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Skype chief evangelist joins MIT SDM program

For Andres Kütt, chief evangelist at Skype and a member of the System Design and Management (SDM) class entering in 2011, embracing his inner geek is second nature.

He began at Skype in 2005 as an architecture team lead in their Tallinn development office, and a year ago was promoted to chief evangelist. He also co-invented several patents along the way. Kütt holds a BS in mathematical statistics from the University of Tartu (now considered an MsC equivalent because the four-year program requires a publicly defended thesis), an MBA from the Estonian Business School and has also taught project management on the undergraduate level.

So why add a third degree to his impressive CV, especially after proving his mettle at one of the Internet’s biggest successes? Kütt said it’s because he asks himself the same question too many times: “Why is this this way?”

Intuition and academics

As Kütt helped define Skype’s technical direction and consequently had to tackle many scalability issues, he realized that his education lacked the scientific rigor to properly test his ideas. His contributions to product development felt intuitive, he said, rather than rooted to an academic grounding. He felt he was operating on “pure instinct.” 

“If I wanted to take my job to the next level,” he said, “I needed the pedagogical framework and a systems-thinking perspective.”

But the Estonian wasn’t willing to settle for any program. He wanted a top-notch education and access to world experts in their fields. The SDM program fit the bill, offering what Kütt called “the perfect blend of leadership, management and engineering,” and giving him the structure and big picture, systems-thinking perspective he craved.

The importance of systems thinking

Before Skype, Kütt worked for the Estonian Tax and Customs Board as deputy director general in charge of IT and as head of IT development. But his true passion is organizational behavior, particularly around technology issues. At SDM for the next two years, he hopes to pursue thesis research focused on a holistic study of the architecture of organizations while working toward SDM’s master’s degree in engineering and management. He envisions that this thesis might become a PhD dissertation or a book.

Kütt’s switch to a wider systems thinking view partly came about when, as chief evangelist, he was charged with preserving Skype’s institutional memory and telling the Skype story to outside groups. “It’s a narrative. We need to do a lot of work to explain who we are, what we do, and why it’s important.”

While Kütt, 35, may be accustomed to straddling two worlds, moving his home base was not an option. His wife Maria is currently conducting doctoral research on personnel demands in the IT sector and they are raising a daughter, Anna-Liis. Luckily, SDM provides optimum flexibility. As a distance learner, he can attend live video classes with his cohort at MIT, while staying close to his family and continuing to work at Skype in Estonia. Like all SDM distance-learning students, Andres is expected to attend six one-week seminars on campus during his time in the program.

While no university in Europe can better MIT’s facilities, he said, and few cities can match Cambridge’s flurry of academic activity, what he’s most looking forward to at SDM is its unquantifiable, creative vibe. “I spend the day grinning,” he said. “MIT is geek heaven squared!”

Managing the family/work/bi-cultural juggling act will be challenge, he said, but Kütt is emboldened to go for it. “If the ‘why’ is there,” he said with confidence, “then every ‘how’ becomes possible.”

In the meantime, Skype will certainly come in handy.

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