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Mechanical Engineering

Delve Talks: Ian Robertson, UW-Madison College of Engineering

Delve Talks is a podcast that digs into the challenges around design, product development, leadership and innovation. Our second season continues to explore how to create a culture that supports innovation through interviews with leaders of startups, educational and banking institutions, and multinational corporations.


Dave Franchino [00:00:00] Welcome and hello, everybody. Dave Franchino here, and I'm really pleased to be joined by our V.P. of Strategy, Stef Norvaisas, who's gonna be joining me on this podcast. And we're really excited to welcome Dean Ian Robertson, Dr. Ian Robertson, professor and dean of the College of Engineering, the Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison, where you've been since 2013. And you've been serving as the ninth dean of the College of Engineering. It's a College that serves more than 4,000 undergrads and 1,500 graduate students. And the dean manages an annual budget of more than $200 million. So, on behalf of all of us, welcome and thanks for joining.

Ian Robertson [00:00:38] Thank you for the opportunity.

Dave Franchino [00:00:39] So just as a reminder, everybody. The objective, this podcast we started last year and we're trying to explore creating a culture of innovation and that's been having conversations with a wide range of people in a variety of topics and backgrounds and trying to glean some insights into their experience and what could be applied to any field. So welcome. We're really excited to talk to you today. And one thing that we think we wanted to point out, it probably will be apparent to our listeners pretty quickly. My background is in engineering. Stef's background is in the social sciences and cultural anthropology. So hopefully we'll be tag teaming with some questions and from different perspectives. 

Maybe you could start and tell us a little bit about yourself. How and why did you decide to become an engineer and a researcher? And give us a little bit of your background and some context for your comments.

Ian Robertson [00:01:31] Well, that's a hard question to start with. So how did I become an engineer? There was really nothing in my background that said I should be an engineer. I was educated in Glasgow in applied physics. I thought I'd be a physicist, then that was a hard field to get jobs. And that I spent a summer at one of the European research centers in Italy doing experiments. And we were looking at how materials are changed by radiation. And I couldn't see what the radiation was doing to the actual material. So, I decided I wanted to study defects in, say, materials. I wanted to see them. That led me to pursue a Ph.D. using an electron microscope so I could see atomic-level structures. Moved to Oxford university to do my Ph.D., not in the physics department because all electron microscopes are in metallurgy departments. So I had to become a metallurgist. 

As I was leaving Oxford, I got a call from the department head and he said, "I have a friend at the University of Illinois. He's got a problem with electron microscopy. You need to do some design work to actually build the equipment to do the experiments. That's what you're good at. You should go there and help them solve the problem." I already had a job, so that was a little bit awkward, but that was the advice of the head of the department and so I decided to do that. Went to Illinois with the intention of staying there for maybe one, maybe two years. Ended up being there for 30 years. I started as a post-doc, went through the faculty ranks, became the head of the department there. I moved from there to the National Science Foundation, where I was the director for the material research program there. And that's about a $300 million budget to sponsor research across the nation. When I was leaving there, the opportunity at Madison came up. I applied and I thought it was a good opportunity to help move a college of engineering forward in different ways. So that's a snapshot of my background.

Dave Franchino [00:04:03] That's a fascinating background. One thing I think our listeners, many of our listeners, will be able to relate to is you come from a deep technical background and now you're having to apply some of those skills in an area where many of the problems that you're working on, or the opportunities, are around managing people. How do you think those two connect with one another?

Ian Robertson [00:04:25] Well, the part I missed out was how I got involved in department management. At Illinois, we were going through a change in degree programs. We were we're trying to marry the ceramics department and the metallurgy department to create a materials science and engineering department. We were having some internal problems and the sort of management, not the leadership side of building the new department, but just in the day-to-day management. And a group of four of us were the executive committee and in one of our meetings we said, "We need someone new to manage the department and make sure we get everything done."

[00:05:06] I was slow that day. I was the last one to step back. And so the other three were out the door saying, "You're it." So that's how I got into department administration. Turns out, I was good at it. We built a very successful department. So I did that for four years and then moved to the college and the dean asked me to run the, basically the continuing education program. And at that time it was the early times of online education and we were doing a lot of development. Now, online education wasn't really why I was interested in developing that. But he wanted an office that was revenue positive, which it wasn't when I started. I had a meeting and an impact within the College of Engineering. So I ran that office for for some time. And let's say there were some problems in my old department and the dean told me I was going back to run the department. And then I became the department head. 

So, I got sort of pushed into these jobs of academic administration by chance. Well, there were opportunities. And I say these were good parts for me to go. I guess I was successful at them and kept getting asked to do more of them. So, that's really how I ended up getting into the management side. And I think the fact that I started when I was a relatively young faculty member learning the sort of management, not the leadership side and having to develop the new visions of where we're going, but learning how to operate and convince faculty, who all basically are independent operators, to convince them that these were the directions in which we had to move the department. And this is how we would do it. So, I think that was good training. The other part that was really important to me is I had good mentors, all of whom said, "Never go into department administration."

Ian Robertson [00:07:19] And as I went further and they said, "Well, that's OK. You're still connected to the science." I think if someone now would say, "Well, you're still connected to the science, but if you do anything else, then you've really crossed to the dark side." And I'd lose some of their friendships. But being a department administrator, a college administrator, is a challenge.

Dave Franchino [00:07:41] Yeah. And you're you're clearly very good at it. I mean, I appreciate your being a little bit self-deprecating, but I think your career shows that. What traits do you think have allowed you to be successful as a technical researcher? But then, what are the traits that allowed you to be successful more in the managerial aspects?

Ian Robertson [00:08:02] So, I think part of it is understanding the problem. Developing a vision of where we want to go, developing the plan to get to that vision, maybe realizing that I don't have all the skills that are necessary to actually fully implement the plan. Then identifying people who are really good at those other areas, hiring them, empowering them to go and do their task, and trusting that they will get it done. And I've been lucky in both Illinois and at Madison. I've been surrounded by incredibly good staff. So these would be my associate deans who do a tremendous job at the parts I'm not good at.

Stefanie Norvaisas [00:08:49] I think it's really interesting because you listed out the key elements of your job and your skill set. And it sounds a lot to me like the design thinking process and how we talk about it. So you talked about understanding the problem in the first place, right? Having a vision for what, you know, we talk about in design, thinking, innovating from the future. And so having a vision of how it could be if it were ideal, right? Then making a plan from how to get from here to there. Identifying missing skill sets and resources. Hiring those those resources, empowering them, and then trusting people. I mean, that's a really beautiful sort of summary of what it takes to be successful. Given our focus on a culture of innovation, I'm wondering how you see creativity tying into that mix?

Ian Robertson [00:09:48] So, if you look at the challenges that we face in each of the areas for running a college, so we have the academic side. We have our research sides and we can never stay still in either either of those areas. We always have to be thinking of what's the new way to teach the students, what are the new areas to bring in so that they are the best engineers that any company can hire. So, we have to be creative in how we actually bring a new curriculum. We have to be creative in the ways that we develop teaching. I think we've been very successful in those areas. The same is true in research. I mean, all of us get very comfortable and building a career in the area we know. I think one of the things that helps within engineering, we have to find money to support our research and the federal agencies change where their needs are and what their directions are. And if you're not creative in how you use your research skills, you quickly end up not having a research program that's funded, which for us would be a terrible thing. So I think we all have to be creative in how we how we select the problems and how we take that approach to solving them.

Headshot of Ian Robertson, UW-Madison
“Our value statement is we’re always going to continue to improve the quality of the education.” — Ian Robertson

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Delve has merged with Bresslergroup. Learn more →