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MIT student blogger Stanley G.

Class Crossover by Stanley G.

Using engineering leadership while stuck on the wrong side of the internet

During the first week of IAP, I took a class known as ESD.054 – Engineering Leadership. It’s a short class required by the GEL program, and basically a crash course in being a leader in the engineering workplace over a period of five 8 hour days.

Now I could talk about my reflections on the week, but I think what I learned can be best illustrated by what I saw happen in The Tech in the few days before our most recent issue went to print.

First I’m going to frame the situation.

Let’s start here:

Last Sunday night (the 13th), in an apparent reaction to the suicide of internet activist Aaron Swartz, the hacker group Anonymous allegedly attacked the MIT network, leaving everyone on the network (including myself) limited to accessing sites on the network and those on the outside unable to access the MIT network.

Basically, if you had a smart phone on 3G, you couldn’t get to any sites that ended with .mit.edu whereas if you were on your laptop trying to use the MIT network, you couldn’t get to any sites that didn’t end in .mit.edu, except for Google and a few random others.

Late on the previous Friday night, my friend and incoming editor-in-chief Anne broke the story on the internet, meaning The Tech was the first official news source with the information out there! Subsequent articles and blogs on the topic from various sources proceeded to cover the front page of Hacker News and cause my inbox to fill with conversation going back and forth over The Tech’s various mailing lists about how we plan on covering this story.

How does this stuff relate at all to what happened last week?

You could divide the 5 days of the engineering leadership class into distinct themes: Forming a team, conceiving an idea, designing the project, implementing your design ideas, and then scaling that implementation up into a final product.

Let’s look at the events of the past 4 days:

Forming a Team

The de facto leader, our acting editor-in-chief (EIC) broke the story. We then built the rest of the team out of people who were educated about the topic (i.e. our outgoing executive editor, who has actually been invited to speak on the radio about the topic), and people who had time to give.

Conceive the Idea

Rather than come up with the idea itself, we had to determine how we were going to cover the story. We synthesized all the information we had, determined what information we wanted to get, and what questions we were going to ask in order to get them. Along with that, we made decisions about what angles we were going to take and how we wanted the end product to look.

Design

Given the time pressure that we had to produce the final product (the print version of the story and associated web updates); we produced a design in the form of a GoogleDoc while we were in the process of determining our ideas on how to cover the situation. We assigned specific tasks to each member of the team and set out to…

Implement the Design

We each set out to do our specific reporting! For me, that involved sending emails to various people and attempting to attend a memorial service held in the Media Lab (by attempted, I mean I got there and couldn’t find it, go figure. While the internet response to this event was large, in person meetings had already proven themselves to be sparsely attended, so this was not a surprise to me).

Scale up to a finished product

http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N62/swartz.html :)

During the class we also went over something that Deborah Ancona and her co-authors describe as the four key capabilities of leadership. Even though I wasn’t the leader of this effort to put the story out, we all had to invoke these traits in some way because we were working independently. The terms are fairly self-explanatory, so I won’t go through the definitions. The traits are:

Sensemaking

We had to all get an understanding of the situation at hand. Once we had a collective idea, we then took the parts that we were assigned and delved into it more, figuring out what questions to ask so we could get more information.

Relating

Especially in a situation like this, relating to our sources and making sure they are comfortable is important. Whenever we interview somebody for a news story, we have to look at the entire situation, including the circumstances that are surrounding the interview and how they feel about it, and adjust our interactions with them accordingly. Then of course, we take that information back to the team and present it in a full and complete manner.

Visioning

Figuring out what questions we were going to ask depended heavily on our vision of what the story was going to cover. I did not write the finished story, but my colleagues that did had to have a vision of the structure of the finished story given the information we got. This way, we could effectively impart the necessary information on our readers.

Invention

Invention in this sense does not mean inventing the content of the story. Rather, it refers to creating the process that makes the vision of the project (in this case the final composite story) a reality. Here, a lot of this falls under designing the project, which I already explained above: our EIC led the effort by splitting up the components of the project, getting the information back, and then collaborating with the Executive Editor-elect by sharing a GoogleDoc between them and simultaneously writing different parts of the story.

Now if you read all of that, you may be thinking: ok…cool…so what?

Let’s spin it like this: I took a week long course on how to be a leader in engineering, extracted parts out of that and applied it to how the newspaper put out a story, something that most people don’t consider to be engineering at all.

But I could still apply the stuff I learned in the class couldn’t I? In fact, I go through a similar thought process when I’m the point person for writing each of my stories. That’s the beauty of many classes at MIT – even if you’re taking two classes that are completely unrelated to each other, you might find that one class teaches you how to think in such a way that helps you in that other class. GEL is no exception to this rule.

MIT and GEL don’t just teach you the stuff out of the book about science, engineering and leadership; they teach you how to think. In my opinion, learning how to look at things through different lenses so you can effectively arrive at a conclusion is one of the best skills you can have.

In what might be a cliché statement: Each class you take adds something to your toolbox of skills. If you can recognize the moments that call for the specific skills and see when other people use them, you can get a better idea of when and how to use them for yourself. Of course, the more you use your skills of any type, the better you get.