Speaking the language of business in an engineering context
How earning an MEA positioned Vickie Lonker, ‘87, ‘92 for an ever-evolving technology sector and profound success in her career.
Though the world of engineering and technology continues to evolve, they remain the backbone of most modern organizations. There is a demand now more than ever for professionals who can bridge the gap between engineering and business. The Master of Engineering Administration (MEA) program at Virginia Tech is designed to do just this, as well as equip students with the essential tools to rise through the ranks, make an impact, and drive change within their organizations.
Victoria Lonker, an ‘87 graduate in Mechanical Engineering and a ‘92 graduate of the Engineering Administration program found herself as a top leader in her industry. After a 34-year career at Verizon, where she retired as the Vice President of Global Network and Security Products, Lonker’s influence has reached across 35 countries, delivering $32B in revenue and earning accolades such as a “Top Mover and Shaker” by Fierce Telecom.
We sat down with Lonker to learn more about her passion for the intersections of engineering and business. She shared insight into how the program helped shape her career, why she chose MEA over an MBA, and how applying the skills she gained from the MEA program gave her new perspective on what was possible for her future.
What about the MEA program attracted you initially?
The program was very flexible and offered me the opportunity to be at work all day to earn a living, and then do the program in the evening. I definitely had to prepare to give up a few evenings and some weekends for a few years while I got through the course, but that was much easier to do than going to school full time. I was also able to bring relevant work experience from my full-time job to the classroom, and vice versa.
I was considering both MBA and MEA programs. I knew I wanted a degree that would support my aspirations for leadership and help me move up the corporate ladder, but I also knew I wanted to stay in the technical field. With an MEA, I gained the technical credibility that is incredibly important in the engineering field.
What’s the advantage of earning your MEA over an MBA?
Most companies now have technology as a foundational aspect of their organization and product. Even private companies are investing in technology, and that technology has to be supported by engineers. The MEA program enables you to leverage engineering and technical acumen while still learning how to manage and lead. I wasn’t always on the technical side of my business, but because the program provides visibility across the spectrum of needs a company or product has, it helped me grow in my career.
As you progressed through your career, what do you feel the MEA helped you achieve?
I always say it really exposed to me the language of business in an engineering context, and provided the foundation to adjust to industry changes and communicate and translate business needs effectively. I also gained problem solving skills that helped me look at problems very objectively. The relationship between business and engineering can be undervalued, but engineering really means solving problems, which includes technical and business problems.
How did that language of business help you communicate with stakeholders that had different backgrounds, including people that don’t have technical or engineering backgrounds?
The MEA program gave me my first experiences working with groups from all different backgrounds and using that to solve problems from different perspectives. Not everyone speaks the same language, meaning the language of technology, and learning how to find meaning and collaborate successfully is not only necessary, but it’s how real companies work. I found myself on those interdisciplinary teams over and over in my career.
What about specific skills you gained from the program? How did those translate to your work at the time?
It’s important to remember the “A” in the MEA program is administration. Whether you’re leading a complex team to solve a technical issue or build a product, you’re administering the change and the problem-solving process. In one particular case study, we assumed different company roles like CFO and product manager, and before then, I really hadn’t seen the way those different roles come together other than from the engineering perspective. I was so used to having my head down and solving engineering problems, and there is a greater breadth of what really happens within a business, and I was able to take my one piece of the pie and understand how it impacts everything else in an organization. The program really opened my eyes to that, and to all the possibilities of a career that could fundamentally have an engineering background but is much broader and able to cover all aspects of running a business.
What are some of those possibilities?
Sales engineering. It’s actually where I ended up spending a good part of my career, but I had no idea that was something I could have done. You don’t have to be a business major to be a really great salesperson. And, in a technical industry, having an engineering background gave me tremendous credibility and gravitas. I was able to work effectively to translate the really technical aspects of a product to a non-technical decision maker who is going to be the one to buy my product. The world needs engineers who can explain complex things in very consumable ways, and for most of my career, that’s what I had the reputation of doing successfully.
If you could do it all over again, would you still choose this program?
Absolutely. When I was considering degree options, the M.S. didn’t really give me the breadth of exposure I wanted into how companies run, and the MEA was like a technical MBA. Engineering is fundamentally problem solving, and the MEA helped me gain experience solving all kinds of problems that might occur in a company, from supply chain to product issues, to assessing financial and business risks. For example, a contract might be broken if a product isn’t performing as the customer expected. This doesn’t necessarily mean the product is broken or can’t work – it might mean the customer’s expectations weren’t in line with what we offer, or the product doesn’t meet their specific needs. Understanding the other things that might have to change, such as contract renegotiation, solving a supply chain issue, or improving training, is important.
What advice would you give to prospective students, or anyone considering earning their MEA at Virginia Tech?
Don’t wait for the invitation: take on the tough challenges and take the assignments you think might be a stretch. Your employer doesn’t want to see you fail, so know that you have the support to be successful and step out of your comfort zone. Overall, I think this program is a great first step to being proactive in your career. It really challenged me to stretch to those uncomfortable places, because no matter how successful you were as an undergraduate, there’s a bit of fear or uncertainty around starting a new chapter. I wondered if I would be up for it, or if I would be able to do my job successfully while I was in school. It can be a struggle, but once you’re settled, you realize just how much you’re capable of. It really sets you up for success by getting you to those uncomfortable places like applying for jobs you wouldn’t have expected to see yourself in. I have always been someone who pushed myself, but this really challenged me early in my career and family life.
How do you think the MEA program prepares students for success in today’s world?
There is no question the future is technology based. All aspects of our lives are touched by technology, and underneath that technology are the engineers who build, run, and improve it. We need people who want to understand new and existing technologies and continue to improve them for the good of humankind. Additionally, we will always need people that know how to translate technical into human, which is really part of what industrial engineering is about. These are skills that will never go out of style. Even with the emergence of AI, we’re still going to need creative people to get work done and make sure it’s done efficiently. The MEA program figures out how we tap into that human potential and creativity to create and build ethical businesses, products, services, and solutions.
The MEA at Virginia Tech can be the catalyst for your own extraordinary journey, and the beginning of your future success in your career. Our program is flexible and designed primarily for students working full time, though that is not an admission requirement. We offer both fully remote and in-person learning experiences for students in Northern Virginia, and our non-thesis track ensures you’ll complete your degree within 24-30 months, if you take two courses per semester.
Are you ready to advance your career?