Catching up with the first NUMEM Alum

Robert Luby holds an undergraduate degree from the United States Naval Academy as well as a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering and graduated with the first class of students to participate in Northwestern University’s Master of Engineering Management program in 1979. An officer in the Navy at the time, Mr. Luby taught the ROTC program while attending courses. He remained in the Navy after earning his MEM degree and worked on a variety of complex engineering projects, from submarine overhauls to new weapons system installation. After retiring from the Navy in 1993, Mr. Luby worked for the global professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, then led IBM’s Public Sector Consulting Practice, a $1.1 billion project which included several thousands engineers. Mr. Luby retired two years ago and now owns six small companies based in Downers Grove, three of which are significant medical products companies. Mr. Luby was willing to take a moment to talk to us about his education, his fascinating professional career, his thoughts on the future of engineering, and his experiences in the MEM program.

What was the MEM program like at the time?

There was actually a pretty attractive program. A lot of us were practicing engineers and there were about twelve of us in the group. I was only in Evanston for two years until 1979, so I did finish pretty quickly. They had a very clear program put together with very clear requirements, which is one of the things I liked about it. I’m not sure what its like now, but we took courses at tech institute and some courses with the MBA faculty also.

Is there a reason you chose an MEM degree over an MBA, which is a decision many students now have to make?

I knew I was going continue to pursue engineering in the Navy. I thought this was a great program for me, and in those days, I thought the MEM program was a little bit more technical, which most of us liked—more mathematics and things of that nature.

It sounds like you were part of a tight-knit group of students.

Yes, we interacted a lot and we were in groups together. I know we worked on some projects together in marketing. We were in pretty much all the classes together, and most of them were 6-9 at night, so we were here together quite a bit.

Considering you were in the first graduating class from MEM, how did people, such as employers, react to seeing an MEM degree? Were they curious or not know what it was?

I was in the Navy at the time and spent over 20 years in the Navy in the submarine program. People in the Navy recognized the degree and thought it was a good combination, having engineers in a management world. I retired [from the Navy] in 1993 and then was in PricewaterhouseCoopers, and  I would say the degree was pretty well recognized. I also have a degree in Mechanical Engineering, so the combination has been pretty good.

So do you think your experiences and the courses you took while getting an MEM degree proved helpful in your future and in your career?

Yes, I did. A lot of the linear algebra and things on modeling were very helpful. Of all things, the marketing and accounting and finance that we took were very helpful. I

Do you think you would recommend an MEM degree over a Master in Engineering, or does it depend what your career focus is going to be?

I always recommend Engineering Management because I think it’s a very good program for engineers and most engineers are working—if they get their bachelors degree in engineering—are working in technical organizations, not managing organizations, so they find it quite helpful.

During the course of your career what are some of the most creative projects you’ve worked on or the projects you’re most proud of?

I worked in the Navy on several complex submarine overhauls and reactory fueling and installing new weapons systems. When I retired from the Navy and I joined Coopers and Lyebrand and PricewaterhouseCoopers, a major consulting company, I worked on a whole wide variety of very technical programs. I worked on helicopters programs with the Army. I worked on upper managing plants. I retired from IBM two years ago after working in their Public Sector Consulting Practice. Now I own six small companies, three of which are very significant medical products companies. So again, we still have a lot of engineering and managing involved in those.

Do you think having the managing background from the MEM degree was integral in being able to take on more upper level and upper management projects?

Oh yes, for sure. [It] gave me a very good perspective on different techniques, different approaches and also increased my curiosity in areas, to launch different things in the engineering management arena.

We’ve posted some articles recently about how MEM degrees are becoming, potentially, more beneficial than MBAs because companies are streamlining their management. What do you think about the future of engineering and what’s most important for engineers going into the field today?

I do think engineers have the skills, the background, and the ability to take on senior positions within their companies and organizations, but they do need some of the management skills they may be lacking, which include accounting, marketing, finance, and some of the leadership skills that they do get in the more traditional management programs.

Is there any advice that you would give to current MEM students today?

Take advantage of the experiences, the background, the research that the professors are pursuing because as you pursue and get busy in your career, there’s not a lot of opportunity to gain a wide variety of the experiences and knowledge associated with the faculty members and the research they’re doing… with companies or government organization or other academic pursuits.

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