Published: Jan. 7, 2022

Sam TobeyAs a project manager for the healthcare technology company Medtronic, Sam Tobey works at the cutting-edge of biomedical engineering in Boulder, Colorado. In his role, Tobey helps to develop new surgical tools for use across many different areas, including general, gynecologic and thoracic surgery.

A recent graduate of the Master of Engineering in Engineering Management Program at CU Boulder, Tobey enjoys working with colleagues outside of the usual engineering realm while remaining hands-on in the engineering process.

It’s a career that not only satisfies his engineer’s passion for building things and solving problems but also one that he finds incredibly fulfilling, knowing that he is helping to improve the quality of life for many people.

"When I learn that one of our new devices has been used on a human for the first time and how it helped that patient, it's really rewarding,” says Tobey.

Despite Tobey’s passion for biomedical engineering, the field wasn’t always on his career radar. 

Healthcare Engineering—A Fast-Moving Industry

As the son of engineers and with a passion for science, technology and math, Sam Tobey always knew he wanted to be an engineer.  While studying mechanical engineering as an undergraduate at CU Boulder, he set his sights on a high-flying career in aerospace engineering. However, an internship in that industry taught him that aerospace engineering didn't quite move fast enough for him.

“I thought that my direction was going to be aerospace,” says Tobey. “I wanted to do airplanes and satellites, but then I did an internship in the aerospace industry. I was unimpressed with the speed of the projects. Also, I like to see the 'big picture' when I'm working on a project. As an intern in the aviation industry, I didn't feel like I had a clear vision of the grand scheme of things.”

Unsure of his next step, a chance meeting at a career fair introduced him to the world of biomedical and healthcare engineering.

“I was able to get in with a couple of medical device companies' subsequent engineering internships,” says Tobey. “That's where I found my niche. While the projects are long and still heavily regulated, it is faster than aerospace. I also feel like I am building something that I know is going to improve somebody's quality of life every day.”

Based on his experience of moving his focus from aerospace to healthcare engineering, Tobey advises fellow engineering graduates to take their time when selecting the industry they want to specialize in.

“If you are lucky enough to know where you want to take your career right after graduation, then more power to you,” says Tobey. “But for those engineers who are still trying to find their way, they should absolutely work in a couple of different industries. Take your time to find that niche that you are dedicated to and in which you can make a difference.”

Biomedical Engineering: Seeing The Bigger Picture

Despite now working in the biomedical engineering field, Tobey has no regrets about following a mechanical engineering path.

“I don't regret the choice of mechanical engineering,” says Tobey. “It helped me understand more holistically what systems thinking needs to happen to build a product that works where there are hundreds of moving pieces.”

This desire to understand the “bigger picture” also contributed to Tobey’s decision to return to study for his Master of Engineering in Engineering Management degree at CU Boulder.

“I realized that I was interested in all the different functional areas of the biomedical engineering field,” says Tobey. “There are so many different people and different groups that are needed to develop, manufacture, regulate, market, and sell a medical device. So I applied for the Engineering Management Program at CU Boulder because I knew it would help me get a better understanding of the bigger picture.”

This approach helped Tobey move from a research and development role into a broader project management position.

"I wanted a higher-level understanding of how to develop a product," says Tobey. "Instead of being a subject matter expert in a singular thing and being a mile deep and an inch wide in my knowledge, I wanted to be a mile wide and an inch deep, and have my fingers in all the different pies.”

Studying for an Online Engineering Management Degree Versus an MBA

As a graduate of CU Boulder’s Engineering Management Program, Tobey is often asked why he selected the EMP route instead of studying for an MBA.

“I didn't want to lose my engineering focus,” says Tobey. “I didn't necessarily want to go into marketing or finance. Instead, I wanted to become better at leading technical organizations and leading technical projects. An MBA may have taught me how to be a project manager. But an engineering management degree helped me understand how to be a leader in the fields that are going to make technical breakthroughs with companies like Medtronic—things that are going to blow people’s minds.”

Essentially, the EMP degree allowed Tobey to grow within the company while still following his passion.

“I want to stay involved,” says Tobey. “I am not going to lead from a position where I don't get my hands on the device. I don't want to just have numbers in front of me that say this project costs this much, is going to deliver this much revenue, therefore let's prioritize it over that one. I want to get out to the manufacturing line. I want to get into the Operating Room.”

Why CU Boulder?

Growing up in Littleton, about an hour south of Boulder, Tobey quickly admits that he is incredibly lucky to have been raised, educated and employed in Colorado.

“I made it to California for a single summer and missed Colorado so much that I came back as fast as I possibly could," says Tobey.

As well as being Tobey’s “local” school, he has family connections to CU Boulder.

“My parents are alumni of CU Boulder,” says Tobey. “So again, there was a little bit of history and the implicit bias that I wanted to be a Buff.”

As an undergraduate, Tobey was also attracted to CU Boulder because of its reputation as a great engineering school with an incredible campus.

