From architecture to the dot-com era, Robert Edgell wore many hats before coming to SUNY Poly in fall 2013. Now an assistant professor of technology management, his architectural goal is to design and deliver instruction that will help tomorrow’s business leaders learn how to create marketing strategies that will not only survive, but thrive.
“I was really in love with being an architect, and the idea of creativity and design has always been the consistent theme of my life,” he says. “On the surface, my career path can look a little crazy, but if you dig beneath the surface, you’ll see there is this arc of creativity and innovation that’s been following all throughout.”
After working as an architect for about eight years, Edgell decided to go back to school and earn an MBA. For that, he went to Columbia University, but while in New York pursuing the degree he befriended people in a field that would forever change both his perspective and his life.
“I met all these really cool people who had been working in the media, and I started thinking about other possibilities. What I liked about media was that it was, like architecture, cultural; it dealt with cultural issues. I felt like there was something that I could connect with, versus say, going into investment banking.”
Edgell’s original plan of returning to architecture after completing his MBA was thrown a curveball due to a downturn in the architectural field at the time. So, when international multimedia giant Bertelsmann came knocking with an offer, Edgell decided it might be time to switch gears; he began working for the company through its senior executive development program.
“For two years, I spent half my time going back and forth between Germany and the United States. At first it was kind of glamorous. I would arrive in Germany and there would be a Mercedes waiting for me,” he recalls. “I was absolutely amazed. But after a while, the novelty of it all just sort of wore off.”
Edgell was then put in charge of managing the company’s group of mail-order book sales clubs, a corporate cluster that included the well-known Book-of-the-Month Club and a number of other similar entities.
“That’s how I got into the whole online world,” he says. “That was around the point that the whole digital revolution was starting to happen, and we were leading the charge to try and put the book clubs online because we knew that was going to be a model for the future. Never mind that Amazon was going to essentially destroy the book club industry.”
Making his debut into the online world, Edgell worked to develop online concepts for book clubs and as more and more people in the industry started moving to the West Coast as “dot-com 1.0” hit its stride, so did he, with a company that liked his work in the online club industry and wanted him to bring it to their proposed venture: an online car club. However, it was an experience that Edgell says turned out to be more “smoke and mirrors” than a legitimate business plan, the downfall of many a company during the dot-com heyday at the end of the 20th century. Seeing the writing on the wall, he left to try his hand at consulting. Months after his departure, Edgell’s gut feelings about the smoke and mirrors of many a dot-com company would prove disastrously true, as the industry collapsed in 2000.
“It was after I had left the car club but before the dot-com bubble burst that a friend of mine from my days at Columbia contacted me. She was at the American Management Association and they were looking to create courses on the digital industry,” he says. “She asked me to come develop courses for them, and they hired me as an instructor for their executive seminars. I also developed a couple of courses for them, and one was on digital branding and marketing. It was kind of a turning point for me, when I realized I really liked doing this.”
Seeing a future in being an architect of curriculum and young minds, Edgell knew he would need to go on for his Ph.D. if he was to continue down this academic path. At that time, his previous employer, Bertelsmann, made an investment in the Universität St. Gallen in Switzerland to set up a media research institute and a media industry-focused MBA focused. Edgell was brought in as executive director, an opportunity that also allowed him pursue his Ph.D.
“So there I was, doing both things,” he says. “It all just fell into place.”
Completing his Ph.D. in 2007, he left teaching in Switzerland behind and taught for a time in San Francisco before coming to SUNY Poly.
“It was ‘Institute of Technology’ that really attracted me,” he says. “It’s my understanding that they really want it to become the MIT of the public higher education system in New York State. That was very exciting for me. It’s being someplace that is new and growing and changing and I’d like to be an architect of some of that.”
In both his graduate strategic planning and undergraduate organization behavior courses, Edgell teaches students what they will need to function in senior level positions of a company. That includes not only a business strategy that will allow the organization to survive, but how to step away from the solitude of the computer screen and work together as a team. He hopes that students walking out of his classes will do so with a view of everything as a system, and an understanding that in that system, it’s not just about humans interacting with each other, but humans interacting with technology. And that technology could be a computer, a tablet, or it could be a book or the very building they sit in – anything that’s man made and doesn’t exist in nature.
“If you . . . analyze the network that people are embedded with, who they are, the technology they have access to, you’ll likely know what they are able to do or not do . . . I want my students to come away with that. That network is where power rises from.”