Frank Doyle Dean, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University
How do you foster a culture of collaboration and urgency within a world-renowned, well-established institution? What if that institution is one of the premier Ivy League universities in the U.S. – is fast-paced organizational change even possible?
We are excited to open Season 3 of It’s Not Magic with Frank Doyle, outgoing Dean of Harvard University’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and soon-to-be14th provost of Brown University. A prolific researcher and accomplished academic, Frank has received numerous honors and awards for his contributions to the fields of engineering and applied mathematics.
In this episode, our host, David Stiepleman, leads Frank through an engaging conversation that encompasses both personal and professional aspects of his illustrious career. With his sharp intellect and inspiring vision, Frank takes us inside the world of growing a new school within a “176-year-old startup,” challenging us to think bigger and bolder and to embrace the people around us as the key to unlocking our full potential.
Thank you to Vivian Lau on the Sixth Street team, a Harvard grad who is deeply involved in the engineering school, for making the introduction.
Listen to full episode:
More from this episode:
- Frank Doyle, Dean of Engineering and Applied Sciences Since 2015, to Depart in June; Doyle appointed next Provost of Brown University, Harvard, December 15, 2022
- The 1904 proposed Harvard / MIT Merger, The Crimson, February 18, 2018
- The Artificial Pancreas Project, Harvard YouTube Channel, December 17, 2015
David Stiepleman: Hi, everybody. Welcome back to It's Not Magic, our podcast from Sixth Street. Over the past 12 episodes, we've spoken to incredible leaders from across business, government, academia, and the nonprofit world. They've tackled big complex tasks and survived to tell the tale. We're kicking off season three with another one. Take a listen.
Frank Doyle: The interesting problems live in those interstitial spaces between fields at the intersections and the nexus. And so, you need to bring fields together. Part of that is bringing scientists who speak different languages, in the sense of technical parlance, but you also need to think about different ways of supporting with, research, funding, teaching with different academic models, and really knocking down the old silos of disciplines and thinking about a convergent approach to teaching and to doing research.
David Stiepleman: That is Frank Doyle. He's the dean of the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University. He's been the dean of Harvard's Engineering School since 2015. It's actually been announced that he's leaving Harvard at the end of this academic year to serve as the 14th provost of Brown University in Rhode Island. Frank is super interesting. He's a chemical engineer by trade. His research as a scientist has been focused on diabetes, and he's maintained an active lab at Harvard working on the development of an artificial pancreas to help regulate blood sugar levels. We'll talk about that with Frank. He's also an NCAA level soccer official, a competitive sailboat racer, and an all-around nice, interesting guy. Here's the theme of the episode. The student body of Harvard today is about 25% engineering students. That's incredible for what many consider one of the preeminent liberal arts institutions in the world.
David Stiepleman: That's up from single digits not too long ago. And a lot of that shift, we'll hear this from Frank, has been about a favorite theme of ours at Sixth Street, knocking down silos. We talked to Frank about how Harvard has broken down the barriers between disciplines with an acknowledgement at the institutional level, that ideas and paths and studies and research all converge. We'll discuss Frank's push on a mindset shift when it comes to interdisciplinary study, the game changing funding of the engineering school received from a non-engineer. And Frank will also teach us how to give a player a yellow card the right way. Turning Harvard into an engineering school may actually be rocket science, but it's not magic. Frank Doyle, thank you so much for being with us on the podcast. It's great to have you.
Frank Doyle: My pleasure to be here.
David Stiepleman: Before we get to when you got to Harvard, I'd love to talk about the history of the engineering school engineering discipline at Harvard, which goes back a long way. And I guess is one way to look at that. It's sort of been an ongoing, let's just say, conversation, debate about specialization versus being interdisciplinary and thinking more broadly about stuff. Or is that, is that not a good lens?
Frank Doyle: Yeah, you know, it's, it's a great question. I like to refer to us as 176-year-old startup
David Stiepleman: I mean, at, at one point Harvard, I think I had this right, Harvard and MIT merge their engineering schools.
Frank Doyle: There is a fascinating history, if you go back, beginning of the last century, there was interest, really from the Harvard side in pushing this engineering enterprise down the proverbial river to be managed by m I t. And I think there was a sense at the time that the more applied fields of engineering and applied sciences tainted, and that was the word that was used, tainted the liberal arts mission of Harvard. And so there was a very brief period where there was in fact, a merger. You can go back in the old Boston Globes and find it, the Harvard Tech merger. But it eventually got thrown out by a judge because it was deemed that the merger violated the terms of our principal endowment, which was to train engineers broadly.
