From building bridges to running Bay Street

Technical geeks? Hardly. Today’s new breed of financial engineers take the lead as global innovators.

by Julia Belluz

ANDREW TOLSON/ SIMON HAYTER

When Sukrit Ganguly finished his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and applied science, he set out on a traditional career track in oil and gas consulting. “The job was very technical,” says the 27-year-old, “and required me to work on models all day long.” Bored after a year, Ganguly wanted to try something new. So he returned to the University of Toronto to do a master’s of applied science, this time focusing on applied engineering in banking and setting his sights on Bay Street. “I wanted a job that looked at the bigger picture, and in finance you have to follow what’s going on all over the world,” he says.

The chemical engineer is now working on the trading floor for equity derivatives at TD Securities—on Bay Street. Instead of modelling pipelines and heat exchangers like many of his former classmates, he spends his days structuring financial products, reading international market commentary, and researching the activities of TD’s competitors. And he says an engineering degree was the best possible training for the job. “As an engineer, you’re taught how to solve programs. The finance part I could learn on the fly.”

Indeed, as more students flock to the field of engineering (at last count, enrolment in accredited undergraduate engineering programs grew by 11 per cent between 2006 and 2009), universities across the country are advancing the concept of the “global engineer” and broadening the educational experience, offering courses—such as finance or entrepreneurial studies—outside of traditional engineering disciplines. “The idea now is that engineers are no longer just technical geeks,” says David Wilkinson, McMaster University’s dean of engineering. “They need to be able to solve global problems and answer complex open-ended questions.”

At Ganguly’s alma mater, the University of Toronto, students in the faculty of applied science and engineering can now enroll in a financial engineering major, the first undergraduate program of its kind in Canada. The inaugural participants in the course this fall will learn financial modelling and theory, while also getting a strong engineering science foundation that they can apply to work in financial institutions and investment banking. The university will also launch a new minor in engineering business in 2011.

These courses were born out of the realization that “our students are being hired by Bay Street and Wall Street,” says the faculty’s dean, Cristina Amon. “It’s their ability to address problems and the analytical skills engineers gather during their education that is very attractive for the i-banking and financial services industry,” she says, adding that “this recent phenomenon” has already registered in the U.S., where finance and business course options have been offered to engineering students at prestigious schools like Princeton and Columbia for several years.

At Queen’s University, the faculty of engineering and applied science is developing a program with the Queen’s School of Business called innovation and global leadership, which will bring engineering and commerce students together. “We decided to design this now because of a need for engineers and commerce students to contribute to the knowledge economy,” explains Kimberly Woodhouse, dean of the faculty of engineering and applied science. “In order for them to do that, they’re going to need to be innovators.”

While Woodhouse says she’s seen “a huge demand in finance for engineers,” the program—anticipated to start in fall 2011—is focused on teaching business and engineering students to collaborate. “As an engineer, you now need to understand the business world, and commerce students need to understand the impact of technology on business.”

As companies globalize, engineers are also being called upon to solve management problems and figure out how to get international offices to work in tandem. Traditional disciplines like industrial engineering, which was developed to meet the challenges of high-volume production and industrialization, are being revamped to meet the needs of the global economy and address issues around data mining and information technology.

For this reason, Adel Sedra, dean of the faculty of engineering at Waterloo, says the school recently launched a bachelor of applied science in management engineering. “This is the contemporary version of what used to be called industrial engineering,” says Sedra, “but there’s a lot more management in it.” Students in the program learn how to design management systems for any industry, from manufacturing to health care, in addition to picking up the business skills they’d usually get in a commerce degree.

Similarly, McMaster University has a well-established five-year engineering and management program that integrates the technical engineering education with business courses, and the university is now introducing an entrepreneurship stream for students. The idea is that many of the most successful businesses—Apple, BMW, Microsoft—have been built on devices created by engineers, which then prosper because of workers who understand the fundamentals of both technology and business. Plus, says McMaster engineering dean David Wilkinson, “A lot of our young graduates are very interested in starting their own businesses, and are much less intimidated about entrepreneurship than previous generations.”

