Published: June 15, 2020

For any working engineer or technology professional, the decision to go back to school and earn an advanced degree can be a difficult one. When you couple that with deciding to enroll in a program on the other side of the world and in a country and setting you’ve never been to, the decision becomes even more complex.

But for Prerna Nayyar, a program manager at Microsoft, her decision to move from her home in India to Boulder, Colorado, and enroll in the Lockheed Martin Engineering Management Program (EMP) at CU Boulder is one she will always credit for advancing her career and achieving her professional goals.

A Motivation to Advance as a Leader in a Technical Environment

Nayyar earned her undergraduate degree in telecommunications engineering at a university in India and had started her career working as a software engineer. From there, she moved into a more sales-oriented position, still working in a technical setting. She knew early on, however, that eventually, she would look for a way to advance her career even further, with skills that would prepare her for a role working with technical teams. 

Prerna Nayyar

“I really wanted to enhance my skills and take my career in a different direction,” Nayyar says. “I knew I didn’t want a strictly technical degree, I wanted something that would include aspects of entrepreneurship and help me develop strong leadership skills. That’s when I kind of landed on project management. I felt it would be a good mix of leadership and the technical side.”

Nayyar started researching programs that would deliver the best preparation and provide the best fit for her situation and future goals. That search led her to a small handful of technology management master’s programs in the U.S., and as she looked into it deeper, the EMP offering at CU Boulder began to distinguish itself from the rest.

“I had some friends at CU Boulder and heard nothing but great things from them about the program,” Nayyar says. “As I looked into it deeper, I found that it had everything that I was after in terms of learning about technology management. It provided the leadership component that was really important, there was a focus on things like project management, ethics, providing a lot of hands-on project experience, and it looked to be a very discussion-based learning experience. Also, it was in Boulder. And Boulder is just such a beautiful place.”

Nayyar isn’t alone in her assessment of Boulder and the beauty of the area. In fact, the city has been ranked by on its Best Places to Live list for five consecutive years, with particularly high marks in areas like entrepreneurial startups, health care, outdoor recreation and social causes. Additionally, Boulder recently came in ranked No. 19 on a list of the country’s “Top Tech Towns” in a study put out by CompTIA.

Moving to CU Boulder from Half a World Away

Still, even with her decision that the EMP at CU Boulder was the place for her, Nayyar knew that the move to Colorado and transitioning to life in the U.S. would be a significant change.

“There can be a lot of anxiety when you’re moving to a new place, a new country,” she says. “Everything is completely new and different. I had never been to the U.S. before, so there was a lot of anxiety for me coming here. But that went away pretty quickly because of all the support waiting for me at CU Boulder. The professors were amazing, I’d really never seen better professors than those that I had in the program there. They did so much for me, offered so much support.”

For students coming from abroad, the transition also poses unique challenges on a practical level. “As an international student, you need a lot more support just because of all the things you have to adjust to and get settled in,” she says. “Everyone at CU Boulder guided me with so many good resources.”

The support and services that Nayyar discovered at CU Boulder went far beyond the technology, academic and administrative aspects of her experience. As a new student who had just moved to Boulder from across the globe, she discovered a wealth of extracurricular and social support waiting for her as well.

“CU Boulder is a very large university; I was afraid I might just get lost in everything going on around me,” she says. “But the university has so many resources, and when I arrived it just felt right. I felt like I definitely fit in. And while I had thought that I would only have my India friends there for me, that definitely wasn’t the case. Everything about the place made me feel very comfortable and I was able to make so many other new friends.”

Immersing Herself in the Engineering Management Program

Eventually, Nayyar worked as a student assistant in one of the Program’s entrepreneurship courses for a year, establishing even stronger ties with her professors and further developing her own knowledge in an area that was of particular interest to her.

As she worked her way through the Program, one of the aspects that she most appreciated was the experienced-based approach in many of the courses, and the in-depth discussions that were focused on current, real-world topics and issues affecting business and industry today. 

“One course I took in marketing was really enlightening just because of how hands-on it was,” she says. “We were responsible for creating a project, thinking through all aspects of it and preparing to pitch our idea at the end of the semester. You had to do all of the work involved with getting it going beyond just the technology itself—how you will sell it, what your go-to-market strategy is, how you are going to implement it. We developed customer personas to help with all of that. It was such a great exercise, largely because of how relevant it is to what you will eventually encounter as you advance to leading technical teams in the professional world.”