David Stiepleman: The endowment of the engineering school.
Frank Doyle: Of the engineering school. Yeah.
David Stiepleman: So not for any kind of principled or pedagogical reasons. It was more, I mean, I guess that challenge was brought for those reasons, but
Frank Doyle: My understanding was the family of the donor brought the suit because the spirit, and in fact, the, the wording of the gift was this very broad training, which you can find at a liberal arts campus. But the supposition was that that did not exist at MIT with profound respect and appreciation for my colleagues on the other side of town.
David Stiepleman: Oh wow. That must be interesting family conversations. Okay, so the school gets elevated to a separate school in 2007. You get there in 2015, around the time that you mentioned John Paulson, he made a, a transformational something, a 400 million gift or something like that. He's not an engineer, is he?
Frank Doyle: He's not an engineer. He's a graduate of the business school. And I think his gift, aside from the obvious, you know, financial impact on the school was profound for another reason, which was it really broke the mold at Harvard of individual donors only supporting their graduating constituency. So in his case, the business school, he reached out across those traditional boundaries and said, you know, as a business school alum, I see a return on my investment really paying off with this gift to the engineering school. So it really helped break down the barriers between the schools and promote what our former president Drew Faust used to promote as one Harvard.
David Stiepleman: Well, can we talk about that? I've heard you in different contexts talk about convergence. Why is that important? This seems like, I mean, completely up your alley, obviously. So, what, what, why is that important?
Frank Doyle: Yeah, so there, there are some really, really smart people in the Boston region who've been promoting this before I got here, certainly. And the idea is the following, that the exciting problems, the interesting questions that we're all grappling with don't live in traditional disciplines. They're not squarely centered in, for example, my own field is chemical engineering. Chemical engineers are not going to solve all the great problems of the world alone. The interesting problems live in those interstitial spaces between fields at the intersections and the nexus. And so you need to bring fields together. Part of that is bringing scientists who speak different languages in the sense of technical parlance, but you also need to think about different ways of supporting with research funding teaching with different academic models and really knocking down the old silos of disciplines and thinking about a convergent approach to teaching and to doing research.
David Stiepleman: So, you get there. What, what was the first thing you did?
Frank Doyle: You know, it's interesting. I was reflecting on that. I went back and I found my old calendar, thank God for Google calendars. And literally the first week I got here, I jumped on a train, and I went down to Yale. Now, that may surprise you,
Frank Doyle: They raise all boats. And that was, really eye-opening for me, was to learn from these more senior deans. And now, as I reflect eight years in the role, I think it's accurate to say, I think I'm tied for the oldest of the current engineering deans in terms of time on station. And I feel over the past several years that I've been sharing and giving back to the group, the beginning I was taking and learning, and now I'm giving back. So that was literally my first orientation to the job was going to, to meet my peers.
David Stiepleman: So, is there a convergence, so to speak, among those institutions where everybody's kind of doing what you've been doing at Harvard? Or is there a kind of a circuit split within that group? Maybe we shouldn't be working across these disciplinary lines. We need to concentrate on hard disciplines, make sure we have departments, because without that, those building blocks, there's no interdisciplinary work at all. Like, is there a debate or is it kind of everybody's singing from the same angle?
Frank Doyle: You know, I would say it, it's a great question. There are variations on the theme. I think for in large measure, they're all on board with breaking down barriers and doing interdisciplinary research. I think most scientists are I think how one practices that supports, that enables that is different campus to campus. for example, at Harvard, we don't even have departments. So the traditional building blocks of academic institutions, we didn't put together here, we deliberately made our ecosystem porous, permeable so that we weren't entrenched in some of those traditional boundaries. Not all of the Ivy Leagues chose to go that route. Some have what they call areas or fields, but many have departments as well.
David Stiepleman: Are you swimming against the tide of human nature? I mean, some institutions I've been in, whether it's schools or for-profit firms, business firms, law firms, like some of them advertise. Listen, we, we really don't have walls up. We don't have you know, clear lines here. We want you to be cross jurisdictional cross disciplinary. Some people don't do well in that environment. Those folks just like, hey, you should go somewhere else. Or how do you handle that?
