Engineering an Entrepreneurial Future

By Cary Estes

Dale Callahan
IEM director Dale Callahan says the program enables clients by giving them the skills and confidence to pursue new business goals.

The problem with the corporate ladder is that there’s only one way up. Many creative professionals in technical fields view the climb as a fast track to frustration, with limited options to break out and take charge of their careers.

Since 2000, many of these workers have found freedom in UAB’s Information Engineering and Management (IEM) program. The program offers a master’s degree in engineering, but participants, known in the program as clients, say it feels more like an M.B.A. in technology, offering them the business knowledge and skills, and confidence, they need to venture out on their own.

“We take experienced professionals who feel unfulfilled and ask them where they want to go,” says IEM director Dale Callahan, Ph.D. “That question hits a nerve, because a lot of people don’t have an answer. They’re just following the process, and nowhere along the line has anybody asked, ‘What do you really want to do?’”

The IEM curriculum covers project management, marketing and business strategy, software engineering principles, and information security, among other topics. But it also offers valuable lessons in entrepreneurship, public speaking, and presentation skills, along with personal mentoring from faculty as clients develop their own business ventures. “We’ve become almost a coaching program,” Callahan says. “We broaden clients’ experience with what’s going on in the industry. But we also help them to define their goals and reach them. Most of them don’t know what they want. They just know they want something different.”

Finding Freedom

Since completing the IEM program in 2002, Steven Puckett has started six companies and has formed business partnerships all over the world.

That was the case for engineer Steven Puckett. He entered the 21-month IEM program because he was “really frustrated” with the way his career was going. But he did not have any business experience and was not interested in returning to school for a traditional M.B.A.

“The IEM program turned out to be perfect,” Puckett says. “It gave me an entrepreneurial mindset and the skills to think like a business owner—including marketing, sales, performance, and other things I didn’t learn in my engineering and technical studies.” More important, he says, “it gave me the inspiration and courage to jump out and try to do it on my own.”

After graduating from the program in 2002, Puckett left his job and started his own wireless broadband company in Birmingham, which he sold a few years later to a local technology firm. Since then Puckett has started five other companies and worked with business partners worldwide. He helped a fiber-optics firm in China raise capital, formed a digital-media organization, and has done consulting and communications work for the U.S. Marine Corps, the federal government, and a number of utility companies. His latest start-up develops specialized LED technologies and control systems.

“The biggest thing I’ve gained is a newfound freedom that I never would have known had I not enrolled in the IEM program,” Puckett says.

Upward Mobility

Brian Cauble says the IEM program helped him realize his potential for forming a successful company.

Brian Cauble, a 2008 IEM graduate, has had a similar experience. In addition to learning basic business skills, Cauble says the program made him realize that forming his own company truly was an attainable goal. “It exposes you to people who have been really successful,” Cauble says. “You meet these people and get to know them a little bit. They are impressive—intelligent and good at what they do—and it makes you feel like it can be done. It opens up possibilities.”

In 2009, Cauble formed Appsolute Genius, which offers custom software development for mobile phones. He also has started an organization called Birmingham Entrepreneur, which meets monthly and has approximately 400 members.

“I wouldn’t have known how to start a group like that before the IEM program,” Cauble says. “I use things I learned in the program every day. It really enables you to become more strategic about how you approach your business.”

While there are textbook facts that clients need to learn, Callahan says the IEM program’s primary goal is to make people realize that they can step off the traditional corporate ladder and not fall. “Most of them are working in such large entities that business seems overwhelming,” Callahan says. “We try to show them that it’s not as complicated as they think. Somewhere in this process, there’s a sense of ‘I can do whatever I want.’

“The program is not really about getting a master’s degree. It’s about helping you figure out where you want to be and how to get there. That’s become our driving force."