The Value of My IOE Education – A Short Walk through 50 Years

This is a guest post from Mike Kahn, BSE (IE) 1971 and MSE (IE) 1972.

Mike Kahn visiting Michigan Stadium during IOE’s 60+ Anniversary Celebration.

A classical industrial engineer or operations manager I am not. By classical, I mean one who works in industry and has an operations job where process optimization is a primary responsibility. Nonetheless, my IOE (Industrial and Operations Engineering) education has enabled my career, enhanced my value to my employers and clients, and provided a good living. That is the focus of the story that follows.

Before I get to that, let me set the stage. In the fall of 1967, now 50 years ago, I arrived at the College of Engineering without a clear focus on why I was there, other than the most obvious reasons.

  • I was talented at science and math and already was an experienced computer programmer (Fortran), a rarity for a high school student in those days.
  • The College offered 13 engineering programs, which was a more diverse selection than at the three other colleges that I had considered and visited (Duke, Vanderbilt, and University of Pennsylvania). Surely, I could find something for me among all of those choices. However, I never visited Michigan prior to arriving as a freshman.
  • The College did not have a language requirement for graduation and I had a negative experience in my high school French classes.
  • It was far enough from my home in the suburbs of Miami Beach that my parents wouldn’t be visiting regularly (which would not have been the case had I gone to the University of Florida, my father’s alma mater).
  • The cost of attending Michigan as an out-of-state student was affordable, just $500 a term in my freshman year. This was several hundred more per term that it would cost to go to Florida but Michigan offered more, or so I convinced my parents.
  • Most importantly, I applied for early decision and was admitted, thus sealing the deal.

Until I arrived on campus, I had only met one engineer, someone who awarded me a prize at the county science fair. He was an electrical engineer and that’s about all that I knew about him. Our paths crossed a couple of times before I went to college. I really had little comprehension of what engineers actually did, other than applying math and science to solve business and industrial problems. Neither my mother or father studied math or science in college and none of their friends were engaged in the world of technology. Fortunately, I had some exceptional public school teachers to set the stage for me.

At the outset of my college years, I was driven most by my head start with computers, which clearly exceeded some of the backgrounds of my first year instructors (both professors and teaching fellows, as teaching assistants were called back then). I surely wasn’t the brightest student in my classes but my programming skills did make me stand out and gave me a notable advantage.

When it came time to pick an engineering major at the end of my freshman year, I was clueless. I chose Science Engineering, which best could be described as general engineering. It was a non-specific decision for a non-specific program. I did this to buy some more time. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to be an engineer, but changing to being a computer science major would have required me to satisfy the foreign language requirement, because the computer science department then was in LS&A. I knew that I was interested in information systems (IS), which I saw back then as the practical application of computer science; IS was focused on where the rubber met the road: data, processes, and user interfaces. At the time, there was no formal program for this anywhere at Michigan, but a number of information-systems-focused faculty had aggregated in the Industrial Engineering Department. So I switched to IE as my major. (The department name was changed to IOE after I received both of my degrees.)

At best, I was a reluctant engineering student. I probably would have been happier if I had majored in computer science, but making that change as a junior would have extended my undergraduate education to more than five years, which didn’t seem like an efficient thing to do. So I stayed in IE and took many computer science courses and most of the IS and computer-related courses offered by the IE Department (such as simulation), some of which were cross-listed with the computer science department and the business school.

I had a couple of life-changing events as an undergraduate, which I can trace back to CCS1 473, which was an assembly language course with a focus on operating systems principles, and its follow-on course, CCS 573. One or both of these was taught by the late CCS Prof. Bernard Galler, who became a lifelong friend. As the 573 course was ending, he asked if I would consider working as a “counselor” at the UM Computing Center; today’s equivalent would be staffing the help desk, where students could get help with their programs. I did this and it became a life-bending moment because in the spring term of my junior year I met my future wife (Bev) at the help desk in NUBS2. Bev needed help with her CCS 473 assembly language program. The rest is history, as we have now been married for 45 years.