Frank Doyle: Yeah, it's, it's a tricky one. Certainly. For the most part, our faculty are very supportive of this idea and, and feel that we derive great benefit because, again, the interesting things we work on, take for example, robotics. Robotics doesn't uniquely live in just mechanical engineering or just material science or just computer science or electrical engineering, frankly, bioengineering, we do medical applications with robotics. So the fact that we don't force a pigeonhole kind of arrangement for the program means those faculty can derive full benefit of the ecosystem that spans across all these different fields and attracts students from all those different areas and teach in the curriculum across those areas.
David Stiepleman: I mean, we have a similar orientation in our business where we want people thinking across those lines. And, and you said it so well at the beginning, that that's where interesting solutions to hard problems lie, are sort of in, in, in the interest issue. But it's one thing to say it. How do you reinforce it? Do you have to incentivize it? And how do you do that in, in academics?
Frank Doyle: Yeah, I mean, there are a couple different ways you can think about it. Certainly incentivizing is something that's in the, let's say, the power at the level of a dean to be able to do so. You can seed initiatives. So a great example of one that I seeded early on in my time here, together with the dean of science and the provost office, we decided that quantum was going to be a really powerful field we wanted to promote. Now, just by the very name, quantum isn't a traditional engineering or science department, right? For some people right away, the notion of physics comes to mind for others, maybe computer science comes to mind, double e you know, so forth. Yeah. So by seeding directly in the interstitial space, if you will, we created the, the nucleating agent, the agent that attracted folks to come across from double E and applied physics and physics and chemistry, and, and joined together in a unit that defied boundaries by its very nature. And so by doing that at the leadership level, two deans and a provost, we set the stage. And now, you know, a handful of years later, we've got a, an interdisciplinary PhD program called Quantum Science and Engineering. We have the beginnings of what might be an undergraduate program. We have a, a vibrant research effort, including partnerships with big companies like Amazon Web Services. So it was, if you will, a bet, but a bet that paid off by investing in that sort of boundary space.
David Stiepleman: People should look at your, and we'll put it up on the thing, the school’s mission and vision statement. It's very short, it's very powerful. And one thing I noticed was that the first prong of vision is being diverse and inclusive. And of course, you'd expect to see that these days, and you should see that these days on, on everybody's mission and vision statement. But that felt intentional to me.
Frank Doyle: Yeah, it did. I absolutely, and, and frankly, one of the, you know, I'm going to say second or third depends how, how long a list we make. Things I did as Dean was to convene a group of faculties, students, staff, alumni to really work hard on the mission statement and craft something that we could wrap our arms around, we could own was to some level, DNA specific to the school. So, it was very unique to us. And I have to say, the concept of community of inclusion was front and center. It was from the very beginning, something we were very proud of that we wanted to promote. And in the end, we, we did craft, I think, a, a marvelous mission statement. We, in our new building in Allston, it's emblazoned on a giant wall. So as you walk in the building, there, it is front and center. And it really reminds people, that's why we are coming to work, that's why we're coming to study, to do research. we have that sort of guiding principle.
David Stiepleman: One thing that we always debate in our firm, it's an, an investment firm, is can you teach this idea of continuous learning, which I know is very important to your school and, and to you, how do you teach that? How do you, how do you get people excited about that? Or is that, is that innate?
Frank Doyle: I would say it's, if I could dare say this, it's easier in a technology field. Because the fields change so quickly, right? You think about the AI space, right? Just look at the time scale over which things like chat GPT are, are generating the land-or are dominating the landscape. So I think the very dynamic nature of most fields within technology really demand that people want to keep their finger on the pulse, they want to stay fresh, they want to come back and learn the latest. And so, as we've launched things like exec ed programs or we've put content out on Ed edX, we really have had no trouble attracting learners, lifelong learners to come back and refresh, renew, stay up to speed with the latest tech.
David Stiepleman: Maybe combining those two, those two ideas, both having a diverse and inclusive environment, and also having continuous learners. One thing that our industry has struggled with and, and not struggled with, but has had to do, is go further upstream in terms of where the talent is. Because if we rely on the pipelines that generate talent, they're kind of well worn, and they aren't necessarily focused on equity. And so as you go further up the pipeline, you got to go to school and you got to train people, and you got to turn people's heads to your industry, to your business, to this is a good way to make a living. And actually super interesting. And we want more smart people to think about our field. Are you doing that too? Are you advertising or marketing in an appropriate way at the K through 12 level to get people to think about the sciences, about engineering, about applied science?
