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Meet our graduates | Sean Howard, MS '21

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July 6, 2021. Interviewed by Jim Fabry. Edited for length and clarity.

As part of MS&E's 2021 graduates podcast series, we chatted with Sean Howard, a recent graduate of the master's program in Management Science and Engineering.

Sean shares how his passion for engineering started with a childhood project car and describes how the interdisciplinary nature of MS&E is what attracted him to the program. Sean also describes his experience as a student member of MS&E's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee, and his plans for the future.

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My name is Sean Howard. I have just completed my master’s in the Management Science and Engineering department with a concentration in Technology and Engineering Management.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Dallas basically my whole life, born in Chicago but moved here when I was two. But my family is mostly from here in Dallas and New Orleans. Actually, my grandparents were all college friends at the same university and my grandfathers were roommates, so a very big tie to New Orleans.

What was your undergrad degree, and how did you become interested in engineering?

I majored ultimately in international relations, though I didn't settle on that until my junior year. I started off in computer science and psychology, really bounced around a lot based off classes, internship experiences, etc. Ultimately, I landed on international relations because, like MS&E, it’s very interdisciplinary. I was very excited about exploring different cultures. It really allowed me to do that while also still having the flexibility to take classes I enjoyed in engineering, in humanities, etc. So it allowed me to bring all my interests together. I eventually came to engineering because I came into Stanford wanting to explore an engineering field. Somewhere along the path—because you have to choose—I had to start focusing on other things. But I knew that I still wanted to explore that academically, intrinsically so a coterm seemed like a natural step to still reinvigorate that technical curiosity.

What experiences growing up led you to be interested in engineering?

I've been interested in engineering for as long as I can remember. I think I find it intrinsically fulfilling, the process—working with your hands and creating something new, understanding how things tick. As a kid when I was really young, I loved sneaking into my dad's office, finding some gadget to take apart, whether it be a camcorder or a mouse, and I think just following—he was an electrical engineering major—so I think following those things is kind of what sowed the seeds. 

I began to really start taking it seriously when I was around 12. Growing up I loved the Fast & Furious movies. I was huge into cars, seeing them build it, race it. I think after Fast Five, the fifth movie was when I was 12, I started really thinking, why don't I try to build my own car? It doesn't seem that hard, it’s just a big Lego set. And I just kept pestering my mom about it for months. She's a very adventurous passion project person, too. A few months before my 12th birthday, she got me a junkyard 1966 Mustang for about $250. It had a tree going through it, it had spiders everywhere, animal bodies, it was in bad shape. But you know what, the engine still ran. And so she said, “All right Sean, I got you this car, this will be your first car. I hope you fix it by the time you're 16.” And if y'all know anything about Texas, you have to be able to drive to survive in Texas. My high school was 30 miles away. It took me four years, but I did get it done before my 16th birthday. I watched a bunch of YouTube videos and went to car clubs in Dallas, just kind of learning as much as I could. It was not the best car, but it did work and I did drive it almost every day to high school. And so I think that really started my serious consideration of engineering, like I might want to do this.

On the more data and abstract side of engineering, the movie Moneyball, I think, had an impact on me and was a great inspiration. I loved how in the movie, the protagonists were willing to challenge tradition and the status quo of doing things, which I think is kind of a mantra of my life. And then they use data science to really uncover a new way to look at an old thing. I just really liked that idea of asking, why don't we do this? And then trying to use evidence and data to find a new way. I really liked that approach. And I think those two things really stick out to me.

Can you tell us about your area of concentration? How did you decide on it?

It was sort of a tough decision for me. I ended up choosing Technology and Engineering Management because when I really reflect on myself, I think I really embody the word diversity in all of its definitions. It's hard for me to stay in my lane, so to speak. I really like being exploratory and bringing a lot of things together. It’s what drew me to international relations, what drew me to MS&E. Technology and Engineering Management felt like the broadest concentration, which would allow me to naturally evolve and hone my interests as I took more classes. In this concentration, I've been given the flexibility to explore classes and concepts as technical as optimization, to strategic, to international entrepreneurship, as well as somewhere in between like network theory, where it's kind of a blend of sociology and data science. Not everything always necessarily fits together, but it does to me in terms of my way of thinking. It's also just knowing that I'm going to business school eventually, in one of the deferred MBA programs, I knew I wanted this degree to lean towards more technical and entrepreneurial learning, knowing that I would get a lot of the business fundamentals in a few years.

What are your future plans?

I got into Harvard’s 2+2 program, which you apply to as an undergrad and then you get in, but you don't have to go for a few years. It's called 2+2, but no one really does two years anymore; I'm probably going to do four. So this master's is one year. But after that, I'm looking at doing an internship this summer after I graduate, in the FinTech crypto space. This specific opportunity really ties in with a bunch of experiences I've had in the past, even as far back as IR and psychology, so I'm really excited about that. 

In the fall, I will be working at Boston Consulting Group in the Dallas office. When I interned there, I worked on public sector projects, an education project, and a tech project—I'll be doing that for a few years. So business school may be up in the air, I’ll see where my curiosities lead. I liked all those fields, but I'm definitely trying to still explore more.

What excites you most about your future?

