Brian Forster (BSE-ME '98, MSE-IOE '04 & MBA '04) is a Technical Program Manager for Amazon, based in the New York City area. In his current role he handles a variety of responsibilities, including technical architecture, managing scope with non-technical product managers, building rapid proof-of-concepts, and gathering and analyzing a wide range of data. Brian reflects on his experiences - and advises current Tauber students to embrace variety when selecting their career.
Q: What drew you to the University of Michigan?
It was certainly easy for me: I'm a U-M engineering grad (class of '98), and a big Michigan fan. Maybe it's ironic, but when I started my grad school search I was looking for reasons to go *elsewhere* -- if only to get variety. But as I did the research and applications, it became clear that a return to U-M was the best fit for me. Given how quickly technology moves, I was very keen to stay close to engineering, and not go "purely business" in grad school, so Tauber's dual-degree program was perfect. I was actually surprised by how few schools had a multi-disciplinary program set up, and of course it's hard to find a match for U-M's quality across both business and engineering schools. Add in an excuse for a few more years of the Big House, Encore Records and Ashley's, and the decision ended up an obvious one.
Q: When you think back on your time with the Tauber Institute, what stands out?
Coming from Michigan Engineering, the focus on teamwork across all the classes wasn't new to me, but it was certainly on-point. Even in an industry where there's a reputation of solitary "hacking all night," I've only ever worked across teams not far from the sizes we utilized in grad school. Solo "hero work" is, in my experience, the very rare exception -- but I've been part of whole scores of teams tackling problems. I'm certainly glad all my classes, the Tauber internship, and even my extra-curriculars underscored that.
In particular, and along the theme of teamwork, Integrated Product Development (IPD) was a great experience. It's a rare course that takes you through the full cycle of a project -- problem to idea, design to manufacturing an actual product -- in a class setting. I'm still an IPD voter online, and am thrilled to see how the course has evolved. Since my time, the addition of the design school to the mix has clearly made the products better, and I would imagine it's improved the experience for the students as well. Design elements can sometimes seem to be "in competition" with engineering, and learning to find how to get the best of both -- without hard feelings -- can be a tough line to walk, and one that's been close to my career, for sure. Experience is a huge benefit, and I'll bet the chance to work through that balance in a class setting is a valuable bit of reality for current students. I'm sure the teams have great stories of how different points of view can make for a better product than either side on their own (I certainly remember ours). I love to see what the teams come up with!
Q: What has been your biggest challenge?
The world of technology has its advantages, but many flaws. I've seen first hand a wide variety of really poor leadership, especially in smaller companies. It's an immature industry with its share of immature companies, all needing to balance a variety of skill sets (the skills to be a good manager can be quite different from those of a good technologist, or a good designer, or sales-person). Re-organizations are common, and too often it's just the best talkers who are favored over real team players.
There's a great niche in there for Tauber-style multi-disciplinary leaders, to say the least. Anyone starting out will have to be ready for unexpected setbacks based on, frankly, some irrational company issues. For example, I've managed my career basically without anything in the way of mentorship -- I've had very few good managers through the years -- and I don't know anyone who hasn't had to handle their share of organizational issues and tough times. It's unfortunate, but it's a reality of the technology industry.
The good, of course, outweighs the bad -- the camaraderie and productivity of a great tech group is hard to beat. Hopefully as the industry matures, there will be a greater influx of motivated multi-disciplinary Tauber managers to be part of the solution!
Q: What advice would you give to current or future Tauber students?
By staying in technology in the early aughts, I took a fairly non-standard path for Tauber, or even the business school at that time. These days, it seems silly to say that was an uncommon path. Thinking about that, I wonder what "uncommon" corners are out there these days. I'd advise current students to stay open to those types of opportunities. Operations and management are huge fields, so try to stay flexible in the skills you learn since you never know what's out there. There's certainly nothing wrong with "standard" job roles -- the ones probably on campus interviewing -- but don't forget about that variety. The job you get out of grad school isn't likely to be your only job for the next 20 years, nor will technology or any other industry stay the same that long anyway.
I'll add to that (and no one who knows me from grad school would be surprised here) to also look for the right lifestyle for you. I'd rather live somewhere where I love the lifestyle, and find the right job there, than find a good role only to not enjoy my time outside the office. Everyone has their own balances and priorities, and I certainly haven't regretted sticking close to mine -- even if it's meant professional setbacks, it's made for great personal times, and I'll take that trade any day.