An Engineer in Business Land

I hadn’t always planned to go to business school. In high school I had always done my best in numbers, calculations, cold logic. Everything else was an abstraction. It made no sense to me that there could be more than one answer, or that responses to questions could run a spectrum of right and wrong. In undergrad I studied aeronautical and astronautical engineering and thrived. We used to say that we were really just glorified math majors and we’d joke to each other that “this isn’t liberal arts; we should all get the same answer.” I had always been most comfortable when there was one – and only one – right answer; when it was black and white, yes or no, true or false. It seemed incomprehensible to me to want it any other way, when there was a world of concrete, verifiable absolutism that just made sense.

Fast forward a few years to a few weeks before making the big move to the West Coast. Up until this time, there were two sides to the world that I knew: there was engineering – that marvelous straight-forward world where, if you got your numbers right and all your decimals and arithmetic signs aligned, it was guaranteed to work – and there was everything else. “Everything else” was a big, grey, fuzzy ether on the other side of the wall that separated my small corner of the world from them. I knew there were business people at my old job – financial analysts and planners, human resource managers, accountants, auditors, market analysts and salespeople – but I never saw them. Nor did I really have any clue what it was that they did, or how they did it, or even how it affected the company.

And yet, with each new person that I spoke to, I became increasingly convinced that an MBA would be the wisest course of action. It would open up more doors than a focused engineering degree. It would open up a plethora of new career paths and options to me. It would diversify my skill set. It would bring clarity to that amorphous, hazy something that I called “the rest of the world.”

Now I was poised to hurl myself over that wall and into that foggy, non-specific void to find out what lay beyond. In addition to the usual anxieties and what-if’s that everyone faces when going through a major life change, I was preoccupied with another set of trepidations. Would I be the only engineer in a class full of business majors? Would I be struggling to grasp concepts while everyone around me enjoyed a leisurely review of fundamentals? How could I survive in an environment where there was no single correct answer to any question? To what had I so blindly committed myself, my savings, and the next two years of my life?

I’ve found from prior experience that it never does well to dwell on anxieties, as they have a way of blowing themselves out of proportion. In the weeks leading up to my relocation and subsequent plunge into the frigid, icy unknown, I embarked on an 8,000-mile solo road trip, half conceived by wanderlust and half escapism. I spent three weeks alone, avoiding civilization, and going places I had no business going to with a rear-wheel drive coupe.

If you’ve ever spent any considerable amount of time in solitude, you know that your mind tends to drift towards subjects you’d rather not think about. Anxieties become amplified; insecurities you thought were safely in the closet come marching back out. More than once I thought (if only fleetingly) of turning around, canceling my enrollment and heading back to the comfort of my known universe.

Three things kept me steadfast in my commitment to attend business school. Firstly, I knew that I needed a change in my life and this was to be it. I get restless and bored if I stay in one place for too long, and five years on the East Coast was my limit. Secondly, I focused on what the workload might be. In undergrad, a 20 hour day was not atypical for me. If that’s what it took to succeed in business school, then I could do it. Thirdly, and most importantly, I knew that if I turned away from a defining personal challenge such as this, it would be a long time before I earned back my own self-respect.

So, now here I am, at the end of my first quarter as an engineer-turned-MBA student. At this stage, I can only say one thing for certain: I made the right choice, and in the words of a certain 16th century English playwright, I had made much ado about nothing.

For one, my apprehensions about sleepless nights have thus far proved baseless. I have finals coming up, but I’ve still managed to find the time to write this saga.

It also turned out I’m not the only engineer in the class, and as I got to know some of my classmates I found that regardless of our backgrounds many of them had the same or similar reservations about coming to school. We all came to this place with different strengths and weaknesses. Whether someone’s background was in engineering or computer science, finance or marketing, music theory or underwater basket-weaving, we were all in the same boat, on a more or less even playing field.

The career management center and professional development team work tirelessly to analyze your skill set, drill down to your fundamental essence and help you discover your transferable skills; the skills needed to succeed in business that you didn’t know you already possessed.

Even with this new-found self-discovery, the classes are still challenging; the workload burdensome at times. But the shared drudgery becomes the commonality that knits the class together. And the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.

The future still remains murky and unclear. I don’t know where I’ll end up when I graduate, in both a career sense and a geographic sense. In a previous life, when I was dependent on the need to have a clearly defined sense of the right and wrong directions to take, that might have given me insomnia. But now I know that I can learn how to pick the right answer within the context of the situation. That erstwhile shapeless and formless “other-world” becomes tangible and I can define my own path without the need for the crutch of absolutism.

~ Guest post by Kevin Cotter, Class of 2015 MBA Candidate