Frank Doyle: Absolutely. You've put your finger on, I think the, the big challenge to increasing diversity across the, the engineering space, the student recruiting, and it is going upstream to K through 12. We know that the interest is more or less uniformly spread across gender and, and racial and ethnic groups early in that pipeline. But at some point, along the way, opportunities are not as evenly distributed. And all of a sudden, we now have this cohort that is unfortunately to this day, dominated by white men. And so our ability to influence that, to get faculty in the schools, to do outreach, to have students go out there, to have our student affinity groups be very active in working with high schools, middle schools, eventually elementary schools, is a critical part of enriching that pipeline.
David Stiepleman: Yeah. Are you seeing results, like what's been working and what's, it's an ongoing effort for all of us.
Frank Doyle: I know it will be a never-ending effort. It's a constant effort. Yeah. and I'd say, we have moved that needle. I can remember a conversation I had with our president when we, when I first started at Harvard., and she said, Frank, talk to me about the gender balance and engineering at Harvard. And I said, well, I've got good news and I've got bad news. And I said, the good news is we make the top 10 of national engineering programs with our fraction of women. And I said, the bad news is we break into the top 10. And I think at the time it was something like 30%, 30% women put you in the top 10. Yeah. Now, this was eight years ago. Miraculously, the fields have advanced, we've done better with recruiting. The classes are more diverse. Today at Harvard, it's 38% women in the cohort and climbing towards the forties, I think in the next batch or two, nationwide, it's still hovering around the mid-twenties for fraction of women. So it's, as you say, it's an ongoing challenge we've got to keep working on.
David Stiepleman: Yeah, by many measures, your tenure there has been unbelievable. There's something like, you've gone from single digit percentage of undergraduate majors in your school to I think over 20%, and I'm, I'm sure across a lot of other metrics, you know, it's just been incredible, and you should talk about If, if you want. I'm interested in what'd you get wrong. What would you do differently?
Frank Doyle: Hmm. Great question. And yes, you're, you're right. We have moved into, now we're 25% of the student body here at Harvard, which, you know, blows the mind of a lot of our alums who can remember back when we were truly a blip on the radar, 5% of the student body when the school started. Um, so we've done a lot. We've moved forward in amazing ways. I think the big challenge ahead for Harvard for engineering is activating the space that we've moved to on the Allston side of the river. So, we've made this jump. We've moved across the river to be next to the business school. We're near the athletic complex. Those folks got here a century before we did. So they've been here a hundred years. So it's not exactly that we're the pioneers in Allston, but about a century past where now we are the new wave coming across. And I think it's incumbent on the, the faculty, the chairs, the next dean to continue to build out. It’s probably a fairly well-known fact that Harvard actually owns more land on that side of the river than they do in Cambridge. So, so when the fit out of that side of the river is complete, the center of gravity will shift at some point, the Harvard Business School, which many view as the southern frontier right now, will be the center of gravity of the, the Harvard footprint.
David Stiepleman: Very cool. You said the beginning chemical engineer's not going to solve problems alone. You're a chemical engineer. Like, was there an aha moment? You're like, I got to think bigger, interdisciplinary. Was this always part of your DNA, so to speak, just to mix, to, to go to be interdisciplinary?
David Stiepleman: Just, just for the, for the old enough people. It didn't say, it didn't say polymers, it said plastics. Just to translate, just to trans translate from the chemical engineer
Frank Doyle: That's amazing. Thank you. You're absolutely correct.
David Stiepleman: Now you can count on me for movies and nothing else in, in this conversation. Yeah,
Frank Doyle: Fair enough. So, you know, as I now have had a 30-year career working in diabetes, I very early on very quickly recognize that there's, there are algorithm solutions that could be brought to technological innovation. There are materials innovations, there are, you know, electrical engineers, applied mathematicians, biomedical engineers, and of course endocrinologists and medical doctors. So early, early in my career, I began to sink my teeth into a, a tough problem that right away revealed the only way to make headway is to pull together multiple disciplines to tackle this hard problem.
David Stiepleman: And this is your work or your ongoing work. I think on the artificial pancreas, you should explain what that is. Cause that's super interesting.
Frank Doyle: Absolutely. So, you know, simply stated, the artificial pancreas is like a thermostat for the blood sugar in the body of an individual with diabetes. So they can set a target, and this device will automatically squirt the insulin to cope with the fact that they're eating food or they're exercising, or their sleep cycles are disrupted. All the different stressors of the day that lead to fluctuations and glucose, this device automatically fine tunes that.
