To explain why the world needs Operations and Technology Management experts — a job halfway between techies and business types — Naveen Gudigantala tells an Apple story.
How much more would it cost Apple to assemble its iPhones in the U.S. as opposed to China?
The answer is just $4. The parts (the supply chain) come from all over the world, but they are put together in China because there is less risk there. If there were a sudden change, which country could adapt better?
For example, it would take nine months in the United States to hire 8,700 engineers to manage 200,000 factory workers. In China it takes just 15 days.
And in 2007, when Steve Jobs decided to add a glass screen to the iPhone a few weeks before launching, Chinese factory owners built a dormitory so workers could work 12-hour shifts, successfully producing 10,000 phones a day without affecting rollout.
Naveen Gudigantala is the Associate Professor, Operations and Technology Management (OTM) at the Robert Pamplin Jr. School of Business Administration University of Portland. (Pamplin also owns the Business Tribune.)
Gudigantala and his colleagues teach the Master of Science in Operations and Technology Management there. The course sits at the leading edge of where industry is going. It began in 2009 and has only become more relevant — especially in Oregon, where the state is staking its future on advanced manufacturing.
Whether you are making things of metal and plastic or providing a service like healthcare or trips on an airplane, there is a critical need for people to manage information systems that keep operations running optimally.
Just-in-time flight check in
In the course material, a rhetorical question is posed accompanied by two pictures: "Where would you rather be?" One shows a long line of ticket holders waiting to check in at an airline desk. The other is a single person at a kiosk, the kind where scanners and barcodes do the work of harried airline staff.
"OTM looks at systems that are required to manage information to make effective decisions," Gudigantala told the Business Tribune recently. "In business schools the most well-established majors are finance, accounting and marketing. People come in not knowing anything about OTM." They often leave that way, too.
"Why teach operations and information technology separately? It's better they go hand in hand. So we created a kind of integrated major that brings the fields together. We've had a lot of support from industry."
The UP faculty see this course as a way of marrying two disciplines at the precise point where they increasingly need each other. Faculty asked people in industry what the hot trends were and what type of skills they wished they could hire. Many of them were UP alumni, and they formed the advisory board, which still meets four times a year to keep the syllabus on point. The board consists of seven COOs, CTOs and CIOs.
The future's so bright …
On a recent February evening, after their meeting the advisory board met with around a dozen students. They snacked and stood around tall tables in an undecorated room, the elders listening and trying to pass on decades of wisdom in palatable snippets.
Chris De Gallier is a consultant now after a long career in corporate compliance work and doing contract negotiations for medical clinics.
He has lived though several management trends. "My background is in operations with a focus on TQM (Total Quality Management) which morphed in to Motorola's Six Sigma, before it was Lean Six Sigma," he says.
He specialized in change management as companies moved to adopt giant ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems, working with Regence, Boeing, and in operations at Reynolds Metals in the 1980s.
He says the next wave is more of the same: "The next transformation will be fully optimizing the use of information.'
He says the most impressive companies right now are large ones.
"I respect the large organizations that are able to accomplish their deliverables, like Boeing and Longview Fiber, KapStone, the makers of cardboard boxes. Smaller isn't always better. Sometimes it's not as efficient." He says that structurally certain things have not changed: "There's still a customer and a receiving function, you still have to purchase things. Even in Amazon, there's not a new discipline, they just do it better, faster and cheaper. It comes down to the culture in the organization and its appetite for change."
A people people problem
The technology has arrived, but "the people problem, the resistance to change, is probably the biggest impediment to people realizing what they're capable of."
Since the same rules apply whether a business is delivering health insurance, preparing tax returns or a manufactured object, he has noticed a problem with companies thinking they are different.
"They think of themselves as unique and they're not."
Change — the sort of change his student mentees and interns would have to bring about — is easier to effect from the inside of a company, but they have to be supported by the CEO.
"You've got to have C-suite buy in. They don't have to understand it, but the must understand the benefits. Then it's a lot easier to move along."
