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Giving the geeks some corner-office cred (Shout/Shout)
Giving the geeks some corner-office cred (Shout/Shout)

Teaching tech geeks how to be managers Add to ...

Think your team is hard to manage? In the late 1990s, Ginny Dybenko had more than 1,000 technology-obsessed, leadership-challenged engineers reporting up the chain of command—straight to her.

“Oh man, was it a difficult chore,” Ms. Dybenko says. As president of Bell’s advanced communications unit, the conglomerate’s innovation hotbed at a time when it was facing fresh competition, she had to navigate Bell’s corporate structure, with her minutiae-obsessed techies in tow.

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Ms. Dybenko wishes she could have taught her leading employees the management skills they didn’t have in a way that was tailored to the talent they already possessed.

It’s too late for her charges at Bell, but for today’s tech execs, there is a solution: At Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario—where Ms. Dybenko is the head of strategic initiatives—the business school is launching a new, year-long executive master’s in technology management. The program was developed thanks to obviously fruitful conversations between Laurier and Mark Pecen, one of nearby Research In Motion’s top executives, and a member of the School of Business & Economics’ Dean’s Advisory Council. “A technology management program gives students the skills necessary to manage emerging technologies” as opposed to mature ones, says Mr. Pecen, who, as RIM’s vice-president of advanced technology, is in charge of the tech giant’s research centre and wireless strategy, and reports directly to RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis.

Indeed, when Mr. Pecen took a similar, two-year program at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, finishing in 2005 before he joined RIM, he wasn’t poring over case studies that focused on auto plants; he was studying semiconductor manufacturing and wireless networks. “These things are valuable no matter what you do,” he adds, “whether you’re doing a start-up or writing a business plan at an established company.”

And these days, the Waterloo region has quite a bit of both. This once-quaint agricultural region has bloomed from around 240 tech companies back in 2004 to more than 800 today, from start-up app developers to branch offices for giants like Google and aerospace and defence contractor Raytheon and, of course, RIM, which now has around 17,000 employees and 25 buildings across the city. Wilfrid Laurier’s new program simply piles into the ecosystem; the Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Centre at the University of Waterloo already offers recent grads a crash course in the skills they need in order to cash in.

Iain Klugman, who runs a local technology hub out of a former tannery in downtown Waterloo, advised Hamid Noori, the Laurier program’s executive director, on developing the curriculum. “It’s very specifically focused on technology leaders, and future leaders who come from the tech industry—equipping them with the necessary management and leadership skills.” About half of those applying to the program were hand-picked from within RIM’s ranks (after all, Mr. Pecen oversees a vast team of PhD researchers).

Although Ms. Dybenko and Mr. Noori originally designed the program just for RIM, they eventually expanded it and opened it up to other high-tech companies. But it remains close to RIM, both physically and because of Mr. Pecen’s contributions, and many students in its first class will be employees from the BlackBerry maker’s nearby offices. As the company undergoes dramatic restructuring that includes at least 2,000 layoffs, the master’s program may be a great motivator to keep talent within RIM—and, as Ms. Dybenko points out, to keep brilliant tech leaders in Waterloo, as well as in Canada.

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