After earning two degrees at Case Western Reserve University, Tony Opperman (CWR ’12, GRS ’13) has returned to the Case School of Engineering—this time, on the faculty. He balances his teaching with a successful career as Director of Technology at Orbital Research, Inc. He recently spoke with us about his plans to teach EPOM 403: Engineering Entrepreneurship, and his keys to success as an engineering student and professional. Excerpts of the conversation follow here and in a second post.
A New Approach to Product and Process Development
Q: What’s the benefit of taking your course? How will you help students see their potential?
A: I think the main benefit is the somewhat pragmatic perspective on the business of inventing. It's tough to take that on. I've “invented” lots of stuff. I have patents and have created really exciting breakthrough prototypes, things that have never been done before.
Students need to understand the process of actually standing up a new idea and running with it when you need to get someone else to pay for it. You have to marshal all the appropriate resources to keep your entity afloat. There are a lot of things that have very little to do with the technical aspect of it but make a difference in how you can succeed.
These are key themes we're going to go over. We’re going to talk about different product development techniques and how you can apply them. It’s one thing to read through the definitions and talk about the context of how something was made, but it goes a lot further when we’re given a scenario where we could have applied this, we did apply this and here's what happened, and why. And maybe all these traits aren’t enumerated in that way when you're talking about this pure method of product development in a textbook. And that resonates with the students a lot—to say, “Oh, I can see why this is incomplete or for a slightly different context that doesn't work as well, and maybe some of these other techniques would be better to apply.”
Since the last time I taught in the program, the main shift in the world is the whole premise of agile development or “lean start-up.” The whole concept is that you stop pristinely planning out what's going to happen for the next three years, forecasting, and all this detail. You build up this beautiful thing and show it to a customer. It's a very high-risk way to proceed through product or process development.
In this approach, you do everything you can to construct your business or entity to rapidly iterate on hardware, software, business models—everything—so you can put it in front of your customers and observe their behavior, not just take their opinions of your products. It makes all the difference in the world.
Those themes are already in the course material that's used for the program, so you can already see that perspective—to question, “Is this even the right thing to make?” Don't try to answer that by sitting in a vacuum and reasoning it out. It's an experiment that you can put in front of a customer. It resonates with lots of people and has transformed our business.
You talk to everyone else who's facing challenges such as, “I have to make new things. How am I going to do it?” If you look at the case studies out of GE, some of the transformations they've gone through have been incredible. And it's taken that agile perspective rather than saying, “We're going to plan everything out three years in advance.”
We're going to structure this team to be able to be more agile in software development. We're not just going to make software; we're going to make a new business model. We're going to be creating new hardware, which we're going to make into a new service, and we're going to use an agile methodology iteration.
At Orbital Research, we're doing this with rocket science—so I’m hard-pressed to believe there's something too complicated for agile development because I think it applies across the spectrum.
Being able to bring more stories and perspectives—as some of the thought leaders on that topic have done—is going to be the best thing that the students can engage with. And that's what I’ll be excited to share with them.
What to Expect from EPOM 403: Engineering Entrepreneurship
Q: What do you think will be a student's biggest challenge in your course? What do you hope they’ll take away from it?
A: The most important thing is not to get too hung up on any particular process, method, or technical thing that it feels good to grab onto. Consider the seven-step method or five-gate process: The ability to spend your effort on trying to think about it differently is the hard part.
In my master's program, there were some members of my cohort who, for whatever reason, weren’t directly connecting with this idea that we should be thinking differently. They’d say, “Oh, I’ve just got to get a little bit of perspective here and get some more checklists to go through, and then I can help manage teams, and do all these great things.” To a certain extent, even doing that would improve your ability.
But some classmates embraced it as, “Here's how we think differently.” When the professor challenges you to consider things like emotional intelligence, and not just the voice of the customer but the behavior of the customer, it's almost more psychology than it is engineering.
And the challenge for students is that, particularly if you've gone through the effort of getting a bachelor's degree in engineering, you want to stick to that world of, “There's a technical process I need to follow. Sure, it might be complicated, but I'll stick to the plan and we'll get a good result. We'll solve the problem.”
The most important thing you can do is not to try and learn any one checklist, but force yourself to think differently and consider other cases, and think about, “How could I apply this different thinking to my world?”
I've seen a lot of people fall into that trap of, “There's a checklist I’ve got to go through or a specific process I need to follow, and then I, too, will be able to innovate better.” And there's so much other noise around the process that thinking differently is the most important thing. It’s what differentiates people who have an opportunity to be successful entrepreneurs or managers.
My hope is that they will get enough access to the content that helps them make that leap.
Act Up. Speak Up.
Q: What should prospective students know before they enter the program or take your course?
A: Come with an open mind.
It’s always better when you bring your own experiences to the discussion. That includes discussion boards and projects.
Many online courses feel like passive learning experiences, but the best way to learn is to put out what your experiences are so the faculty and your classmates can talk about how it makes sense to them—or doesn't.
Having the mindset of sharing your successes and failures with your classmates is a way to make it a lot more useful for everyone.
Wherever I can, I’m going to give lots of stories and case studies from things that I felt were transformative or interesting.
So, coming from a person who is a raise-his-hand-in-class type of guy: Raise your hand. Share your stories.
Build the Career You’ll Love
Find the graduate program that fits your career goals in the Case School of Engineering: the online Master of Engineering, online Master of Science in Biomedical Engineering, online Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering or online Master of Science in Systems and Control Engineering. Enjoy the flexibility of the online student experience as you expand your network.
Act on Tony Opperman’s inspiration and stand out from the crowd. At Case Western Reserve University, you’ll gain the acumen that keeps you on the leading edge of technology, as well as the communication and leadership skills you need to collaborate successfully with diverse engineers and experts.
For more information about our programs, curricula and application process, schedule a call with one of our admissions outreach advisors today.