A Focus on Project Management and Leadership

For Nayyar, the Program’s heightened emphasis on the areas of project management and leadership proved to be among the most valuable things it delivered. “Learning about how to be a successful program manager and effectively guide a project, develop project schedules, create a road map so to speak, was very interesting to me and relevant to where I saw my career going,” she says. “We also learned about mistakes that can happen along the way, and how poor project management can, unfortunately, lead to disaster.”

Equally significant for Nayyar was the in-depth approach the Program took when addressing the topic of leadership. And it’s an area of emphasis that has grown and gotten even stronger since she graduated in 2017.

Today, students in the Program will find a series of leadership-focused courses in which they can engage. These include Leading Oneself, providing a background in leadership concepts and methods that enables students to develop practical leadership skills; Leading Others, which prepares students to apply the leadership techniques needed to succeed in a technology management setting; and Leading Technical Organizations, which equips students with skills to effectively lead organizations that provide complex systems and capabilities.

Additionally, EMP is introducing Special Topics: NeuroLeadership, which examines the idea of thinking of your brain as your “engine” for managing relationships, leadership of oneself and others.

Mentorship and Empowering Students to Succeed

Throughout her EMP experience, the hands-on technology management projects and work she turned in was guided by an exceptional faculty of full-time and visiting instructors who served as mentors to Nayyar and her fellow students.

“One of the great things is all of the mentorship that happens within the Program,” she says. “Again, the faculty are so impressive with all of their accomplishments as leaders in technology, but they’re also so invested in their students. One of the visiting instructors served as a mentor to me, which proved to be a very valuable connection.”

As a result of her EMP course, Nayyar experienced the powerful effect that these mentoring relationships can have. While taking a marketing class with the visiting professor, she had the opportunity to learn about his company and network with him after class. “And after working with me in the Program, mentoring me and observing the quality of my work,” says Nayyar “that provided me with the opportunity to get an interview with his company and eventually, a job offer.”

Presenting students with a range of opportunities to connect with prospective engineering management employers and expand their network is a core mission of the Program at CU Boulder, which Nayyar saw first hand during her student experience.

“The opportunities for professional growth that the university offers are really impressive,” she says. “They host career fairs where literally hundreds of companies come in and meet with students. Those are so valuable in terms of building and widening your network.”

Taking Her Knowledge, Skills and Talent as a Technical Program Manager to Microsoft

Upon graduating, Nayyar took the full-time position in Denver she was offered by her instructor, where she worked for eight months. From there, she accepted a position as a program manager at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington.

At Microsoft, Nayyar spends her days managing technical projects and focusing on program management for Office 365 AI and ML platforms. And she finds herself applying many of the skills and concepts she gained during her time at CU Boulder.

“There’s so much from the Program that I find myself applying every day,” Nayyar says. “One of the big things that the Program instilled in me is that leadership and management are not the same things. To effectively lead it takes more than a deep understanding of the technology, you have to know how to communicate with confidence and authority, while also earning the trust and confidence of those on your team. It is a very specialized skill set that goes far beyond just making sure that things are getting done. And you have to understand as a leader that what you’re doing doesn’t just involve that one program, but all of the other operations that your project touches.”

“Also, I learned about ethics involved in everyday decision-making, and I strengthened my writing skills as well,” she says. “Which is important because I do a lot of technical writing with the job I’m in now at Microsoft.”

Nayyar’s Advice to Technology Professionals Considering EMP for Advancing Their Career

For any engineers and technical professionals who are considering a return to school as a way to advance their career, Nayyar suggests that they do the necessary homework and research the best possible fit for their specific goals.

“It’s important to ask yourself what kind of a position are you interested in pursuing,” she says. “What direction do you want your career to go, and what are the skill sets it will take to make that happen? I know many people who’ve had very different visions for where they want to take their careers. From engineering management, to quality control, to consulting, to software engineering, to supply chain management. The possibilities really are endless. And the great thing about the Program at CU Boulder is that it caters to such a wide range of those possibilities.”

If you would like to learn more about CU Boulder’s EMP offerings, you can speak with an advisor or request more information. Just visit the CU Boulder EMP page on our website or contact: or call 303.492.0954.