Ingeborg Rocker *10 (Art and Architecture) interviewed by Duygu Coskuntuna, GS (NES).
In the Trailblazers Beyond the Tenure Track series, current Princeton graduate students interview graduate alumni pursuing a range of careers beyond the tenure track. Collectively, these stories help graduate students develop a vision of the journey ahead by exploring the experiences of trailblazers who have gone before them.
My PhD altered my personal trajectory by focusing and harnessing my interests in computation, design thinking and the collaboration of academia, industry, and government. Currently a senior executive for Industry Innovation, I have worked for over seven years at Dassault Systèmes, a global Software player ($5 billion in annual revenue) with a US headquarters in Boston. Responsible for Cross-Industry Innovation, I develop strategies focused on digital transformation of a range of industries.
Much of what I have acquired during my studies, and in particular the design thinking and its direct application, has proven to be differentiating capabilities for working in the industry and specifically on sustainable cross-industry innovation. With a holistic approach to complex problem solving, I develop corporate strategies, business visions and drive sustainable product innovation. At Dassault Systèmes, I have worked closely with research and development teams, and I collaborated with other VPs, highly specialized experts in their respective fields. As a team, we recognize emerging patterns in society and think of ways to address those trends through technologies that we either have, must develop, or would like to acquire.
At the beginning, of course, the corporate world was anything but familiar to me. But equipped with design thinking and a keen interest and hands-on approach to develop strategies and translate those into tangible products, my first project, the 3DEXPERIENCity, a completely new concept for city projects, was a success.
The path to my current occupation began with my initial studies in engineering in Germany and continued when I arrived in New York City in the mid 90s to attend Columbia University. It was an incredible place for theorizing the digital medium, and the application of computation to engineering and architecture. Soon, I was lucky to work for the world-famous Peter Eisenman on projects such as the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, for which I was the lead design architect. Through Peter, who was also a professor at Princeton, I had an incredible exposure to developments in the academy, the profession, and in software development. He was essentially a hub for architectural discourse within the academy who also collaborated closely with leading software firms. This blended experience amplified my understanding of the techniques and discourses of architecture within and beyond the academy, and the need to develop my own way of navigating both conversations.
I decided that I needed to do a PhD to be able to shape my discourse and to frame my work in a larger, broader intellectual context. Princeton was probably the best place, where I could dive deep into subject matters that were embedded in my making, but also to spend time thinking and sharpening my intellectual tools. Within this supercharged intellectual context, I first completed a MA working with world-leading digital medium experts at Princeton and the Humboldt University Berlin, and then wrote my PhD on early computation paradigms and their applications in engineering, architecture, and product design. I looked at Germany during the post-World War II era, to see how people conceived of new technologies that had been developed during the war and how far these technologies could be repurposed for pacifist activities. I focused on Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm, which was a product of the Marshall Plan in Germany and successor to Bauhaus, that purposefully fostered a new educational paradigm for Germany to shed ultranationalist influences and to establish a completely new training. I studied this novel computer-inspired pedagogy in connection with industry, focusing on how Siemens, one of the top software firms in Germany, became a hotspot of experiments in their testing of peripherals with computer-generated poetry or music – some of the earliest computer art. The Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm became soon known for its innovation and product designs, setting new innovation and transformation benchmarks with the research at Siemens, experimental structural engineering, and the award-winning product designs by BRAUN (now P&G).
While the project was at times challenging, I never stopped trying to understand the implications of computational paradigms for product design, architecture, and engineering. Resilience might be one of the key takeaways for me from this time, and it remains a foundational experience that helps till today in critical situations, reminding me to never surrender in the face of obstacles.
Intellectual flexibility—which I see as the capability to position oneself and to ground oneself in different discourses—is another part of the foundation I acquired at Princeton. I ventured purposefully through different departments, benefitting from the ideological and methodological diversity within each. Departments and disciplines have their own methodology, their specific discourses and key references. As it happens, this intellectual journey was a perfect training ground for navigating different intellectual positions in my daily encounters in the business world.
Laying down the groundwork
Before I transitioned to the corporate world, the next important step was the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, where I was hired as an assistant professor, even prior to concluding the Ph.D. in Princeton.