“It has that great outdoorsy feel,” says Tobey. “I knew that I was going to be able to find ways to be motivated outside of the classroom to get out and do things that are beyond academics. So I joined the rowing team here in Boulder, and that's actually where I met my wife. It was the best decision I made in my undergrad years because it kept me physically fit and gave me a good core of friends that I still see regularly.”

Online Engineering Management Master’s Degree

Despite working full-time in his R&D role at Medtronic as he was studying for his master’s degree, Tobey was able to do some of his studies on CU Boulder’s campus.

“I was kind of doing a hybrid option,” says Tobey. “I signed up as an online student, but whenever possible, I would try to make it to campus. The classes started after normal working hours, and so I was able to make it down there. I'm a person who engages better when I’m able to be in the same room with people.”

While Tobey preferred to attend classes on campus, he is quick to admit that online learning didn’t present too much of a learning curve.

“Obviously, spring of 2020 was the only semester where I had to do it exclusively online because that was the start of the pandemic,” says Tobey. “I think that presented a little bit of a learning curve for everybody. But honestly, I thought it was easy enough to log in and follow the Program.”

Tobey particularly appreciated the live online classes due to the high levels of engagement with the professors and fellow students.

“It helps so much when you are having a conversation, and you can stop and ask a question or go down a tangent,” says Tobey.

Optimizing Online Learning

Tobey highlights how technologies adopted by many people during the pandemic have made online learning more accessible.

“Technologies like Zoom have made a huge difference and helped people connect online,” says Tobey. “If I was in the Program today, I wonder if I would spend so much time on campus.”

While Tobey admits that there are additional challenges for students not used to online learning, he offers some excellent advice for staying engaged.

“I think just some of the basic best practices of online learning are courtesies like turning your camera to stay engaged with your professor. It can make a huge difference in the value you get from a class,” says Tobey. “It’s also important to make sure that you keep yourself accountable and do the pre-reads. I would say the last thing is just to make sure that you have that time dedicated for those asynchronous classes that you can take any time. I only took one, but it was way more helpful when I said, ‘OK, Tuesday nights are the night that I'm going to do that.’ That way, I didn't always put it off until Sunday at 4 p.m. and have to rush things."

Engineering Confidence

Tobey believes graduating from the Engineering Management degree Program proved to both himself and his employers that he was heading in the right direction in his career.

“I was an R&D engineer throughout my Program," says Tobey. "Completing the Program showed my leaders at Medtronic that I was dedicated and that project management was absolutely the career path that I wanted to go down. It allowed me to go to my future boss and say, 'You should give me a chance as a project manager working on these high level and important assignments.’”

Tobey highlights how working with engineers from other industries while in the Engineering Management Program has paid dividends in his career at Medtronic—both for both him and his employers.

“Working with engineers from other fields gave me a real insight into how other industries get work done,” says Tobey. “I’ve been able to take this experience and factor it into making medical devices faster, better and cheaper. “

Tobey believes this has made him a more creative engineer.

“I think it gave me an ability to think about things in a creative manner not necessarily dictated by my colleagues at Medtronic," says Tobey. "So instead of asking them how they would have done things, it gave me the confidence to go out and try something new.”

A Day in the Life of a Biomedical Engineer

According to Tobey, a typical day for him depends on what stage of product development a team is working on.

“Right now, we're working on moving a product through the final verification and validation exercises to generate the evidence to submit to regulatory bodies,” says Tobey. “At this point, it is really about firefighting. What is the largest issue that is going to derail us or delay our schedule? It involves going out and making sure that you are working with every functional group to understand what you need. It’s about collaboration and making sure that everybody is moving in the same direction.”

The early stages of a project are more about planning.

“This helps us understand who our stakeholders are in order to be collaborative so that no one feels like their opinions are left out,” says Tobey. “This helps keep everyone motivated and ensure projects stay on scope.”

Tobey's favorite part of the job is when a device is finally placed in the hands of a surgeon.

“Next month, we’ll be asking surgeons to perform certain procedures for the first time using a new medical device on a model,” says Tobey. “We’ll ask them: ‘Were you able to do this procedure? Was it superior to the technology that you currently have? And does it meet your needs for safety and efficacy?’ To hear surgeons give us feedback about all the hard work that the team has put in is the best part of the job and incredibly rewarding.”

Career Progression

Tobey hopes the leadership skills and creative strategies he developed while studying for his master's will see him progress further in his career.

“I want to work at a level where instead of managing individual products, I’m able to work at that portfolio level,” says Tobey. “How are we going to find the synergies between our robotics group and our stapling group and our electrosurgical group? How can we benefit each other and be more collaborative? How can we find ways to jump ahead of our competitors and essentially become a one-stop shop for our healthcare professionals?”

Learn More About the EMP

Visit the Program page on our website, to learn more about how a Master of Engineering in Engineering Management from CU Boulder can help you develop your career as an engineer while climbing the management ranks of your organization. You can speak with an advisor or request more information by contacting: or call 303.492.0954.