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May 3, 2024 Alumni Business Administration

Industry 4.0 thought leader finds passion for continuous learning through Gies MBA

In this series, four graduates with diverse backgrounds share how they changed the trajectory of their careers by pursuing an online MBA program (iMBA) from Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Interview: Jeff Winter, a thought leader on Industry 4.0, pursued an MBA to become a more well-rounded business leader. He discovered his passion for strategy and the value of continuous learning along the way.

How did your career path lead you to pursue an MBA?

As a kid, I had insatiable curiosity for how things worked and always loved playing with new technology. This naturally led me to STEM fields of study and ultimately to earn an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering Technology. After seven years as a sales engineer in the world of industrial automation, I moved into marketing as a result of my company at the time highly valuing how I positioned their newest and most complicated products.

A few years later at Grantek, I used my new strategic skills and marketing expertise to pitch a new line of business related to machine safeguarding and functional safety. After demonstrating success building a new practice, I was asked to apply what I had learned on a larger scale to a new subject area for me: Industry 4.0.

What specifically were you hoping to accomplish?

My goal was to gain a deeper understanding of the broader business landscape and how successful companies operated. During my 18+ career, I have worked for companies both big and small, in roles spanning from entry level to senior director. Across the board, there’s a higher level of respect for people with MBAs because of their familiarity with the vernacular, frameworks, and concepts of business. You’re not meant to master every function with an MBA, but it helps you have a better appreciation of how they fit within an organization. For me, that functional area was finance and accounting – two worlds woefully unfamiliar to me.

What barriers did you hope to overcome?

I wanted to change my brand to be seen as a business leader rather than pigeon-holed as a sales or technical expert so that I’d be considered for more prominent roles within my company and with other firms. When applying to Microsoft, I have no doubt my MBA helped differentiate me from other candidates.

How do you apply what you learned to your job?

More than 50% of the classes I took were directly applicable to my job building the industry 4.0 practice at Grantek, a privately owned systems integrator, and I was able to translate what I learned in real time. For example, I used Porter’s five forces framework from my strategic management class to help establish corporate goals and business strategy. In addition, my business analytics concentration changed the way I used data for decision-making and created visualizations for presentations. Courses on marketing management and organizational leadership gave me the confidence and tools to affect lasting change.

How has earning an MBA impacted your career trajectory?

While earning my MBA, I became a thought leader and influencer on Industry 4.0 and its related technologies, such as IoT, Digital Twin, and AI. I went from dabbling to earning some of the highest industry recognition in just a couple years and now speak internationally at major conferences on the subject.

What were your priorities when evaluating programs?

I wanted the flexibility of asynchronous learning and the ability to connect through live sessions multiple times throughout the week to fit my schedule. Unlike many other programs, Gies offered the freedom to study anytime, anywhere, which fit perfectly with my international travel schedule. My experience with Coursera’s on-demand format prior to pursuing my MBA had shown me how effective this approach could be; the University of Illinois’ reputation and the program’s affordability solidified my decision.

Did you pursue networking and community building opportunities?

As a father of three young kids with a wife who often works evenings and weekends, I prioritized the program’s flexibility over traditional networking activities because I’ve already established myself in my field. Instead, I cultivated relationships with about 50 people through our team assignments and now regularly stay in touch with many of them. They’ve helped me understand the true value of cultural diversity in both geography and interpersonal styles. As my job becomes more international, this is becoming more important for me to understand.

What’s your best advice for evaluating MBA programs?

Have a clear understanding of what you want to get out of an MBA. There’s no bad answer, just make sure you are honest with yourself. By pinpointing what you want to change about your current skill set or position, you can match those needs with each program’s offerings.

Has the Gies iMBA turned you into a life-long learner?

The MBA from Gies ignited a genuine appreciation of the value of continuous learning. Through this degree I discovered my passion is business strategy and its role within an organization. An MBA has given me a great platform to explore what’s next and how to expand my role in it.