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Knowledge. Doesn’t matter.

Marco Schoppmann, managing director at csi development technology, gives the lecture ‘Holistic product development’ at the University of Munich on behalf of prof. Dr Elias in the Mechanical Engineering department. We discussed with him why it’s “the coolest lecture of the entire study period”. And also why knowledge, in his opinion, is only half the story for starting a successful career.

One of your students wrote in their feedback that he ‘took things away [from your lecture] which he did not realise would help him in the future’ and that he ‘had learned something for life’. You can’t really ask for much more, right?

Yes, I was delighted with the feedback. Because that is precisely my goal. I want - both as a lecturer and as a managing director at csi - to support people in starting their career and thereby on the path to the future. Not by preaching to them about what I know better as an old hand, but by letting them have their own experiences and discussing real, totally practical questions. Because all the knowledge in the world won’t help if you don’t know how to apply it. So my lecture is about giving my students an overview of the various ‘development processes’. For example, we begin in the first lecture with getting to grips with the three terms ‘vision, mission and strategy’, using practical examples. The result that we develop in this first session then forms the basis for the future success of the lecture - the students develop their own mission and strategy for the vision ‘This is the coolest lecture of my studies’. The lecture is interactive because I speak directly to the students from the start and invite them to directly shape the lecture with me.

This has the advantage that the questions which interest the students are brought to the table and answered on an equal footing by all participants, including myself. As I mentioned before, I don’t see myself as the person giving the lecture who therefore knows better, but rather as a motivator to consider together what is at the heart of the question. So, what’s behind the great feedback is actually the combination of great students, interesting subjects and a functioning teaching concept.


How do you manage to convey content which is relevant to the students and captivates them?

The mythical secret behind the lecture is ‘participation’. It’s exactly the same as with my work at csi: If I manage to give my colleagues and employees, in this case, my students, space to bring themselves and their own ideas into the mix; then it works. Then the relevant topics make their own way onto the agenda and there is a strong motivation to participate.

That’s why the lecture is conceived in such a way that there is enough space within a fixed structure to provide ‘freedom for teaching’. In this way, in my opinion, each semester, the most important subjects and process areas of a company be discussed and at the same time, the students are given the opportunity to set their own focuses and target the relevant questions for them. We deal with a wide range of topics here - from types of organisations to development processes, down to subjects such as how the individual can cope with stress, cognitive distortions and ‘how can I use negotiation tactics in my first wage discussion?’ The students prepare these key terms with their own content, and they are then openly discussed in the group and supplemented from experiences and different input from the other participants. The subjects discussed are made tangible at the end in the form of ‘games’.


What was your ‘coolest lecture’ during your studies?

I can think of two: During my first degree it was the subject of robotics. We actually had the task and opportunity to run small projects in groups ‘against one another’ in the robotics lab. Very independently, so that I remember a fantastic afternoon when we developed our ‘manufacturing line’ together and then always had a cool drink in the courtyard. The second lecture was during my Master’s in Systems Engineering. We had a professor with a biology background. Speaking with him about systems, system limits and system rules and discussing examples beyond technology - I really enjoyed it!


You are not only a lecturer, you are also familiar with the business side. What do people starting a career find particularly difficult, in your opinion? How do you support ‘newcomers’ in the company?

The switch from studying to the working world is one thing above all: super exciting! From the decision about what you want to do, to searching for a suitable job and the interview including wage negotiations, to starting in an unknown world with new participants, processes and structures - you are bombarded with lots of new impressions and emotions for which you cannot really prepare yourself purely theoretically. You have to live it.

I notice that it is difficult for many young employees to find a balance: between work and leisure, customer and employer, colleagues and boss, quality of work and amount, patience and zeal. I believe they have to first learn or make themselves aware that a) there will always be more work, so you can’t ever be finished, b) work always flows towards places where it is properly completed and c) a good idea alone is not enough to be successful. Companions and the right timing are also a part of it.

In our company, we work with a mentoring programme. Every new employee is given a mentor from the first week. That’s a person who already has experience and an overview and can use this to convey security. At the same time, we train employees to develop a theoretical foundation and practically throw them - with the support of their mentor - in at the deep end from the first week, so we let them loose on customers and transfer responsibility to them. This method has proven effective.


Given the choice, many go to the large brand companies. Why is it worth approaching smaller companies and suppliers as well?

For me personally, smaller companies have a decisive advantage: as an employee, it is much easier to get an opportunity to become familiar with different subject areas. We are much more flexible and we can try things out beyond the fixed organisational structures. With us, for example, employees with a few years of professional experience already hold job interviews. They still know exactly what it was like starting at csi and can put that across in a credible manner. That isn’t possible in large groups, because then there are HR departments which take care of it, who often don’t really know the departments at all.


What do you tell your students as a takeaway when you finish your lecture?

I wish them every success for their upcoming exams and start in their professional life. I also hope that they have three questions in their backpack from the ‘csi-triad’. I introduced this in our company a few years ago. The idea behind it is simple: no matter what you are doing - ask yourself three questions: What is the goal? Who will you interact with? How will you approach it? I also personally use the stimuli which result from the answers - at the university, when preparing for workshops and in colleague discussions. They help me progress in every situation and perhaps they will do the same for my students as well in the future.

Last but not least, I encourage them to be brave, to keep their eyes open and also sometimes take a look around. Because as long as you don’t yet have any major obligations, you can gladly risk something now and then. Exciting opportunities also often result beyond the ‘known development paths of the industrial engineer’. Not long ago, I had an employee who applied to us for a final examination as a mechanical engineer. Instead of a normal engineering topic, we took a different path together - he developed a board game on the subject of project management. The game exists today and we have had great game evenings together playing it in our team, as well as at other locations. This was a successful case of what I also want to achieve with and in my lecture: Connecting information with background and emotion and thereby creating - hopefully positive - experiences which endure.


That brings us back full circle to the first question. Thank you for taking time for the interview.


* For better readability, we generalise with the generic masculine form in our texts. However, this form includes the members of every gender, as we wish to address all people equally.


Marco Schoppmann