David Stiepleman: It's incredible. When I tried to understand how that works, and you have some YouTube videos that make that actually clear enough for even me to understand it, there's this concept of sense and respond. This is your kind of area of engineering. Can you explain what that is? And, and then my follow up question's going to be, are you using that method, the sense and respond kind of framework in organizational design?
Frank Doyle: Hmm, yeah. Great, great question. So, sense and respond is a very broad sort of way to characterize feedback systems, systems that collect information, make measurements, the conjunction and is really where I live. And that's the sort of processing the brains, the calculation piece, and then the respond is the actuation delivering, changing, implementing something, you know? So if you think about, for example, driving a car, the sense and respond, you're looking out down the road, that's your sense, your brain is processing that transducing that into the steering wheel or the brake pedal or the gas, and that's the response. so sense and respond is really a, a marvelously simple way to describe the complexity of feedback systems. And very much to your point, you can apply feedback not only to engineered systems. You can apply it to natural systems, you can apply it to financial systems, the fed and the money inventory could be described with these principles. you can also describe it to organizational principles and how you go about collecting feedback, interacting with groups, and implementing policy. And I, I will say, I think one of the most underrated and yet most powerful skills that a leader has is the listening skill, the sense part of that.
David Stiepleman: Right. How do you train yourself to be better at that if you don't naturally have that skill?
Frank Doyle: Yeah, you know, it's hard, especially for an Irishman, because we've got the gift of the gab. We're known for talking, we're known for the respond part, not the, the listening part. But it really is, I would say, in all aspects of a job like mine, listening is the critical skill. I need to, to hear from the students where the concerns are, where the, where the excitement is, both sides of the equation, if you will hear from the faculty where their aspirations are, where they can be better resourced. When I'm out talking to alums and donors, listening to them, hearing and understanding their passion, all of those contexts, it's far better for me to be receiving information than me putting out information and talking.
David Stiepleman: Speaking about the feedback loop, I'm oftentimes you hear about actually one of the metrics of the success of the school is that I, I think you guys are generating, punching way above your weight in terms of how many startups come out of your school. Maybe not surprising given the, the disciplines, but a little surprising just given, given how much of the faculty you have, I think, at the overall university. But you often hear about like how industry is, you bring in some disciplines or some, some methods from, from industry into, into the academy to make it more efficient or to facilitate with talking across jurisdictional lines or whatever. Are there things going back into industry from your school or from, from other, other places in, in sort of the academy?
Frank Doyle: Oh, without a doubt. In fact, I would say if I were to characterize the two pillars of my platform as dean, we talked about one, and that was DNA, the other really is translation. The idea of taking the ideas that are happening in the benches, in the laboratories, and bringing them out to industry. I can recall again, a conversation with Drew Faust, the, the president who hired me at Harvard and talking about industry. And she had said, oh, you're looking for funding from industry. And I said, well, that might be number five on my list. And she looked at me kind of quizzically and said, yeah, gimme four more reasons for doing that. And I went through a list that broadly included things like translating the research to go out and have impact in the real world, like inspiring our faculty to think about challenging problems that wouldn't necessarily leap out of a book or out of a computer, but a practitioner from industry could come in and say, here's where we're stuck. And then you have this marvelous partnership. And then of course, for the students, the students want that real world experience. They want it in the classroom, they want it for networking, they want it for internships. So there's really this multifaceted partnership that is so powerful with the private sector industry.
David Stiepleman: Is that part of your job? You're, you're scanning the world thinking, gee, what complicated problems might we be able to bring our, our resources to bear on? How do you select from among those?
Frank Doyle: Yeah. You know, that's a, a really difficult part of the job, especially when you're in a program like ours, which is modestly sized, right? I've got order of magnitude a hundred faculty here at Harvard and engineering, that's a third of an M I t or a Stanford scale campus. In fact, my campus, I started on Purdue, had a hundred faculty just in electrical engineering Where I've got a hundred across all of engineering. So we have to pick and choose. We have to find the problems where we can really go deep and have impact and then build up critical mass there. So I've mentioned a couple already. Robotics is one. quantum science and engineering are another. a third one that we just got a sizable investment in was AI, thinking about artificial intelligence from both the, the natural perspective, how the brain processes and from the algorithmic perspective, how do you code these things and capture them in algorithms. And that's where Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan came in and gave us a 500 million gift to build a big institute around AI.
