Engineering and Business are not Mutually Exclusive
Blog post by ELP student Alexander Samra (Aerospace Engineering | Class of 2021) Interning at U-M Economic Growth Institute, First Customer Program
My name is Alexander Samra, AERO ‘21 and aspiring entrepreneur. My summer internship through the Entrepreneurs Leadership Program has helped me define what I want out of my career. My experience at the Economic Growth Institute’s First Customer Program has convinced me that excellence in engineering requires an engineer to function across disciplines. Being at the forefront of a revolution in technology is wonderful and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. That said, someone who only works on new technology is an inventor. What I fell in love within engineering wasn’t only invention and revolutionary technology. In fact, my work at the Institute has pushed me to reconsider the boundaries of what is classified as engineering.
Researching emerging industries, sizing market opportunities for ambitious tech startups, and advising c-level executives seems like a pipe dream for any student. Going in I figured I would spend most of my time trapped behind a desk doing repetitive financial analyses of Michigan companies and forgetting about engineering. I could not have been more wrong.
Autonomy is one of the most cherished aspects of my work as a Research Associate at the Institute. The order in which I attack my day to day tasks is up to me unless we have a meeting with a client or a larger project in teams with our project manager/fellow RAs. We are often allowed to lead projects and discussions with c-level executives about their company’s needs. We are also given training opportunities that managers choose to round out our skill sets.
The Institute provides all qualifying Michigan companies with preliminary research. Companies are then periodically evaluated by the associates and managers. The goal is to identify which of them can best benefit the Michigan economy. The companies that the Institute approves then join the project proposal process.
The First Customer Program in particular helps companies step into new markets. To maximize the benefit of its time and resources, the program matches the cost of a consultant to run the project. The Institute works with the client to define project specifications using our research; we also help identify and vet consultants for the job.
Any technology developer should account for market demand and business so their work becomes adopted instead of forgotten. The Institute fills this critical role by providing preliminary advising for startups. There will always need to be someone to market technology, conduct customer discovery, and convince investors of value. Doing so requires knowledge of both business best practices and technical discipline. The problem is that these people are few and far between in highly specialized industries like aerospace.
Having these people in your team is one of the most important facets of a robust tech startup and I have positioned myself to fill that need. Aside from the abstract nature of why I love my job, we can get more into the specifics of what has made each day so exciting and different. Daily tasks include:
Market research is one of the largest aspects of the job. It never gets boring because each company has different needs as far as market sizing goes. Some of them have no marketing/business people at all, some of them have tried to size markets themselves, but generally they all need help in this step. Market sizing employs creative reasoning as most companies don’t have simple markets.
Competitive analysis can be an engaging method of research that employs diverse methodology. Often, we gather detailed info about competitors and tailor it to each company’s needs. One client for example might benefit from knowing the exact market shares of each competitor, revenue, size, and location. One client might specifically want to know how many small-medium size mergers occurred in a certain market in recent history. One client might want to know exactly what their competitors are saying to differentiate their products from the rest of the market.
Advisory plans are a broad deliverable with aspects of competitive analysis and market research. The program provides industry research overview documents to every company without specific needs. In these advisory plans we comment on the pitch, company progress, team, market sizing, and competitive landscape.
Being able to influence the economy in Michigan, even in the smallest capacity, is a special feeling. It also expanded my definition of engineering and my perspective on business. I viewed research like this as a chore until I realized how important our seemingly simple work became to many companies. I also fell in love with discussing the interactions in this ecosystem: debating various business models, marketing efforts, and competitive strategy. In this research and in my discussions, I discovered many insights that entire startup teams missed.
To finish my earlier thought, I finally put words to what I love most about engineering with these experiences. It is the idea of working within a complex system of interdisciplinary collaboration to bring innovations from thought to complete realization. After this experience of operating in the big picture I know I want a career in management. Whether as a CEO, project manager, or systems engineer, I want to continue to be a part of this process on a high level. Developing new technology with the specific goal of optimizing its benefit to the public or the economy is my dream. A job of navigating connections between development teams, business, and regulations/legal is what that looks like for me.
Just because you don’t have an engineering title doesn’t mean you are less of an engineer. An engineer doesn’t have to run simulations all day, dream of draft sketches, or live in a machine shop. For me, my view of what I want out of engineering is constantly changing, and this job helped me visualize engineering in a way I never imagined possible.