7 Questions for the New Chair of Engineering Management and Leadership, Paul Semenza
Dean’s Executive Professor and Chair of the Department of Engineering Management and Leadership Paul Semenza has decades of experience as a senior technology executive and in public policy positions. He has taught in the Engineering Management and Leadership department (EMGT) since 2016 and received the Adjunct Lecturer of the Year award in 2018. Recently, the new chair answered a few questions about his path to SCU, the future of the program, and more.
HW: With a BS in electrical engineering and an MS in electro-optics from Tufts University, you later earned a master's in science, technology, and public policy from Harvard; what led to that decision?
PS: In the late 1980s, I worked on advanced defense programs, including the Strategic Defense Initiative (the ballistic missile defense program popularly known as Star Wars started under the Reagan administration). The technology challenges were fascinating, but in reading analyses from independent scientists and research groups, I came to the conclusion that given the proliferation of nuclear weapons, there was no technical approach that could defend against ballistic missiles, not to mention the other ways to deliver nuclear weapons. This got me more interested in the impact of technology on society, and combined with my longstanding interest in public policy, led me to seek out programs combining the two. My goal was to use that training to shift into technology policy work.
HW: How did your education and career progression lead you to teaching, and why Santa Clara?
PS: I spent several years working in technology policy in Washington, DC, and one of the areas I worked on was analyzing an initiative to create a domestic capability to produce flat panel displays, then in their infancy, under the rationale that they were needed for defense systems. I decided to study this because I had done some engineering work with displays and found it interesting to combine technical knowledge and policy analysis. While analyzing the different technologies, production approaches, and global supply chain for displays, I got some insights on the industry from a market research and consulting firm in San Jose. I decided to join that firm, and spent the following two decades managing market research and consulting in displays, during which I had the opportunity to learn much more about the connections between technology development, manufacturing, and marketing in technology industries. I always enjoyed sharing what I had learned with others, and thought that teaching would be a good way to do that in a more systematic way. When I looked at programs where I might best be able to do that, SCU's engineering management program stood out for the way it integrated the two disciplines, so I developed a course that I thought would fit into the existing curriculum.
HW: After serving as an adjunct lecturer in the engineering management and leadership program for over three years, you've been appointed chair of the department; how do you envision your role?
PS: My roles are to advise students, support the faculty, and coordinate with the other departments in the School of Engineering. I will also continue to teach.
HW: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing engineering managers?
PS: There are numerous challenges specific to the industries and technologies that engineering managers work in, whether that is software development, biotechnology, robotics, aerospace systems, structural engineering, or many other fields. But I think there are some common challenges. First, engineering managers have to have a systems viewpoint—they need to understand how the technology they are developing fits into and/or interfaces with other technologies or social systems; this is different from an engineer working to deliver a specific technology. Second, they need to have a deeper understanding of business issues—things like production costs, on-time delivery, quality, competition, and customer requirements. Third, they need to be able to manage other engineers—which requires having enough technical expertise to be able to oversee their work, and understand what motivates technical teams; and to be able to interface with corporate management and functional groups outside of their own area—which could be finance, production, or marketing, for example. Finally, they need to be able to communicate effectively across domains and cultures.
HW: What are the distinguishers of SCU's EMGT program?
PS: On the one hand, there are relatively few engineering management programs across the country, but at the same time, there are other programs that can appear similar, under names such as engineering and technology management, industrial and systems engineering, technology and innovation management, management science, and so on. What distinguishes the SCU EMGT program is that it combines a series of management courses tailored to the engineering environment with the ability to take graduate courses across the School of Engineering, to add depth to an undergraduate engineering background. It is also tailored to working engineers; all the classes are held in the early morning or evening, allowing students to continue working full time or take on professional opportunities. A key element of the program is the EMGT faculty, which is comprised of experienced, practicing engineering managers, executives, and entrepreneurs. From the perspective of the School of Engineering, the EMGT program enables graduate engineering students to take management courses as part of the graduate core or as electives.
HW: Who should consider enrolling in the program?
PS: There are a few categories of students for whom the EMGT program is ideal. One sector includes working engineers who are looking to grow outside of an individual contributor role, are taking on new management responsibilities, or aspire to create a new technology-based product or business, either as a start-up or within an existing company. Another group are undergraduate engineering students at SCU, who have the opportunity to take EMGT and other graduate engineering courses as they complete their undergraduate requirements, enroll in the combined B.S./M.S. program, and get an M.S. in EMGT in their fifth year. Finally, non-U.S. students who have engineering backgrounds and would like to transition to working in the U.S. can consider the EMGT program as a stepping-stone; the program includes courses in communications and career development that can be particularly helpful to such students.
HW: What are your goals for the department?
PS: The Engineering Management and Leadership program at SCU is now in its fifth decade. I would like to build on this history by ensuring the continued value and relevance of the program to students and current or potential employers. To do so, I plan to reach out to existing students and alumni to learn how the program has impacted their careers, as well as to use them to continue to refresh the network of potential students. I will also be speaking with technology companies in the Bay Area to evaluate the awareness and perception of the EMGT program and learn of emerging needs in content, delivery, or program structure. I hope to increase the participation from industry in the form of guest lecturers or other means for bringing the valuable perspective of practicing engineering managers to the curriculum. Another goal is to support the EMGT faculty, expand or modify the curricula as needed, and coordinate with other graduate engineering programs and the university more broadly.