Irene Diep works for one of the world’s largest and most recognizable brands, PepsiCo. Throughout a decade of experience in manufacturing engineering, she’s held a variety of operations and supply chain management positions with the multinational food and beverage company.
“The things I learned in EMP helped in every role I’ve had,” she explains of her CU Boulder experience. Today, Diep is an enterprise resource planning (ERP) project manager based out of PepsiCo’s Chicago headquarters.
Building a Foundation in Manufacturing Engineering and Consumer Goods
Diep always enjoyed mathematics and science in high school, especially when those classes involved applied and practical activities.
“That’s how I landed in engineering in college,” she explains. As an undergraduate at Boston University, she had a few choices about which aspect of the field to pursue. Ultimately, she chose manufacturing engineering because, at the time, it was the only concentration that offered a co-op program during the final year.
"I always knew, even early on, that I didn’t want to be an engineer that sat at a desk working on prototypes,” says Diep. She was also drawn to the engineering faculty members who came from industry versus those who came solely from academia. Not only did they know their stuff, but they were also the ones with good connections to companies in the region and around the country.
During her senior year, Diep completed a manufacturing engineering co-op with Z Corporation in Burlington, Massachusetts, following a summer internship with GE Aviation. After finishing her bachelor’s, she completed a two-year commercial leadership rotation at Praxair, the oldest and largest producer of industrial gases in North America.
From there, she joined PepsiCo as an associate manufacturing leader, which would be the first of several positions at this international consumer goods company.
Leveling Up Her Experience with an Engineering Management Degree
A graduate degree was always on Diep’s radar. While she was at Praxair, she thought about returning to school for a master’s of business administration. However, she decided not to move on to the MBA idea just yet because she wanted more time to figure out her end goal for earning an advanced degree.
“Fast-forward to Frito-Lay, where I was working in supply chain management,” she says. “I felt like I was starting to plateau a bit.”
Diep explained that while she excelled in her role, she felt like she was falling behind on technology and best practices outside her immediate position at work. She took advantage of internal learning opportunities when they came her way, but felt a bit limited by the content.
“The company has classes you can take, but they are either too general or too specific to our brands or business practices,” she says. “I wanted to hear different perspectives and be exposed to new viewpoints. I wanted to learn to think outside the PepsiCo box.”
Among her main goals for professional development was to expand her capacity for creative problem solving, which led her back to engineering—this time for a master’s in engineering management.
The Benefits of an Online Engineering Management Master’s Degree
Diep, then living in Denver and working at PepsiCo full-time, looked at CU Boulder’s Master of Engineering in Engineering Management Program. It was not only close to home, but it also offered an alternative way to attend class.
“I knew I wanted an in-person program, but with a distance-learning option,” Diep explains. While she wanted to attend most classes on campus, the option for taking her classes in engineering management online was a relief, knowing she might have some late nights at work and be unable to make the commute.
When Diep was in the classroom in Boulder, she noticed how attentive her instructors were to the students who were learning from home.
“I really appreciated that, regardless if someone was attending in person or distance learning, the faculty did a good job engaging students. They always prompted the students who videoed in,” she says. “And this was pre-pandemic when it was more awkward to be on camera in class.”
This observation made her feel much more comfortable about distance learning. In her second year, she became one of those on-screen students. “I thought it would be weird to be the person who was not physically there, but it was seamless,” she says.
The decision to choose a program with engineering management online options also paid off when Diep got a promotion at PepsiCo while she was still a student. She’d been at the company for a few years and was gaining more experience with supply chain management.
“I was reaching another plateau,” explains Diep. “Near the end of the EMP, I started looking for internal opportunities. The positions available in Denver weren’t the ones I wanted,” she says. Instead, she had her sights set on one of PepsiCo’s corporate headquarters; the options at the time, New York, Chicago and Dallas.
Always drawn to the energy of New York City—also home to PepsiCo’s beverage division—she applied for a position there. And she got it.
“I would have had to pass on that opportunity, but the distance learning option meant I didn’t have to make that sacrifice,” she says. So Diep relocated to the East Coast and completed her master’s degree from New York City while taking on a new role.
Applying What She’s Learned in Real Time: Communication, Leadership, Engagement & Project Management
While Diep was nervous about attending graduate school part-time, she quickly realized the value of working full-time while earning a degree. It goes back to her original reasoning behind choosing manufacturing engineering: She loves the practical application.
The pace of CU Boulder’s EMP allowed Diep to benefit from what she was learning immediately. “From lecture to lecture and course to course, I was able to change my approach to things at work. I’d learn something new and think, ‘I can try that,’” she explains. “I’d be able to see if it worked or if it didn’t work by the following week’s lesson.”
Diep says that what she learned in the EMP has helped her in every professional role she’s had since, including her current position in enterprise resource planning. Here’s a snapshot of some of her key takeaways from her engineering management degree experience.