Meanwhile, other universities are also encouraging their engineering students to go out and start businesses of their own. At the University of Victoria, a new program was introduced that allows engineering students at the master’s level to bring a company from concept to launch over 20 months, while earning their master of applied science degree and business diploma.

Dean Thomas Tiedje says, “Engineers are trained to make things that are useful, so they’re the natural people to get involved in this type of [entrepreneurial] activity.” The university is also starting a joint master’s of engineering and M.B.A. this year, which is part of what Tiedje sees as “a natural progression from engineering to business.”

Nearby at the University of British Columbia, a campus-wide initiative called entrepreneurship@UBC was dreamed up to inspire and support young entrepreneurs, and engineers can partake in this innovative fervour by enrolling in the “new venture design” course, which gives them the skills—from writing a business plan to doing market research—to start their own enterprise.

One former student in the course, Winnie Lai, co-founded Clinicbook.ca before she finished her degree in engineering physics last spring. The website helps Canadians find health care through a universal directory, and she is currently developing an online booking system for dental appointments to launch in Greater Vancouver at the end of October. “Instead of calling your dentist to book an appointment,” explains the 22-year-old, “people can see the dentist’s schedule, and make the appointment at any time, even after hours when the clinic is closed.”

Lai is also getting ready to present her business idea to Silicon Valley investors—an opportunity she was awarded through entrepreneurship@UBC. But how did engineering physics prepare her for running an online venture? “Going through a program like engineering forces you to learn independently,” she says. “We’re not spoon fed, so we had to do research and develop strong analytical skills.” Plus, she adds: “Entrepreneurs and engineers are very similar in that they are both there to solve problems, and to make the world a better place to live in.”




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From building bridges to running Bay Street

  1. Using their education to solve complex financial problems is all well and good, but drop the title of engineer. Financial Engineering is just a name to attract undergraduate engineers into finance because they are harder workers, more independent and better problem solvers than the average commerce student. That said, they cannot register as a Professional Engineer in that job capacity, therefore they are not engineers. The same way as someone who goes to Med School but doesn't pass the licensing exams is not a doctor. An engineer's primary responsibility is to protect life and property while advancing society's quality of life through technical innovation and rigor. The crash of 2008 showed how many of these quant's (engineering PhDs dabbling in finance) could never be an engineer. The models they used to package sub prime mortgages and other risky investments assumed that each mortgage was statistically independent and thus uncorrelated. This is true when home values rise, but when they fall it's typically because of some commonly felt ill (maybe the mill in the town shut down or a multi-national went overseas). This glaring error caused these portfolios to have inherently higher risk than assumed, so that everyone holding these assets had to pay out all at once. See ya Lehman Bros and any poor soul whose life savings and investments were trusted with them. You wanna be an engineer? Start putting your personal seal on these models, by law that means you own it, and it's consequences. REAL engineers do this every day, until they do as well they're not engineers. I can guarantee if they had to use their seal on these models (untested) Lehman Bros would still be here. Sorry for the rant, but creating complex models that most of your peers don't understand when you're dealing with peoples savings is to dangerous for words.

    • Agreed. Engineers, as a self-regulating profession with a code of ethics, should use their skills for the betterment of society. Financial engineering does not do this. It creates nothing of real value. The rise of this so-called 'profession' (I use the term loosely) has resulted in the greatest mis-allocation of talent in history. What an absolute waste.

    • We actually can register as Professional Engineers. We have almost all the skills mechanical and computer students have, plus we have the extra benefit of being able to broaden our horizons. Finance, management, planning..we can do it all. Our program Management Engineering, at Waterloo, is accredited and we are probably the most valuable candidates that employers can find. Just like all other engineers, we create models – so what if they’re financial or managerial models – and we test them, and ensure that they will benefit the public. Anyway, I don’t feel like you have any right to be condemning ‘financial engineers’.I guess we’ll have to prove the skeptics wrong. 

  2. Ganguly's my hero.

  3. so what your saying aero_eng is dont become an industrial engineer? im just wasting my time?

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