From Farm Boy to CEO: Advice for Future Engineers

A lecture hall packed with curious students and faculty at Tufts University listened intently to the story of how a self-described farm boy became the CEO of a leading IoT technology company this week. The School of Engineering Annual Dean’s Lecture featured Jim Heppelmann, who shared his personal experience and perspective on how the Internet of Things is changing the requirements for the next generation of engineers.

From the farm to the boardroom
Heppelmann knows all too well how passion and strategic risk can mean the difference between success and failure. Born in rural Minnesota, Heppelmann grew up on a dairy farm with only 65 students in his high school graduating class. Living and working on dairy farms exposed him to a lot of equipment and machinery. This combined with his love of math and science led him to study mechanical engineering with a CAD emphasis. After college, he started as an application engineer and moved up the ranks before recognizing the company’s need to rethink its strategy.

Although the company didn’t see it at the time, Heppelmann saw an opportunity and went for it. At 28, Heppelmann had an ‘entrepreneurship moment’, quit his job, and co-founded Windchill Technology. “I had no idea how to start a company,” he said. “I could write a book on what not to do.”

The big leap paid off. Windchill was later acquired by PTC, where Heppelmann once again found success, becoming CTO, COO, and ultimately CEO in 2010.

Inspiration and opportunity for the next generation
PTC has undergone a transformation of its own, having expanded from its CAD roots into a leader in the IoT. Heppelmann’s vision and passion for the potential in IoT has set PTC on its current course, and this same excitement was apparent as he addressed the industry’s future leaders at Tufts.

A key takeaway for students was to understand the impact of IoT on their personal and professional lives. While providing tremendous opportunity for organizations, as well as individuals, IoT is fundamentally changing the manufacturing industry – and the jobs that drive it.

As a mechanical engineer himself, Heppelmann noted there are fewer and fewer mechanical products, especially within the last five years. Products are changing, and so is how they’re designed and manufactured. What used to be discrete is now an evergreen process. And with IT playing a big role within the products themselves, engineering simply doesn’t have the skillset it needs today.

It is because of these changes that students have the greatest opportunity to position themselves for the workforce of the future. Heppelmann offered the following advice:
• Do things you are interested in and passionate about.
• Be curious. The world around is changing all the time, and change equals opportunity.
• A lot of great stuff happens at ‘domain intersections’
• ‘Digital’ will infiltrate everything – try to understand or master it.
• Learn how to communicate. It’s the only way people can get to know you and your ideas.

IoT meets the classroom
Tufts has also recognized the value in IoT and preparing its students and faculty for a changing industry. A workshop held over the summer brought faculty members together to talk about IoT related research on a variety of topics, such as routing protocols, security, and programming languages. As part of PTC and Tufts’ continued relationship, PTC also participated in the seminar and provided the company’s vision and a framework of its ThingWorx technology.

This meeting-of-minds also led to the creation of an introductory class on the Internet of Things. This class introduces fundamental concepts in designing IoT systems, covering devices, communication protocols, security, analytics, and valuing societal and business benefits. Students learn the basic infrastructure required to design an IoT system and various technologies enabling IoT. The course was based in part on two Harvard Business Review articles on the topic of IoT, co-authored by Heppelmann and Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter. The articles were utilized to frame the value and need for IoT, and how smart connected components will transform companies and products. Many of the students who attended Heppelmann’s lecture are also enrolled in this IoT course.

“Our relationship with PTC has been instrumental in helping to build the foundation for our IoT program and the introductory course on IoT,” said Professor Soha Hassoun, Department of Computer Science, Tufts University. “Our students are excited about the future of IoT and hearing Jim Heppelmann’s story first-hand and seeing his passion for this industry was incredibly inspiring.”

The future with IoT
While most college students wonder about what their future holds and which careers they wish to pursue, it is clear that students are uniquely positioned to embrace and evolve into roles that may not even fully exist today. As IoT continues to transform organizations, products, and processes, those with open minds, passion, and curiosity will become the industry’s next leaders.

 Click here to view a full recording of Jim Heppelmann's lecture. To learn more about the Internet of Things, visit