Alumni Profile: Neil Syal

Our discipline is Integrative Systems + Design. What does that mean to you?

It means taking all the components of various disciplines and finding sustainable, equitable solutions for various problems. Being an engineering teacher, I teach a lot of high school students the design problem and how to really focus on solving what is the problem and how to create the solution from there. It’s for me to design solutions for them so they can access high-quality education as well as receive the support they need in their life outside of school.

Why is the field of ISD so important?

In the world right now, problems are very complicated, and to dive into a problem from a very specific angle doesn’t always create the solution you need. I really like using the phrase if you’re a hammer, everything’s a nail. So what I try to be is the Swiss Army knife. If we are going with that metaphor there’s a problem, but there are multiple facets to it, and focusing on what is the best solution? What is the goal? And taking little bits from everywhere and packaging them to create a solution that ultimately succeeds in solving the problem.

What is the future of ISD? Where will it be ten years from now? 25 years from now?

I see the future of ISD as the premiere problem solvers to all the issues the world will be facing. From there, where a lot of times in the future, there will be stuff we can’t even imagine that is going to be a problem. And so we’re going to have to have people to be able to have that foresight of how we build systems, how do we solve issues to problems we don’t even know yet? And so I see ISD as kind of being that premier program for giving people those skills.

What is the value the field of ISD provides to society?

ISD provides support for society like the glue that keeps everyone together. I know with my experience working as a project engineer at an oil company I had to work with executives who had very little engineering experience to engineers that have very little business management experience. And what I relied on with my ISD degree was I could talk to both sides and be that communication so engineers were able to discuss their solution and the executives would understand it and give the okay to implement it. And so I found that to be really important because I could speak both languages. I could code-switch between them and help progress the projects in the company.

Why did you choose to pursue a degree in ISD?

I decided to pursue an ISD degree because at the time I had received an offer to work for an oil refinery. And so me, with my mechanical engineering experience, I was going into a field that was very chemical engineering based and so what ISD gave to me and the reason I chose it was it gave me skills to kind of step back from just the technical engineering program and to be able to see the 30,000-foot picture of how something as complicated an oil refinery works and how to quickly learn various systems and work to integrate them together. One experience I had was working under the project engineer who had an $800 million project of implementing a certain size safety instrumentation system. So we had to walk the line of working with chemical engineers, working with  computer engineers to computerize certain safety processes at the same time. Talking to corporate executives of why you should spend that money for the system. And having an ISD education was really great. Looking back to connect everything together and make sure the project was a success.

How has your ISD degree helped you in your career?

There are all these skills you learn in ISD. You have a problem. Where do you go from there? After four years of working as a project engineer, it was something I was looking to pivot from. I pivoted to working as a high school engineering teacher by using a lot of those problem-solving techniques to say, okay, this is where I am. I don’t know where I want to go. And using a lot of those problem-solving techniques ISD taught me, I was able to try some new experiences and eventually find my place as a teacher and pursue public education.

What specific lessons did you learn during your ISD education that you apply regularly in your career?

One of the biggest lessons learned in ISD is to have empathy for your coworkers, your bosses, as well as the people you manage. So touching on my experience working as a project manager and now as a teacher, understanding the decisions my boss has and having the foresight to understand what their incentives are because that can be very different from mine centered in my Job description. And so with ISD you are learning you’re a part of a system and you have to work and have that system thinking. It makes it much easier to get your work objectives done when you understand all the factors outside your own little bubble that can affect you.

What are the best qualities of an ISD graduate?

Their flexibility when dealing with certain situations. Since ISD has a breadth of knowledge they require students to funnel into empathy when they’re out in the field working at their internships and jobs. They understand kind of how their coworkers in their own department, as well as coworkers outside their department, in companies work. An ISD degree really helped me to, whenever there was a problem at work, to navigate certain conflicts so that first of all, no one’s ego gets hurt, but also focus on what is the mission and get everybody to come together as a team and move forward in the same direction rather than having to deal with politics and many of the other things that happen at work.

Why did you choose to join the ISD Alumni Board?

Because of the power of the ISD degree. The breadth to look at all situations and connect with various disciplines. As an alumni board member for ISD, setting up that community with alumni is super important where I’m always looking to stay current and give my students current examples of the engineering field. I want to create a network to help foster that. Someone’s working on something really cool. I can show my students a video and inspire them. Hopefully, have one or two of them be inspired by what they’re showing and also creating that community. So people who come back especially for career fairs want to find jobs as well as just supporting each other with various endeavors whether it’s professionally or personally.