At Harvard my colleagues and I had a lot of freedom to co-shape the department. The demands on my time were almost 24/7, finishing the Ph.D. in Princeton, raising my daughter, and actively shaping the discourse in the school. But I was happy, going on to earn the rank of associate professor, teaching design studio, theory seminars and hands-on workshops using CAD and CAM tools. These experiences helped me tremendously with design thinking and its direct application in digital workflows and construction processes. The combination of theory seminars and practical workshops gave me a unique opportunity to develop a discourse and implement it hands-on, fostering digital transformation and media usage in our practice. As a faculty member, I took part in and later led the admissions process, developed open house strategies, chaired the international exchange programs, and gave a range of presentations (among many other duties) that all gave me direct and extensive exposure to the administrative aspect of academia over the course of numerous years. I think this work, along with the international publications, presentations, and conferences I chaired, primed me perfectly for an international business career.
The moment that changed everything
In my last year at Harvard, I was establishing an exchange program with China. I was teaching a class and had an exchange established with the Chinese University in Guangzhou. Given the environmental challenges at hand, I wanted to address sustainability from an architectural and urban perspective. The university in Guangzhou asked us to develop a new urban site for 500,000 people on a small urban plot. My students in Harvard had never handled a project on this scale. This was in 2013, when Chinese city development was booming – sometimes driven by architects whose design skills and ideas were holdovers from the 80’s. I was shocked by the lack of tools and analytical skills in that sphere.
At this point I had two options: either to lead the Graduate School of Design in Cornell - with the ambition to become eventually a dean of a school or answer the urban challenge I saw in front of me and to contribute more directly to society by joining Dassault Systèmes. It was completely new, fresh, cold water, and I had no idea whether I would sink or swim. I jumped into that cold water, and it was refreshing. I had no idea about corporate structures or how to behave in them, so it was an incredible learning journey. But so was my PhD when I came in as an engineer and practicing architect, at which time I had to learn how to navigate academia. Both were overwhelming at first, but then turned into realistic and even enjoyable ventures. I can only encourage all PhDs to take similar first steps and risk a similar swim in cold water!
Life beyond academia
Years into being an industry executive, I do not think about a life “beyond or after academia,” I rather think these days about a life in conjunction with academia. At this point – given the worldwide challenges we are all facing, a strong collaborative innovation effort is needed to link government, higher education, and industry. I often ask myself: how do we achieve collaboration across these different groups? And how do we do so in a way that is truly a circular economy, which would have a different set of values than just monetary success. Within this context, I strongly believe that PhDs coming out of Princeton are prepared to help create the change we need.
Advice for graduate students
I think the big question comes before you start a PhD: what is the subject matter you’ll work on? This choice has a tremendous impact on what you can possibly do afterwards. I would advise graduate students to develop a larger vision of where they want to go. This should be a vision that you believe in. The path to your vision is not likely to be linear: in fact, it’s likely to be more of a zigzag. But if you pursue your own vision, I strongly believe you can get there. This is a basic groundwork to success in almost anything: trust in yourself and do the hard work.
Look at others who have already transitioned to an industry and examine what they did in their career. Create a network, get exposed, and test your assumptions before you make a major move. See if the corporate world is something for you, because frankly, not every brilliant mind is captivated in that world.
Be fast with your PhD, be effective. Whenever possible, publish your research and utilize it as a springboard for the future. I think we should contribute wherever we can, as PhDs are such a group of intelligent, powerful people.
Take full advantage of all Princeton has to offer. Princeton has resources and content that never came as easy to me anywhere else. And while graduate school is a busy time, you will likely have ample time during your studies to connect yourself with the key stakeholders of the worlds that you want to enter.
Steve Jobs once said: “We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise, why else even be here?” Can a PhD make such a dent in the universe – or at least in one’s own life? Certainly as numerous PhDs have created such a dent as Curie’s “Research on Radioactive Substances” (1903) awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics; Shannon’s PhD titled “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits” (1937), the groundwork for digital technology, or Sutherland’s “Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System” (1963), which led to the first graphical user interface program.
Regardless, whether the PhD leaves a dent in the universe, or simply in one’s own trajectory, all PhDs have in common to be original innovative thought leaders, unique research discoverers and/or even successful industrial implementors. It is the depth of a PhD research, the intense and unique encounter with a subject matter, the determination to finish against all possible odds the project, that makes a PhD an academic, personal and - if applied – perhaps even a commercial success.
Don't take the back seat in your career path, take the front seat. Make a name for yourself and amplify the social causes you care about – this way you make YOUR dent!
This interview has been edited for clarity. Read More Trailblazer Beyond the Tenure Track stories here!