Two years before my arrival on campus, Professor Galler and three other Michigan academics (including Mechanical Engineering Professor Frank Westervelt, who was my Engineering 101 professor in my first term, and CCS Professor Bruce Arden, whom I did not know at that time but got to know more recently) co-authored a paper3 published in the Journal of the ACM about how to properly design a time-sharing computer with virtual memory. Memory management was a big issue at the time and classical programming methods required the programmer to manage the limited amount of memory allocated (usually 16K or 64K) by overlaying it and programmatically swapping parts of it in an out (from memory to disk and back), effectively doing the virtual memory paging that we now all take for granted. This paper was a Eureka Moment for me. It lit up my brain onto the possibilities of optimizing (and maybe even automating) computer systems, programming, and systems management processes. Now I was applying industrial engineering optimization concepts to computer systems solutions. I decided I was in the right place (in IE) and decided to invent my own IS major in the IE Department. This was encouraged and enhanced by the presence of an ongoing research project in the IE Department called ISDOS (Information Systems Design Optimization System), with which I interacted both as a student and, much later, as a consultant. In between, for many years, I was on the outside closely watching ISDOS, because my wife was working on that project while she worked on her PhD in IOE; her thesis was on logical database design and largely resulted from her work at ISDOS.

Yes, we were (and still are) a Michigan IOE couple. I turned her from the dark side (computer science and honors mathematics undergraduate) to the lighter, more practical field of information systems, then still anchored in the IOE Department. The family affair was extended, more than three decades later, when our son Bob graduated in 2009 with a BSE in IOE from Michigan. To be clear, this was his idea and not ours, but he too found a career in information systems (managing big data projects for an industrial giant) from his years as a Michigan IOE undergraduate student.

In my later undergraduate terms, I struggled with some of the required but seemingly irrelevant (to me) core engineering courses, especially thermodynamics, but my path was set and I was working on interesting projects, both for course credit and as an employee of the University. Because being a practicing or professional engineer wasn’t my goal, I finished my undergraduate education with a B average (or maybe a B-, depending on where you want to draw the line between them). However, I was getting a lot of As in my computer science and information systems classes. I petitioned the IE Department to let me continue as a graduate student, which they reluctantly agreed to do, as long as I acknowledged that I was admitted on probation. This was the best alternative for me, because there were few jobs for engineers in 1971, as I graduated during a recession.

In spite of my heavy load of computer science courses, I had been clever enough in my junior and senior years to take all of the required IE courses needed for my master’s degree. Thus, I only had to take any six graduate IE courses and take four other “related” courses to get my master’s degree. This freedom allowed me to find the education and experiences that I was seeking and, as a result, I did very well.

Even with BSE and MSE degrees in hand, I didn’t consider myself to be an engineer. I considered myself to be an information systems professional, as I had become a systems analyst and then a manager of a database development team while working on a Michigan economics research project and, thereafter, had my own consulting company in Ann Arbor, PRISM Associates (Planning and Research on Information Systems and Management), while my wife was doing her doctoral research and dissertation in IOE. In reality, it was about three decades later that I concluded that, after all, I was an engineer and proud to be one. More on that, shortly.

Summing up what I learned in IE that proved to be most beneficial, it had to do with cost accounting (engineering economics), resource management and optimization (whether inventory, people, resources, or systems), and thinking about and modeling complex systems, all central components of my Michigan IOE education. These would be in my toolkit for my entire career.

By the time that I graduated with my BSE, somehow I had squeezed in macro and micro economics and two terms of accounting. I considered these essential to being able to understand how systems operated in the real world. These were enhanced and extended by many of the IOE courses that I took. To this day, economics is central to who I am and what I do.

Like many if not most engineers, there is an anal component to my personality. I thrived on details and making sense of the chaos in the systems in which they exist (and I still do). Over my career, two of the most common concepts in my working repertoire have been “effectiveness” and “efficiency”. These concepts, no doubt, were drilled into me as an IOE student. In retrospect, I have spent my professional life focused on the effectiveness and efficiencies of complex systems, which remains a very important topic these days. There have been a wide variety of complex systems on which I have worked (job matching; back-end database computing; tiered, multi-computer information systems; database management systems; manufacturing information systems (both discrete and process), and computer and storage operating systems. In focusing on improving complex systems, I have been practicing IOE for most of my career.

