A Computer Science Guy in Supply Chain Management

If you are contemplating reading this blogpost, you probably belong to one of these two groups: you fervently aspire to join the renowned Supply Chain Management program at MIT, or you curiously clicked on one of the well-crafted e-fliers and landed on this page. Whatever be the case, let me warn you: this article is not for the faint-hearted. However, with high risk comes high returns. This article covers several life-metamorphosing decisions and dire financial risks, while delineating the rewards both in the short and the long-term. So, relax and join me for the ride.

For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed math and coding. I have been good at it, relatively speaking. Not long before my fifteenth birthday, I made the decision to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Engineering. This was in 2006. I graduated in 2010, a freshly minted Bachelor of Technology, software engineer in an already saturated Indian technology market. Navigating several domains and industries delivering technology for 9 years, I grew fond of solving real-world business problems which required technology. I started out writing simple component code for applications, progressing towards larger systems, and finally managing teams to deliver highly scalable and performant real-time systems.

I have successfully navigated different problem domains in retail supply chain and power supply chain. I have learned that, irrespective of the differences in implementation, the underlying process is essentially the same. What excites me, however, is the business problem we solved every time we wrote a piece of code. Be it an optimization algorithm to generate a daily intra-regional power schedule for the PowerGrid of India or a predictive algorithm implementation to facilitate future availability of products for Tesco Grocery, it is always the scope of the problem that excited me more than the final implementation. I joined the Supply Chain Management program at MIT to do more of this.

At MIT, I am a Master of Engineering candidate at the Center for Transportation & Logistics (CTL), the less common variant of the Supply Chain Management program. Now the pertinent question arises: why did I make such a career choice? First, let me address my pre-MIT situation. I was working as an Engineering Manager at Tesco with direct reports, a sumptuous product roadmap, a salary in the top 0.1 percentile (in India), and an accelerated career trajectory.

So why this decision? This is one of those career-transforming decisions that one makes, taking a leap of faith, based on a belief in one’s understanding of the world and one’s ability to predict (or not) the future. Right now, the whole world is going gaga (not to undermine the popstar) over machine learning, AI, blockchain, and automation in general, and the same trends are slowly seeping into the tightly closed doors of technology in Supply Chain. Having led teams solving the problems of different kinds of supply chains, I have witnessed a general lack of knowledge of the core processes on the part of the software engineers who spearhead the digitalization of supply chain systems. On the flipside, there is seldom a person who understands deeply the technology landscape in which a digitalization project is undertaken. This leads to many problems about expectations, estimations, and functionality. As I have said several times to my engineering teams, and I say again here – product managers are the Houdinis of our time: they exist in time-remnants contributing to the sanity and sanctity of a software product and slowly vanish afterward. A key responsibility of a product manager is to bridge the gap between business and technology. While most product managers today are more inclined to the business, they often lack the core tech skills required to make the right connections and manage expectations. I believe there is a huge gap in the industry for a breed of tech product managers with a sound knowledge of business. Many companies such as Amazon, Wayfair, Zalando and others have specific roles to fill this gap. These roles exist primarily in the engineering organizations and are part of engineering teams shipping software. Some of the common titles associated with this role in different companies are: Sr. Product Manager – Technical, Technical Product Manager, Engineering Product Manager, etc. The product manager role ideally elevates to the role of the CEO in a flat unidirectional career acceleration scheme. For example, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet, started as a Product Manager at Google. It is important to understand, however, that a product manager doesn’t double up as a CEO; it is nevertheless a good starting point. This is where I am headed after the program. I have a couple of offers from Amazon and General Mills, primarily at the sweet intersection of technology and business.

Now, in terms of the risk, I took a daunting one by leaving a job that paid a good salary in India, with zero assurances. But I think that, irrespective of this fact, the rationale behind making that decision is important. Even though at the outset, this looks like a risky decision, consider what the following can do for your career, both in the short- and the long-term:

  1. Entering a field which is booming and is predominantly at the bottom of the S-curve1
  2. Entering a field where you have a somewhat rare skillset 
  3. Master of Engineering degree from a residential program at MIT

These reasons prompted me to choose the supply chain program compared to the M.S. in Computer Science program at Columbia University and the M.S. in Analytics program at UCLA.

Even though I was skeptical during the fall recruiting season, sometimes reflecting upon my thought process and analyzing whether it was the correct decision, right now, I feel this was one of the best career decisions I have taken. I think this is a great program for people in information technology and software, interested in business. This intersection is hot right now and will be for the next 15 years or so, while the slow-moving behemoths like the CPG companies and retail giants upgrade their supply chain processes and embrace technology. With one of the best programs at MIT in terms of return over investment (inclusive of opportunity cost), I would say that if you bring skills in building distributed systems, machine learning or blockchain, and you complete a master’s degree in Supply Chain, there is no looking back.


Saikat Bannerjee – SCMr Class of 2020 

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