I would probably say the uncertainty of it all. I think I used to be scared of uncertainty. It's partially what pushed me towards this deferred MBA program—I wanted to know, plan out everything. But COVID shows that you can't do that. And at first, you know, uncertainty scared me, like, where am I going? Do I have a path? But uncertainty is when you have the most growth, when you're in uncomfortable zones. And that's where new things come about is when you're open to new things. And so I kind of loved that. Like, the future—I really don't know, I feel like I have very good paths set in front of me, but who knows how those paths will intersect or which ones I'll take. I just know that each step I take is helping me further uncover my own personal path. And so that's exciting to me. I'm excited for all the new things that come my way. I definitely feel kind of how I felt at the beginning of my career at Stanford. Like I'm at the bottom of a mountain and the only place to go is up. I really do feel like the future is an uncertain path, but it's on the up, moving forward.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your last year at Stanford?

It's really tough, I won't lie. I was a graduating senior right when everything came down. And so it was very jarring to think that you had all this time—you thought you had this time to say your goodbyes, to have the spring quarter where you could really relish being a college student for the last time. And you know, when it's gone, you have to adjust quickly. What made it worse was that I was actually exposed to patient zero on campus indirectly. And so Stanford called me and they said I had to go into quarantine at the business school for two weeks. And so while I was stuck in quarantine not able to see anybody, is when everyone started saying their goodbyes and realizing we all have to go home. And so it was kind of tough missing out on some people that I might not see ever again, or until a reunion.

But at the end of the day, I also feel like I'm glad the pandemic happened when it did, at least for me in my timeline, because I was able to learn a lot. It made me grateful to know that sometimes the world won't give you closure and you have to be okay with that, and you have to make it yourself and move on. I also think that it pushed me to appreciate the present more and be more genuine in my relationships, knowing that we always look for the next thing, but now I'm more just appreciating where I am. And so it's affected my mindset by having to go through that tough time. And I'm trying to find a silver lining. I think I've come out with a more positive mindset. 

On top of that, I think if it wasn't for the pandemic, I don't think I would be pursuing this degree. Originally, I was supposed to start work at BCG right after college. But they said I could defer a year because of COVID, and so I applied to this coterm program. So I'm actually very blessed and privileged to have that experience. I’m now able to do things virtually. We take for granted our childhood years, getting to spend time with family if you come from a good background. And now I'm back home in Texas during this degree where I get to spend time with my mom, dad, and grandmother every day—this time I maybe wouldn't have had otherwise. So I’m very much appreciative of that, as well as this virtual crypto internship this summer. That kind of came out of a situation in the pandemic as well. So I definitely learned a lot and it was hard, but I think I found a lot of silver linings from the pandemic.

What advice would you give to future students? How can they make the best use of their time in MS&E and at Stanford?

Especially being on the diversity equity and inclusion committee, this is something we think about a lot. I would first say to someone looking at MS&E, it doesn't have to be a siloed path into finance, consulting, or venture capital. You are young and this is the time to create your niche. If you want to use these skillsets to go into health policy, into international startups, into any niche field, you don't have to follow these set ideas that you have. MS&E is supposed to be diverse by nature. Also just on a logistical note, I probably wouldn't leave all the hard technical requirements to do your last quarter like I did. Definitely a tough way to end a degree. 

But I would also say that the last thing is one of the biggest qualities of this department is its interdisciplinary and diverse nature, both in subjects and in people. And honestly, when you bring the intersection of different ideas and identities together, that's where innovation and growth happens. And so I would really encourage people to get to know your team members in your classes and your professors. Every time I'm in a group project, I try to at least ask each team member some sort of thing about their life, because I learned almost equally as much from the community as I do from actual academic content. Another example is I just hit up a professor on the side this last week, asking for help exploring this startup offer, negotiating it, that turned into a whole side conversation hearing about his life and things like that. And so it's the people, and how everyone comes from a different place, different experience, different undergrad. Like I was IR in undergrad. So take advantage of that.

Being on the diversity equity and inclusion committee, what has your experience on the committee been like?

Honestly, the committee has been one of my favorite experiences at Stanford.  It very much feels—because we're in the inaugural year of when this started as a result of everything that happened last year—like a startup. There's no path ahead of us. Everyone, especially in academia, are trying to figure out how to really transform and make the world a more inclusive and diverse place. And so I very much felt like I had a lot of initiative to try new things, explore, and make it my own. And I think it has a lot of impact, which I really am fulfilled by. 

On top of that, I've learned a lot about the academic world. You know, as students, you see one side of Stanford, but on the administrative side it's a whole other world. And so I really feel like I've been able to peer into the faculty administration side of how an academic institution like Stanford actually operates. And I've also just been given the time to really reflect on what it really means to make an ideal community and academic environment. How do we transform a culture? I get to actually apply the concepts I learned in organizational behavior, matching markets, and optimization in real life to the department that's teaching it to me, on diversity equity and inclusion. And it's hard. It's definitely hard and it's going to be a marathon rather than a sprint, but I am honest when I say it's been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my Stanford career.

Is there anything that you'll miss most about Stanford or the Bay Area?

On a small level, I think the weather, for sure. You know, here in Dallas it goes from rainy and cold, to humid and hot every other hour. So I miss the assumption that you're going to have good weather, that's one less thing you have to worry about. But also Stanford really does a good job of bombarding you with opportunities and resources. It can almost be overwhelming. And in the real world it’s not always like that, where things are just kind of given to you, shown to you all the time. You have to seek it out. You have to take a little bit more initiative. It's not bad, but I will miss the ease of things just always popping up in my way. My favorite restaurant, Ramen Nagi, is in downtown Palo Alto; I definitely will miss that. And finally, I have some cousins my age at Berkeley and I joined a black fraternity that’s just kind of spread throughout the Bay. And so I was able to really grow a large community from San Jose to Oakland, full of so many unique and amazing people. I definitely will miss the roots I’ve built there, but I'm excited to start anew and try again while trying to maintain those connections.

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