students’ courses are in their respective specialties, while the rest are in business management and leadership. But students won’t take deep, theoretical engineering classes like they might in traditional graduate programs.

“It’s not necessarily technology-focused—it’s industry-focused,” explains Tamara Etmannski, MEL‘s academic director. “So they’ll understand the processes that drive their industry from an engineering perspective. And that’s really what sets them apart from an MBA program.”

Matthew Dahabieh wasn’t looking to add an MBA to his credentials, either. He has a PhD in biochemistry and molecular chemistry and is chief science officer for Renaissance BioScience Corp. The Vancouver-based startup develops strains of yeast and other micro-organisms for different industries. Its products include selectively bred, non-GMO yeast for brewing specific types of beer. Dahabieh was his company’s head of research and VP for business development in 2014 when he recognized that he needed something beyond on-the-job business training to feel comfortable in more senior executive roles.

He saw a fit with SFU‘s 11-month, part-time graduate certificate in science and technology commercialization—now called the Invention to Innovation program. It gives PhD-level scientists an industry-specific business foundation so they can bring their discoveries to market, or lead innovation in science-driven companies. 

“Being in a startup environment and working at a management level, time is precious, and I didn’t have a lot of it to dedicate to a full MBA program,” Dahabieh says. “This was a good sort of intermediate program that I think facilitated a lot of what I was looking for.”

Bankable skills

Most managers and executives in science-and-engineering-driven companies start their careers from a technical base and add the business skills they need as they climb the org chart. Sheneen Jit, however, demonstrates that technology leadership careers don’t have to start with science or engineering degrees.

Jit is a vice-president at First West Credit Union in Langley, where she leads its banking system application development and delivery. She rose from working as a bank teller after high school to becoming a business analyst in IT, without formal post-secondary schooling. Throughout her career, she’s solidified her technical knowledge by asking for help when needed. “I’m not afraid to make sure that I understand it,” she says.

Her lack of credentials left her feeling vulnerable, though. “I wasn’t sure that my company was going to remain in the business that they were in,” Jit recalls. “So I started looking around to see if I could move laterally, and realized that because I didn’t have a degree I wasn’t even getting through the online applications.”

BCIT‘s technology management degree prepares students to lead tech-driven teams and organizations. Applicants must have at least one year of relevant technical work experience, plus a technical diploma or degree. Candidates without those credentials can earn special admission if they have at least five years of relevant experience in the workforce. Jit qualified easily: she was already working in a position her fellow classmates aspired toward. She graduated in 2013 and quickly earned a promotion from manager to director.

Jit isn’t a software developer, but she can speak the language and break down how applications are built to come up with how to deliver them. And, critically, she can translate between her organization’s business leadership and its technical teams. Her BCIT degree helped her pull together different components of her job. “It just gave me a much better end-to-end understanding of the whole process,” she explains.

A manageable commitment

Mid-career professionals like Dahabieh and Jit often demand programs that are part-time and flexible. Thompson Rivers University‘s bachelor of technology in trades and technology leadership can accommodate almost anybody’s schedule. The Kamloops-based school delivers the degree’s courses online to students across Canada, who can start and complete them at their own pace because admissions and course registrations run continuously.

The TRU program is designed for tradespeople, technologists and technicians looking to move into managerial positions or run their own businesses, and who need to learn how to organize and motivate productive teams. An environmental technologist, for example, might want to start her own environmental monitoring firm. As the degree’s name implies, it’s less focused on science and engineering and also attracts leadership aspirants from the trades.

Chris Stubbs is a project control analyst and director of program development for the Saskatchewan Apprenticeship and Trade Certification Commission in Saskatoon. He credits his TRU degree with improving his project management skills: “I think the program has helped me become more analytical and detail-oriented.”

For many busy workers, flexibility means not having to commit to entire degrees when they only want to build on particular skill sets. Royal Roads University offers graduate certificates in key leadership skills like project management, organizational design and development, and workplace innovation. Students can use some of the certificates as credit toward the completion of the school’s MBA, or they can just select the ones they want most à la carte.

Zoe MacLeod is Royal Roads’ director of professional and continuing studies. She says many in the certificate programs already have undergraduate or graduate degrees, including MBAs, but are looking to add a complementary piece. MacLeod describes her program’s approach: “We’re trying to create programming that’s cutting-edge, around specific competencies and skill gaps.”

Some prospective students may want to narrow their focus further to courses directed toward their particular industry. New York–headquartered Brain-Station is known as a coding bootcamp, but it offers diplomas, certificates and custom training for other aspects of digital product development—product management, design thinking, marketing and data analytics, to name a few. For B.C. residents, the school offers courses online and in-person at a downtown Vancouver campus.

Kyle Treleaven went to one of BrainStation’s first information sessions when it opened in Vancouver in 2015. He was looking at taking a user experience (UX) design class while BrainStation was seeking someone to build its team in the city. Both found a match with each other. Treleaven finished his UX program in August 2015—a month after he became the company’s Vancouver campus general manager. He added a vice-president title last summer.

Treleaven loves BrainStation’s demo days, where students show off their work. “It’s a validation that the entire team here is setting people up for success,” he says proudly.

Do the math

Being a leader really does pay off. In 2018, here’s how median B.C. salaries for several science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) occupations compared to those for their management-level counterparts.

Chemist: $63,003 – Science manager: $91,125

Pay bump: 44.6%

Software engineer: $79,997 – Computer and information systems manager: $90,002 – Senior manager, business services: $109,096

Pay bump: 12.5% and 36.4%

Civil engineer: $80,101 – Engineering manager: $112,320

Pay bump: 40.2%