Communicating as an Engineering Management Professional
Diep immediately applied many communications-related concepts. These lessons were covered in a required Engineering Communication class, but they were also sprinkled throughout her EMP coursework.
“I felt like I got something helpful out of every meeting. I changed how I approached communicating with others,” she explains, adding that learning about body language and other non-verbal communication was especially relevant during 2020’s pandemic when more work and collaboration was done remotely.
Also on the communications front, Diep says she has fine-tuned how she gives and receives feedback, learned new and effective ways to present information, and improved her “elevator pitches” when sharing information with internal stakeholders.
Diep feels especially confident in communicating her accomplishments and value within the company.
“A big part of what EMP changed for me is how I’m able to explain projects I’ve worked on,” she says. “How I communicate what the problems are, how I approach solutions, how I explain my approach and share the results. It’s all more cohesive today.”
Leaning Into Leadership in Manufacturing Engineering
For Diep, leadership courses were also some of the most valuable in the EMP. Not only did she learn more about conflict resolution and leading others, but she also discovered how she’s grown as a professional after nearly a decade of experience at consumer goods companies. In one of her classes, she and her peers took the StrengthFinders assessment (now called CliftonStrengths), an exercise she’d done at a previous job years prior.
“The interesting thing about that is my results had changed,” she explained. “My strengths evolved as I went through school and as my responsibilities changed. And then I was able to lean into that.”
From her leadership courses, she also realized that discovering strengths isn’t always about seeking new opportunities or finding things to fix, but rather also about leveraging your strengths in your current roles or situations.
When Diep teamed up with five other EMP classmates for a project management group assignment, she found the project to be a leadership lesson in itself.
“It was a huge learning experience. We all had interesting backgrounds, but there wasn’t one standard foundation of knowledge,” she explains. “This experience taught me to take a step back, which is especially helpful for me when working with new hires.”
Building Project Management Skills
As Diep grew in her career with PepsiCo, she became more acquainted with managing high-level projects. At one point, she even considered pursuing a professional certification in project management (PM). So she found it extremely valuable that CU Boulder’s Engineering Management degree program includes several PM-related courses.
“I unexpectedly landed in a PM role, so all of the tips and takeaways from the project management courses have helped me,” says Diep.
Boosting Employee Engagement
In Diep’s current role, she’s managing an enterprise-level project that involves getting buy-in from internal stakeholders across a global corporation. She says it was instrumental to her success that many courses in CU Boulder’s EMP addressed employee engagement in some way.
“The topics around how to improve and facilitate employee engagement—that’s something I use every day,” she explains, adding that the success of her company’s new software integration hinges on establishing and maintaining relationships.
Diep says these engagement best practices, coupled with her leveled-up communication skills, have allowed her to effectively explain the project to internal subject matter experts. She’s been able to convey to colleagues from across the company, from IT to accounting, how transitioning to a new enterprise system will impact (and improve) their processes and the company’s overall core business practices.
Colorado, Classmates and Community
Diep says she attended 95% of her engineering management classes in person while living in Denver. The rest were completed online, after moving across the country to take the PepsiCo promotion. Online or off, though, she says the EMP community was memorable.
One of her favorite professors was Dr. Daniel Moorer, scholar in residence and professor of engineering practice. Moorer, who has a doctorate in aerospace engineering, remains active in the industry in addition to his teaching.
“He always asked probing questions which facilitated great class discussions,” she says of learning with Moorer. “His lessons made me consider and adapt my approach to my day-to-day work.”
Diep also enjoyed learning from her classmates, those sitting next to her and those videoing in from other cities and states.
“If I were to ever want to leave my current company, I have people I can network with now,” she explains, adding that her classmates have diverse professional backgrounds. “A lot of them work in the aerospace field and manufacturing. Some in software or even academia. We even had a couple of entrepreneurs.”
The Endless Possibilities of EMP
The diversity of Diep’s classmates says a lot about the versatility in CU Boulder’s Engineering Management Program. Available on-campus or online, the engineering management degree is flexible not only in schedule and format but also with course selection.
As an EMP student, you’re required to take 10 courses: five core classes and five electives. With dozens of options on the electives list, you can truly build a graduate experience tailored to your professional goals. Whether you’re interested in leadership-level jobs in manufacturing like Diep or want to grow your career in project or supply chain management, you’ll find courses that will prepare you for your next challenge.
With all her experience in manufacturing engineering and consumer goods, Irene Diep says, without a doubt, earning a master’s degree in engineering management has helped her career go in new directions—before she even graduated.
“Many of my classes altered how I approach people and situations, and that’s something I could not have done on my own,” she says. “I've had five different roles with my company since I started the Program, and I have EMP to thank for adding to my professional toolkit.”
To learn more about earning your master’s in engineering in engineering management online (or on campus) from CU Boulder, please visit the EMP website or contact: Kendra.Thibeault@colorado.edu or call 303.492.0954.