A Winning Combination: Management and Technology

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Dr. William F. Hamilton

Each year, a recruiting team from Goldman Sachs comes to campus solely to interview students in the Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology. The Penn alumnus who organizes it once told M&T’s director, Dr. William F. Hamilton CHE’61 GCH’64 WG’64, “I know where the mother lode is, and I’m here to get it.”

To Hamilton that’s just one indicator of the success of the dual-degree program, which marks its 25th anniversary with a celebration on November 5. Participants follow a rigorous but individualized course of study to earn a bachelor of science in economics from the Wharton School and either a bachelor of applied science or a bachelor of science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Hamilton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Management and Technology, sat down with Gazette associate editor Susan Frith to talk about the program he has led since its inception. 

How did the M&T program get started, and is it really 25 years old? I thought I had seen mention of it even earlier. 

[Laughing] It is the 25th anniversary, because five years ago we declared it to be the 20th. There’s no defining date, because we eased into the program [and gradually admitted more students].

The program goes back to the mid-seventies, when Penn’s engineering school, as a small engineering school on an Ivy League liberal-arts campus, was wrestling with its future. To develop a strategic vision for the school, they brought in some very distinguished senior executives as part of an advisory council.

They came back with some compelling recommendations, which were in essence that the engineering school ought not to try to be a Cal Tech or MIT—not try to be an institute of technology, which is the competitive challenge the school sought—but to recognize a couple of things: One, that the challenges in society were not in specific engineering disciplines. They tended to be at the intersection of engineering or technology and other important arenas—the environment, legal issues over patentability, medicine. The real challenges that engineering grads ought to be prepared to address are these broader societal challenges. Secondly, they as executives had a great difficulty finding people who could reach beyond the technological to embrace other aspects of their organizations. They said, “Penn is a perfect place to be preparing those people, because you have a world-famous medical school, a world-famous business school, an absolutely top-quality law school. What engineering ought to do is reach out to other professional centers of excellence on campus.”

So the M&T program was the first response to their recommendations. It was initiated by this review panel, and embraced by the engineering dean and by the Wharton dean.

In the search for someone to direct the program, I was asked if I would be interested. Originally, I said no. I had just gotten $5 million for the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics [at Penn], where I was head of research, and I wanted to spend the $5 million. As we interviewed people and defined what [M&T] should be, I got much more excited about it.

How did your experiences as a student here—you have three degrees from Penn—influence your thinking as the program’s director? 

I designed the M&T program to be the program that I wished was available when I was an undergraduate at Penn. I was a chemical engineer, but I took economics, psychology, history—a bunch of other courses outside the school—because I was fascinated by them. That’s what we look for in our students, kind of a renaissance character.

I worked in industry in the summers and became enamored of the economic drivers of technology. The same mathematical equations I worked on in engineering, I found much more fascinating when the units switched from pounds-flow to dollars-flow. I switched over to Wharton and picked up an MBA and then was fantastically lucky to win a Thouron Fellowship to attend the London School of economics [for a Ph.D.].

In the early years did M&T take a lot of recruiting?

We had a lot of students who signed on right away. To get two degrees was very attractive, and the power of the combination had long been recognized by students—much more so than by us faculty members. Once we started to formalize the program I figured we could get up to 25. Then I put on the breaks at 50 [per class].

The program has become more and more respected because the students are so great. It’s the most difficult program to get into at Penn. Our students take a heavier load than anyone else. They come with a much larger number of advanced placement credits. They do all sorts of things, get involved in all sorts of activities, leadership, and the like.

As the business and technological climate has changed, how has the program evolved?

The program itself remains as it was pretty much when we started it in the framework, that is, we allow students to take courses almost wherever they want as long as they fit within categories. But we’ve kept to one simple rule: Each school defines the requirements for its degree. 

The world’s changed a lot. In the early days of the program, technology and innovation weren’t real hot stuff. We went through a period of time leading up to the 2000 bubble when it was the hottest thing going and more of our students were interested in entrepreneurial activities than in Wall Street. Then that bubble burst. 

But the real reason the program is so attractive [is that] we offer a broad set of options.

What career paths have M&T alumni pursued with their degrees?

The interesting question I get from parents is, “What do people do?” and my answer is, “Yes.” They have all the options they could imagine. I just got an e-mail yesterday from an astronaut who was one of our grads. We’ve got folks who’ve gone on to engineering roles. A majority of our students end up gravitating toward the business world because the pay is much higher. A lot go into Wall Street and end up becoming very significant players. And a large number [of alumni] are in large companies at the intersection of management and technology.

What changes do you envision for the future?

One of the major shifts going forward is to have considerably greater involvement of our 1,300 alumni than has been case in the past, and they are going to be important instruments in defining the next 25 years, because they’re out there, they’ve been here, and they understand. And it’s also our competitive advantage at this point. Our idea is not patented. There are some other good schools that are putting the pieces [of M&T] together. MIT is one that concerns me a great deal. What they don’t have is a track record of 1,300 excited, supportive alumni.

What kind of involvement do you foresee for alumni?

Individual mentoring, involvement on campus in seminars and group meetings with students about various career paths, involving students in their companies and projects as interns. I would like to see every student in the program have an internship related to management and technology every summer that they want one. Financial support has already begun, and we expect that to increase a lot over time. But it’s their time and their ideas that I think are most precious. —S.F.

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