Georgia Tech MBA/Engineering Student Uses Engineering and Management Skills to Help Rebuild Iraq

Smith returns to complete his dual MBA and Mechanical Engineering degrees

Capt. Jeff R. Smith, a mechanical engineer, was three weeks into his third semester of the MBA program at Georgia Tech when he got the call from his National Guard Unit that he'd been activated. He had five days to close out the details of his life in Atlanta and join his unit. Since the semester had just started, Smith withdrew from his classes and planned to return in a year to complete his dual graduate degrees in mechanical engineering and business administration (MBA). Smith says he loves engineering but felt an MBA would help him advance his career in industry.

About a month later in mid-March, his Engineering Corps unit landed in Kuwait to start rebuilding Iraq as the Marines made their way to Baghdad. The first few months in Iraq Smith and his unit completed a variety of projects to rebuild cities damaged by war or deteriorated due to neglect.

"Our unit focused on rebuilding and renovating cities, such as schools, water lines, roads, and bridges, that were either damaged by the war or deteriorated due to years of neglect under Saddam Hussein's regime," says Smith. "Rebuilding the schools was very satisfying, and we didn't experience much of the hostilities that units have experienced more recently."

Smith found his recent studies of economics and international finance came in handy in dealing with the challenges of lack of building supplies, skyrocketing prices, and the constantly changing exchange rates between U.S. dollars and the Iraqi dinar. Through his knowledge of supply and demand, Smith realized the prices of asphalt, concrete and fuel were skyrocketing due to damage and looting at distribution centers. So, he repaired over 20 asphalt, concrete and fuel distribution centers to increase the supply and reduce the prices. Also, when working with local contractors Smith had to calculate into each project the added expense of the changing exchange rate as the Iraqi dinar grew in strength compared to the dollar. In March 2003, one dollar equaled about 4000 Iraqi dinars, but by December 2003 one dollar equaled about 1000 dinars. Since the bids were submitted in dinars and he was paying in dollars, Smith had to budget the increased cost for each project.

Smith said it was difficult to work in the summer when the heat was intense with highs of 142 degrees and average high of 120. The heat killed their radios. Even later in July when they had window air conditioning units in their tents, the A/C only reduced the temperature by 20 degrees, says Smith.

"No work could be done after 10 or 11 o'clock in the morning because it was way too hot," says Smith.

Sharpening His Management Skills

During much of his time in Iraq, Smith worked extensively with local Iraqi governmental officials in the city of Ramadi in the Fallujah area. He would ask the engineers with the local departments of water and education for their top 10 projects and for detailed project proposals including cost analyses. Translators translated all the proposals for him, and he selected the projects to be funded. He would pay one-third of the project cost up front, and once one-third or half of the project was completed, he'd fund more of the project until it was completed.

"We operated like a grant service," says Smith. "Giving the local engineers money for their top priority projects gave them ownership of the projects. Plus, I didn't know which local contractors to use. Whenever I conducted surprise inspections, I always found work being done so I think the process worked very well."

Maj. Gen. Swannack, who oversaw this program, initially gave them $2.3 million to fund projects for three months, and he was so pleased with the progress made that he increased the budget to $16.5 million for the next three months (January - March). These reconstruction funds came from captured funds from the Hussein regime. The new funding meant 600 projects were in progress, so Smith's unit turned to the local university's engineering department for help. They hired engineers from the local university as consultants to review project proposals and progress reports. The consultants were able to tell them if the prices were inflated or if the project was feasible or not.

However, the local Governor was concerned that locals were not aware of the amount of progress being made, since many were still without electricity, which they had under the Hussein regime. So the Governor asked Smith to take local TV crews out on inspections to get the word out to the local community about improvements.

Returning to the States

Smith returned to the States in late March 2004, and says the experience has made him want to spend more time with his family, including two brothers. With an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and four years in the Army, Smith came to Georgia Tech in fall 2001 to take advantage of the dual degree program, which would allow him to complete a master's degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA at the same time in about two years. During his first year at Tech, Smith took mostly MBA courses and enjoyed the small classes. He liked how the small classes gave him plenty of opportunities to express his own ideas in class and to talk with his professors after class. Also, he felt that knowing everyone in the classes strengthened the team project experiences.

He returns to school full time in mid-August and hopes to graduate in May 2005. Once he completes school, he plans to pursue a corporate career with an established company in the Midwest to be closer to his family in Iowa.

When asked how long he plans to maintain his military ties, Smith says, "I plan to stay in the National Guard as long as I keep having fun; it's kind of my hobby. As long as I keep enjoying it, I plan to keep on doing it."