David Stiepleman: Not so bad. I'm interested, I feel like there's definitely an analog here to maybe your career or maybe careers that you've seen. There are founders and entrepreneurs become good at something, or they're good at something, whether it's coding or investing or whatever. And then you end up in these seats where you're running large organizations or you're, you're trying to scale yourself, and it's a very different skillset, whether it's managing people or understanding of budgeting, being strategic, whatever. Did you come across at some point in your trajectory, you know, which in retrospect looks like, you know, you're just, you're doing the next really big, interesting thing, but it doesn't feel like that at the time. Was there a moment where you were like, I actually don't know how to do X and I got to figure out how to do X or I'm not going to be able to go to the next step or, or accomplish what I want to accomplish? And if, if there was such a moment, what was X and how did you attack it?
Frank Doyle: Yeah, I would say that in terms of my professional career as a university administrator, there was a moment back in Santa Barbara, my previous institution, university of California at Santa Barbara, where I was very involved with a center. And we were going to have a new building associated with that. And there were questions about fundraising. And Harvard has a certain apparatus, a machinery for fundraising that's not matched at places like a public university, like University of California. and so really, it was clear to many of us involved at that time that, training in fundraising in development was a critical skill that many of us lacked. And so we sought out, and there was a series of courses that we had an outside contractor come in and teach several of the leaders on the campus, okay, here's philanthropy 1 0 1, philanthropy 1 0 2, and so forth. And it really transformed how I began to then interact with alumni and potential donors. And I would say that was crucial to my evolution as a leader. So that when I came into a place like Harvard where, you know, numbers one, two, and three on my, my list a given day might all be development related, was the skill I, I had to have. It wasn't the skill that I could build on the job. Yeah. I had to come in running with strong skills in that area.
David Stiepleman: Yeah. Interesting. I feel like you're the perfect person to ask about sort of the individual habits of mind that one has to have in order to handle increasing levels of complexity. And maybe this is just a, that's a very, very wordy way of asking, like, how do you manage your time? Do you have a system?
Frank Doyle: Yeah. You know, couple things. So I'm a, a big, big subscriber to, zero inbox. I, I try to whittle down my email inbox to single digit some days I could get it down to zero. So just process, just delegate, answer or file away. And to really try to be, you know, ruthless with time management that way, make decisions on edge as it were, in a whole different universe.
David Stiepleman: What does that mean on edge? What, what does that mean?
Frank Doyle: That means processing in real time a complex number of factors that require near immediate execution. So not take it home, study it, take it back for the weekend, review it, but in the moment, you've got to be able to pivot and, and react quickly. And I think that's a skill. Some things clearly require deeper deliberation, but there are a lot of things at the level when many, many questions and, and decisions are flying at you. you've got to make some of these things in real time with agility.
David Stiepleman: Okay. So zero inbox and, and then that, that does imply like the ability to know what to do with the, with the in incoming implies some kind of filter that you've thought about beforehand.
Frank Doyle: That's right. And also involves a pretty good folder system in, in my email client. But it really, the indecision, is something that I can't afford. I've got to make a decision, even if it means delegate or defer for longer term handling, it can't be, oh, I'll come back to it tomorrow when there's going to be a hundred messages in my inbox, or 500 messages in my inbox, or whatever it might be. I think that's one. The other one I might, point to is building a powerful team, as I reflect on the kinds of things we've accomplished as a school during my tenure, was hugely enabled by having the right people in place to work with me. And I think that's critical to know, first of all, how to build the right team, how to power that team how to strike the balance between delegating to team members and keeping an active hand in things. I think that tightrope that many leaders have to walk between, let's call it micromanaging versus pure delegation, is a critical skill, a critical balance. And we all find a different sort of, fulcrum or balancing point there. But I think that's another skill that's crucial to be able to manage complexity of this scale.
David Stiepleman: And have you, have you worked on that skill, or, or is that something you've been just good at?
Frank Doyle: I would say I started far more on the micromanaging side of things. Yeah. certainly before my Harvard time and realized it would be the end of me here. If I continued to be at micromanager, I'd never sleep, but I'd never get things accomplished. I had to trust and build a team that I could then have them run and report back partner, solve in the right sub-teams., but that certainly was an evolution of my kind of leadership skills.
David Stiepleman: You're leaving Harvard, at the end of the academic year, you're, you're headed to Brown as Provost. How did you think about, I mean, both on amazing institutions, all that stuff, but how did you think about that sort of next step for you? Like, what, why is that the next step?
