Employees of the future need multiple skill sets across fields that were once seen as distinct.

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What will it take to launch a successful career — or keep an existing career humming along nicely – in a world where technology is becoming an integral component of nearly every industry? A sharp skill set, honed to suit a global economy.

“The last thing I wanted to do was go back to school,” says Zoe Zou. Zou graduated in 2012 with a degree in industrial design and worked as a UX designer for Microsoft.  “I was already working, so why pay for tuition to get another degree unless it’s really worth it?” she asked herself. Yet, she was fascinated by cutting-edge technology, business and entrepreneurship.

Then she heard from a friend about the Global Innovation Exchange, GIX, a new graduate program partnership between the University of Washington and China’s Tsinghua University, with foundational support from Microsoft, which blends technology, entrepreneurship and design thinking.  “It was a really new and different approach, and the courses and project-based education model really got me interested,” she says.

Courses on making physical prototypes, entrepreneurship, and programming — all in preparation to create a launch-ready product via group project. Students become innovation leaders with hands-on, project-based experience, ready for the 21st century workplace.

It’s necessary to prepare for the rapid technological change that will soon occur, says Vikram Jandhyala, co-executive director  of the Global Innovation Exchange. Jandhyala is a faculty member and former chair of UW Electrical Engineering, but also founded a venture-backed simulation company. “When change does come, it will come quickly, and the last set of changes may be so quick there won’t be time to respond,” he says. “This is the time to prepare and retool.”

Zou recently received her Master of Science in Technology Innovation as part of the first-ever GIX graduating cohort, made up of 37 students from 11 countries and regions around the world. Speaking at the graduation ceremony, Microsoft President Brad Smith congratulated the graduates for being part of a milestone moment, noting that “at a time when technology is sometimes used in ways that don’t necessarily bring out the best in humanity, you’ve shown us that technology can be a powerful force for good.”

Zou is now preparing to leave for China to earn her second degree — the 21-month extended Dual Degree combines MSTI with a Master of Engineering in Data Science and Information Technology. For the final six months of the MEDSIT, students attend Tsinghua University in Beijing — a chance to gain first-person experiences of China’s tech market and economic growth.

Zou feels prepared with the skills she needs for future career success. “Skills have to be constantly updated,” Jandhyala says. “It’s rational to be concerned about whether you’ll still have a desk in 10 years, or if it will be taken by artificial intelligence or a robot.”

Here are four skills needed for the future economy.

Ready for rapid innovation

“We train students who are going to innovate, and know how change happens,” Jandhyala says, in technology and business.

GIX immerses students in the culture of rapid prototyping, critique, and iteration, as teams collaborate with leading industry and nonprofit partners on projects to solve local and global real-world challenges. Students have access to one of the best makerspaces in the region with new-tech tools like 3D printers,  laser cutters, printed circuit board fabrication lab, and full wood shop for creation of physical prototypes, as well as a small wet lab space

“I worked in industry, so I know the difference between a school’s made-up project and a real-world problem project,” Zou says. “It’s nice to work with industry, have a sponsor and connect with them.”

One such program sponsor is Boeing HorizonX, which seeks out, encourages and invests in new ideas, products and other business ventures, by identifying and funding startups, global growth strategies and hosting internal and external accelerator and incubator programs.

For Boeing HorizonX, students first designed, then developed a mobile app improving air travelers’ experience in China, offering real-time flight status alerts and logs of users’ flights, along with Chinese airport navigation maps and tips. Boeing teams of engineers and others met up with GIX students on a monthly basis, to explain issues and help hone student solutions.

In the end, Logan Jones, vice president at Boeing HorizonX, was impressed with how the GIX team “identified better ways of doing things, the passion and speed with which these folks worked, and how they tackled problems.”

Cross-training

Employees of the future need multiple skill sets across fields that were once seen as distinct, Jones says. It’s important to learn about programming and privacy, artificial intelligence and makerspaces, supply chains and software.

At GIX, this means faculty come from a variety of UW departments and schools, including computer science, business, law, electrical engineering and human-centered design.

Students might come from business, economics, design or software – but they soon learn to understand and implement other fields. “They learn how to put teams together, and how to make money or have social impact,” Jandhyala says — using real-world examples, and learning from visiting speakers of both startups and more established companies.

The school’s mentoring program facilitates matches between more than 100 startup mentors and students seeking skills. Students might want to learn more about intellectual property, building teams, or the health care system, for example.

International expertise

International team experience is important, particularly for large global companies like Boeing, Jones notes. Zou’s team included members with four people hailing from China, Taiwan and India, with backgrounds in business, design, computer science and information science.

And although terms like globalization are on the political hot seat, global markets are key for business. Businesses need to know where and how to source manufacturing materials, Jandhyala says: “Everything made in country X probably has 60-70 parts made somewhere else.”

Job seekers also need to know how to design a product for different countries or cultures, while recognizing what’s unique about our own area of the world, Jandhyala says. Balancing the global and local is difficult, but can be done — so GIX students work with academic partners in Canada, Israel, Switzerland, India and beyond.

Human-centered design

In the design process, empathy is often a step in innovation; first, designers must listen to clients, customers and others to determine the problem, in order to reach a solution.

Yet empathy alone renders a business or individual able to understand — or to exploit.  “Empathy isn’t enough,” Jandhyala says — compassion is also necessary. “Compassion is empathy, plus a willingness to do good.”

GIX students listened carefully to Boeing’s experts, then worked quickly to incorporate expert opinions and feedback, Jones notes. They used empathetic problem-solving skills to hear the customer’s “pain point,” he says, and considers the”travel experience for passengers, from door to door.”

“Jobs which are more human centered are safer in the long term,” Jandhyala says, and while he notes that STEM and programming skills are important, “exponential technology” will soon revolutionize the workplace, mostly through automating jobs – such as chatbots taking over for phone service.

“The biggest take away was the confidence gained through the whole process,” Zou says. “Before, I considered myself a designer through and through, but now I’m more well rounded.”  She understands the complicated “why” behind requests from the engineer or the business team.  “I think from a perspective that allows me to make better decisions that will lead to better overall outcomes.” And that’s a unique skill, always in demand.

The Global Innovation Exchange is a collaboration between universities and industry partners from around the world focused on developing leaders in innovation. The founding academic partners are the University of Washington and Tsinghua University, with foundational support from Microsoft.