De Gallier says the hardest people to change are the ones who've been in a company 20 years and have a vested interested in the status quo, people who feel insecure. He tries to find someone who is experienced but doesn't really care.
"It's most successful when you find an individual who regardless is not affected. They know their work is going to be obsolete and they're OK with it. You hang on to them and have them help you describe and discuss the benefits of the change. It's how you manage the people."
If that sounds like a tall order for a 25-year-old, it probably is. But De Gallier, who has been hiring UP interns for years, wants people who can learn quickly.
"The biggest benefit of this course for me is I would normally have to spend the next three years training them. When they get out of here they can hit the ground running." With smile he adds, "That can be problematic, young people bouncing up against entrenched ways..."
According to UP, 100 percent of the OMT students found jobs in 2012 and 2013. The worst year, 2016, was 87 percent. So far this year, 60 percent of the class have offers. Some are already doing those jobs. Average starting salaries were around $58,000 in 2015, which is on par with finance and accounting and way higher than marketing.
One of those young people is Ruth Easterling, 27, who has already accepted a position with Huron Consulting as a product specialist working in implementing software in a healthcare organization.
She sees the job as entry level, but is confident that her skills — gathering customer requirement and communicating them to a tech team, then verifying that both sides are satisfied — will bring her success in a product development career. That's a skill she can take to other industries.
Her last job was for a nonprofit microlender in Austin, Texas, working between the lending team and the IT team. Resources were limited. Now she's ready for something bigger.
Is the technical side of the syllabus difficult?
"Sometimes I wish I had gotten a computer science degree, because I'm highly logical and I need that in my work to feel rewarded: logic and problem solving," says Easterling.
Long careers in change
The professors stress that OTM students need to be good problem-solvers, which brings up the subject of how to learn in an expanding field.
Talking of cloud computing, mobile devices and the IoT (internet of things) boom, the professor who conceived of and developed the Operations & Technology Program, Dr. Gary Mitchell, says "the technology has outpaced education.
"It's hard to teach what the pros are using. So we try to teach the foundation, database basics, coding basics, and when they're trying to solve problems and they can find the resources. We have got to teach them how to think and solve a problem."
According to advisor Yuri Ramirez, who is in operations at Intel, his job is about being a go-between for the computer programmers and management. The software they make allows customers such as Google and Amazon to optimize the Intel-based servers they use in their data centers. It's a kind of software about software.
"It's about problem solving and getting that solution sold to management," says Ramirez. "They want someone with experience or a background in engineering, but it's difficult to do an engineering and business degree. If you do OTM you have both concepts in one degree."
He did a similar course in OTM at the University of Wisconsin, and when, at Intel, he heard about the one at UP he rushed to be involved.
"A lot of what you need is a combination of business and engineering, practice and theory, and that integration is what's done so well here."
The students are training to be business intelligence analysts, and eventually CIOs and CTOs.
"Our OTM graduates could be into technology, IT or operations, or they could be making businesses better by solving problems. What they learn can apply in any domain," says Mitchell.
From Jeddah to Lake O
Ben Berry has had a rich career in operations, starting with the rise of the personal computer, which propelled him through telecoms, healthcare, into aerospace, from Minneapolis to Saudi Arabia, city and state government and now to Lake Oswego, where he is CEO of a 3D printed drone company, AirShip Technologies Group. He has ridden a giant wave that is still growing.
"I'm here to show them there is life after graduation, and here's where you can take this career," said Berry while talking to Easterling. He talked of how in the 1970s he went to the library to look things up. Now he sees aircraft maintenance manuals with embedded videos showing how to fix parts.
Easterling said she is a big fan of YouTube. Most of what she knows about Excel and Access she learned there. "The Internet is a great tool, there are all kinds of public forums on stack overflow, Microsoft support communities for Access..." She reads questions and answers, and posts her own when necessary.
"If my code doesn't work I have to find someone who has tried something similar. I'm never going to create a routine or make a four loop. But I could use something else someone else has written."
Her attitude, and of her peers, is that learning is a fast-moving, pragmatic thing, and though the answers are firm, the questions will change rapidly.
"We try to teach them how to learn," says Berry.