Frank Doyle: Yeah, great question. it was not obvious to me, and certainly last fall, I was not out there, looking or floating a resume or anything. I, I got a phone call from a very, very charismatic individual, the, current president of Brown, Chris Paxson, who really, over the course of several phone calls, absolutely convinced me that there were exciting things happening. There was a critical role to fill. She would be an amazing partner. And I've often, say it, I've told a few people anyway, that, brown has a certain Goldilocks characteristic to it. There are exciting things happening. They're happening in a scale that's perfect at the provostial level to organize, to empower, to enable. there's a great team in place there. And I got to say the, again, the growth or evolution of my leadership skills are really going to be tested when, now the lens that I'm looking through is that of the entire academy. And not just technology. Right. I, I endearingly say that the engineering nerds are easy to work with. They're, they're my people.
David Stiepleman: Yeah. It sounds pretty exciting. What, what's something that's, that's coming out of SEAS at Harvard, whether it's a new technology or a joint venture with industry that you're like, that's super cool that you're excited about?
Frank Doyle: The most exciting new thing we've done, and, and perhaps one of the really, painful things to have to leave behind is we launched a new initiative this fall called Grid, G R I d. It's not an acronym. It’s, an entity like the power grid, the electric grid. It's an undergirding, it's an infrastructure for entrepreneurship. And the idea is a recognition that our students our faculty, our postdocs are hungry for not only training in this space for contact with experts in this space, and also for resourcing. We have an accelerator fund as well. So the earlier point we discussed about building skills, learning things, I'm finding that even a lot of my faculty are in that state of continuous education, where somebody maybe mid-career who's never founded a company before, suddenly gets involved in an idea in the lab, wants to do it, and doesn't know where to Ramp up and learn the right skills.
David Stiepleman: What's the most useful thing for that person in the lab to know that they didn't know before, do you think?
Frank Doyle: I think it's to recognize that there are things they don't know that they need to address and learn. And they've got a peer group, we've got fellow faculty, we've got entrepreneurs and residents. We've got this ecosystem now we're building, and oh, by the way, it's across the street from the Harvard Business School. So we've got all those partnerships and collaborations and strengths to tap on as well. So I think that's, in many ways, you know, watch this space. That is the really exciting thing that will brand and power that Allston side of Harvard's campus because, you know, really, it's the heart of innovation. It's where the exciting future directions are going to come from.
David Stiepleman: Frank, did you have a teacher in your background who just, kind of lit you up when you were young to get you thinking about constantly learning and doing what you do? Is, did anybody that you remember in particular?
Frank Doyle: I'm going to go all the way back to eighth grade to Sister Alice Francis. I was trained in Catholic schools, first grade through 12th grade. And Sister Alice Francis reached out to our elementary school. She was a high school teacher and said I want to attract some of you who are really hungry to learn more about math, to come to a Saturday school session. So eighth grade kids, you know, the ultimate nerd. Of course there we were doing algebra in a series of Saturday classes. It was because we were hungry, we wanted to accelerate in advance. And Sister Alice Francis became just an amazing mentor to me during my four years in high school. I went to the high school where she taught. so I would, I would put my finger on that.
David Stiepleman: That's cool. You're a soccer referee. I am., You do NCAA soccer games. Is did, how did you get into that?
Frank Doyle: Yeah, I got involved when my kids started soccer. So way back in Santa Barbara, it was a rec league, which meant that you had parent coaches and parent referees. So the only way we could field the team is if two parents stepped up and said, yeah, we'll be a referee. And I remember signing up and thinking, ah, my kid's six, seven years old, how hard could that be? Turned out to be pretty challenging
David Stiepleman: I was going to ask you, is it therapy or are you, are you constantly trying to figure out an interdisciplinary approach to, to reffing soccer camps?
Frank Doyle: You know, all kidding aside, I have notes and an outline for a book I'd like to write one day on leadership skills I developed on the pitch. And there really are examples from, you know, we talked earlier about complex decision making. I've heard a number of people describe being a referee as the following. Imagine doing 50-yard dashes and having a giant flashcard in the audience pop up with a hard math problem. You've got to solve in half a second while you're doing 50-yard dashes. The crowd is yelling the wrong answer.
Frank Doyle: That's what it's like to be a referee and do complex real-time problem solving.
