The MEngagment Career Committee interviews Dr. Bob Barnes, Professor of Biomedical Device Innovation and Project Management.
Dr. Barnes brings his rich experience in project management to MEM, MEng and undergraduate students in his Biomedical Device Innovation and Project Management courses here at Duke. “At Duke, we have a very unique situation, and this is one of the things that all engineers should recognize, especially MEng and MEM. If you’re in biomedical engineering (BME), you’re in arguably the number 1, number 2 BME program in the country and perhaps in the world. But it’s very rare situation in which you can walk less than a mile and be at one of the top medical schools in the world, one of the top hospitals in the country, at the number 7 nursing school in the country, at one of the top business schools in the country, one of the best law schools in the world, one of the best public policy schools in the country, and have a great economics program. If you’re interested in being an entrepreneur, those are the things you need to have, and you can walk to every one of them. There are very few places in the world, where you can do that. To come here and not take advantage of these things, doesn’t make any sense”.
The MEngagement Career Committee sat down with Dr. Barnes to get his insight and advice to students regarding industry and the job search process.
Q: What made you pursue a career in project management? How did you get into teaching courses in project management and biomedical device innovation?
A: When I was in the 6th grade, I decided I wanted a PhD. I put a plan together to get the PhD by the spring of 1974, and missed that by 6 months. After that, I taught and was up for tenure a year earlier than I had thought. I’ve always been a project manager, it’s just natural for me. During this point of time, if you take a look at NASA, take a look at things that were happening in the U.S., it was the era of project management. I came along with a right attitude at the right time. I’m a civil engineer by training, not a biomedical engineer. Through a number of opportunities that were presented, I had a chance to work with Abbott, Pfizer, Guidant, Medtronic and Eli Lilly; all of those having to do with managing new product development, as a consultant. In 2010, I made a decision, I was tired of traveling. From 1990 until 2010, I would leave home Sunday night and come back home Friday night. Decided, I didn’t want to do that as much. Just happened to meet Barry Meyers, who introduced me to George Truskey. Dr. Truskey had a grant. He needed somebody to teach a course called Biomedical Devices, and that’s how I wound up doing this.
Q: During your experience, what are the qualities, skills or traits that stand out that enable engineers to be successful? What have you seen as a project manager in your team of engineers?
A: There are 2 things that drive engineers to be successful. The first one is necessary, but not sufficient, is you must be technically proficient. It doesn’t mean you have to be an expert. The next thing you need to be a good engineer is to be able to define problems. What is sufficient is if you can’t define problems, then you will do 2 things: You will solve problems that are of no value to anyone. The second thing you will do is you will waste your life. A 30 – 40 year career. That’s all you have. I’m only going to work on those problems that are meaningful to me because if you can’t define the problems, you can’t get there. Identify: “Is this problem worth my time?”
Q: I saw part of your interview with the MEM PDC where you talked about technical proficiency. You mentioned how competency is an important trait in leaders. How does one prepare for the transition from an engineering role that requires technical proficiency to a managerial role that requires competency?
A: Well I think preparation is one issue, but the first step is desire. You have to recognize as an individual contributor you can recognize tremendous value in your life and tremendous rewards. That’s a decision as an engineer you need to make early on in your career: “Do I want to be an individual contributor?” Or “Do I want to be somebody that can leverage my skill set through others to accomplish far more that I could ever accomplish by myself?” So this becomes a very personal issue with people. It’s that “I did it” is a very different experience from “We or They did it”. I don’t get turned on by “They did it”, not even by “we did it”. It’s a mindset that’s difficult for engineers to attain. Because of the way we’re trained, and the way we’re attracted to the profession. And that’s okay because there are things that you as an individual can do that nobody else can do, and you should take pride in that. But if I can get 4 more people like you, and I can get you to work together, the five of you can accomplish things that nobody else can do. And that’s the reward you have to seek.
Q: Now shifting our discussion from career pathway to internship and job search process. What have you seen in the past work for students in terms of finding an internship or job, and what advice would you give to current students who are in the process right now?
A: There are 2 things that pop out now. Number 1 is to start early. The second thing is to ask “What contribution can I make?” not “What do I want?” I guess, the third part of this is doing your research to make sure that what you want is consistent with what the hiring organization needs. You have to start early, you have to identify a number of different opportunities, you have to do your research. If I’m the hiring organization, don’t come to me as if this is the first time you’re hearing of this organization. So do your homework, and you may discover that you may not need to talk to them as they may not be doing the work you want to do. That’s the reason you want to start early, as opposed to wait to start in the spring.
Q: For company research, you can look at the company website and attend information sessions. What are other ways to approach this?
A: Let me give you an example, there is a good group that meets at Research Triangle Park, Indus. It’s an international organization of Indians who are entrepreneurs. These are people that are entrepreneurs, that are really interested in young people, who are engineers that want to be entrepreneurs. There are different groups.
Start networking. And when you show up in your first semester, get to the know the people who are in their last semester. “Where did you work? Who did you work with?” Network through them. Because the best way to get a job with me is for somebody that has worked with me, that did well and says, “I’d like you to meet _____, would you mind if I left you her/his resume? I think she/he would do a good job for you”. There’s no better way.
Q: Since you’ve brought up entrepreneurship, some students are interested in working for a startup or even launching a start-up, but they feel the need to work for a larger corporation first. What do you suggest?
A: Most of you don’t know enough to make significant contribution to an entrepreneurial firm. Let me bring up the example of Indus again. One of the officers this past year is a former chief financial officer of RedHat. If you happen to have coffee or tea with them and they’re retired, and they discover that you’d be interested in working in software development, why shouldn’t you ask, “Who’s hiring?” SAS Institute is in the Park, Quintiles is in the Park. The story is: it’s here. Start networking, and start asking “Who can connect with me?” The best connection is with somebody who has worked there. So start with the MEng and MEM students this semester. Start now.
Q: My final question is apart from the career services on campus, what is the best resource that students can use to leverage their chances of securing their dream job or internship?
A: The real problem with dream jobs is that they don’t exist. Most of us wind up from going place to place, and we wind up at some place that fits for us. One of the things that I wish our students would do, for example, the American Society of Civil Society has a chapter, the IEEE has a chapter, BMES has a chapter, these are professional chapters not student chapters. They all meet between Greensboro, Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, they’re all in that area. If you want a job, find out about the professional societies. Find out when they meet, get a friend to go with you and go. Most of them have student fees too. The best way I know is to put yourself out there, be bold, and get to know people. Let them know when you show up in the professional engineering society of North Carolina, in the American Society of Quality etc., you’re going to be the youngest person there. So when you check in, say “I’m a student, is there someone here I can talk to just to get acquainted with the organization.” What’s the worst that can happen? They don’t talk to you at all, but at least you get to eat something. Even if you don’t meet anybody, you expand your cultural experience. You have to put yourself out there.