As I said earlier, I really didn’t set out to be an engineer, which I then loosely conceived as someone who was focused on industrial and manufacturing processes, but it was clear from my childhood that I was bitten by an interest in efficiency. This first hit me at summer camp in 1958, when I was in the chorus of a musical that was being produced for parents’ weekend. That was The Pajama Game, in which one of the lead characters was “a time study man” in a pajama factory. I probably still can sing all of the songs, but the one on being a time study man and another on a 7.5¢ per hour wage dispute stand out in my mind. At age nine, I didn’t believe then that I wanted to be a time study man, but I was fascinated by the idea of complex systems, although I couldn’t articulate this very clearly at that age. When they were growing up, I forced both of my kids to listen to these songs on car trips. I wonder if I somehow planted an IOE seed in son Bob’s head. Clearly, this wasn’t my intention.

For the last 29 years as a computer industry analyst and analyst firm executive, I have been focused on the high end of the computer industry, especially the hardware and software products offered by the leading vendors and, related, helping large enterprises decide which technologies would best satisfy their needs, which often were poorly articulated. For much of this time, I have been considered one of the leading total-cost-of-ownership experts on certain segments of information technology, including storage and servers. At the heart of this is requirements analysis, something that I learned in IOE at Michigan. Equally important were the economics and benefits surrounding such decisions, especially when requirements were soft and often not formally articulated. Determining the value parameters of the potential benefits of information technology is as much an art as it is a science. Cost studies of the life cycle of investments in technology are at the center of each cost-benefit analysis. All of this was learned in IOE. I am proud to be an industrial and operations engineer.

More than 15 years ago, I found myself in a focus group meeting with young systems engineers and computer scientists for a sponsored research project that I was doing. Some were seniors in college and others were graduate students (mostly in summer internships), but the majority of them were working in their first full-time job for a large systems vendor. When my colleague and I did the first focus group, we both were not so quietly perceived as being too old to know anything relevant. (We were in our early fifties.) It was clear to me that I (the technical one of the pair) needed to prove them wrong if we ever were to reach the purpose of the meeting. I laid my cards on the table, one of which was that I was a graduate engineer and that everything that they were doing I had done before and likely several times before. We played a game of “ask any IT/computer systems question”, which I played competently. As I realized at the end of that evening, I really had been an engineer for most of my career. Thereafter, I played this trump card again and again, when I needed to gain credibility quickly. I was then and still now am proud to be an engineer. I always will be an engineer.

When my kids were growing up, they called their mom “a fake doctor”, because PhDs were not real (medical) doctors. It’s a frequently told family story. When son Bob was a Michigan engineering undergraduate, one of us, probably me, jokingly called his mom “a fake engineer”, because even with an MS and PhD in IOE, she clearly didn’t measure up to being “a real engineer”, i.e., one who suffered through the requirements of an engineering bachelor’s degree. Bob understood but Bev was not pleased with either of us. Nonetheless, there was serious thought in making this claim. All undergraduate engineers share a similarly arduous journey on their way to their undergraduate degree. Many students drop out along the way. As I have found around the world, an engineering undergraduate degree is a badge of distinction that is well earned and stands, if for nothing else, for persevering a rigorous curriculum. I am proud to be a real engineer.

If I was to design my own grave marker, the words “Michigan Engineer” might be all that needs to be said. Being a Michigan engineer is a special badge of distinction and set my life on its journey. It is respected around the world. I am proud to be a Michigan engineer.

 

1 Computer and Communication Sciences.

2 NUBS – the former North University Building Station that housed the original computing center (IBM 709x mainframes running MAD, Michigan Algorithm Decoder, which was Fortran-like in many ways, with a few adders of structured programming). North University Building was located at the overpass over North University to the dorms on the hill and now only is a memory.

3 Program and Addressing Structure in a Time-Sharing Environment, B. W. Arden, B. A. Galler, F. H. Westervelt, and T. C. O’Brien, Journal of the ACM, December 1965.