David Stiepleman: I will tell you; we have it in common. I was a, I was a soccer referee, but as I stopped as a high school kid, but I did have to red card a parent once. So if you're, if you're looking for stories for your book, I'm happy to tell you that story offline,
Frank Doyle: There we go. Well, one of my examples I've got is a nugget for a potential chapter is how to deliver bad news. So I'm not sure about your red card experience, but for example, if I give a yellow card to a kid on a pitch, there's a way you can do it where the kid walks away confident and proud and it involves something like saying, Hey, you and I both know you're a better player than that, but I got to book you, you know, that, you know, you're a better player and you hold up the yellow card and they walk away feeling, hey, the ref thinks I'm a good guy. Right. In organizations, we often have to deliver bad news and there are ways to deliver it, to leave somebody sort of excited, engaged, thinking about coming back and trying again. And I think it's this art of how to manage the delivery of bad news.
David Stiepleman: Where did you arrive at this insight in the workplace and applied it to soccer or vice versa?
Frank Doyle: Honestly, I think it was in the soccer, context. Yeah. That, just watching some other referees who like to just hold that card in the face of the kid and intimidate them or, you know, embarrass them. And that just didn't advance the game that wasn't productive for the game.
David Stiepleman: Amazing. Frank, you're also into sailboat racing. What? Tell me what that's all about.
Frank Doyle: Yeah, so I, I grew up as a kid. In fact, from the time nearly that I could walk, my father, was a sailor, had a boat, built his first boat in our driveway. I remember that. So I grew up sailing with my family. I raced in college. and then when I was a young faculty member and eventually an older faculty member I used to race in California, that became really easy. And I would say the, one of the great accomplishments of my racing career, we did the Transpacific, which is a race from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Wow. And that was just epic. at the time I thought there was a lesson I would learn. I'm not sure that it really took, but it was the following that it was a 10-day race and within a day you're far enough offshore, you've got no signal.
Frank Doyle: So 10 days of no phone, no internet, none of the outside world distractions. And, you know, when I got to port, when we finished the race, the world hadn't ended.
David Stiepleman: I, one thing you said there really resonates. I took a sabbatical a couple years ago and one of the reasons to do it was that we have a great team and a lot of just the informational pathways, not because of anything special I do, but just cause I've been here since the beginning, would go through me and we could break that a little bit by taking off, not being in the office for a couple months and people were probably making better decisions and, you know, checking in with me on an exceptions basis. And that's the, super, it's a super important lesson. The world, the world doesn't end. It's, it's fine. You'll be fine.
Frank Doyle: Powerful lesson indeed.
David Stiepleman: Yeah totally. Thanks for that, Frank. What a pleasure.
Frank Doyle: Oh, the pleasure was mine. I really enjoyed this. Yeah, you guys made it simple too.
David Stiepleman: That was Frank Doyle, Dean of the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University. Many thanks to my colleague Vivian Lao, who's an alum of Harvard and has spent a lot of time working with Frank on a lot of initiatives there. We spoke with him on April 11th, 2023. As we said at the top, the biggest takeaway was Frank's focus and ability for promoting interdisciplinary connectivity across various fields and to promote collaboration across the university. It takes humility, a real selflessness to collaborate so successfully at that level that may be Frank's superpower. And it comes across talking to him. Let's all work together. It's a simple concept, but it's much harder to execute in practice than it sounds, especially in a very competitive environment. I also think Frank's own technical proficiency may have something to do with it, someone like that being so willing to learn from others.
David Stiepleman: Sets a really great example. He also talked about how important it was for him to surround himself with the right people. And finally it was great to hear how Frank talks about balancing the different aspects of his life, including remaining involved in his long-term research on the artificial pancreas. It can be hard when you get to the management level to lose that, that hand on things. And it sounds like he's kept a pretty good sense of wellbeing around his management responsibilities, his technical skills and research and his personal pursuits. Thanks to Frank for joining us. Good luck at Brown. We'll look forward to following your career there. And thanks to everyone for listening. You've been listening to ‘It's Not Magic’, a Sixth Street podcast. You can read more about our guests on SixthStreet.com and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoyed today's podcast, please share it and follow @SixthStreetNews on Twitter for more on the show and our firm. Thanks to Sixth Street’s production team, Patrick Clifford and Ritvi Shah, putting this together with Sound Engineering by Stephen Colon. Our theme song is, ‘It's Not Magic’, an original creation by Patrick Dyer Wolf. Once again, I'm David Stiepleman. Thanks for listening.
David Stiepleman: The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Sixth Street and Sixth Street is not providing any financial, economic, legal, accounting, or tax advice or recommendations in this podcast. In addition, the receipt of or listening to this podcast is not to be taken as constituting the giving of investment advice by Sixth Street. Please see additional disclosures on our website for more details.