Building a network: The career journey of Irvine Sloan ‘05
A sibling rivalry drove Sloan to become the first person at Virginia Tech to earn simultaneous degrees in mechanical engineering and electrical and computer engineering, and he hasn't slowed his pace since.
Irvine Sloan ’05 has achieved a series of educational landmarks throughout his life that have shaped his journey. Twenty years into a highly diverse career, he has become an expert on topics ranging from patent law to agribusiness to energy policy.
His ability to think three-dimensionally has propelled him through two simultaneous undergraduate degrees and four master’s degrees and sometimes placed him in rooms where he initially felt out of place. But by seeing the challenges set before him from multiple angles, he has transformed unfamiliar environments into home court advantages.
Sloan grew up in a STEM-oriented family. His mother had majored in mathematics, and his father was a career mechanical engineer who had worked more than two decades for Dominion Energy. Despite those family ties, Sloan didn’t fully understand the connection between the math and science he was learning in high school and the engineering field in which he would eventually earn three of his degrees. The intersections became clearer when he joined Cooperating Hampton Roads Organizations for Minorities in Engineering (CHROME), an organization that introduces the idea of STEM careers to K-12 students who, like Sloan, demonstrated a scholastic aptitude for fields in which they were underrepresented.
While CHROME gave him a gentle push in the direction of engineering, it was the challenge of an older brother that fully energized him. Although his older brother is taller and more athletic, Sloan never felt defeated when he lost basketball games to him. Instead, he stayed on the hunt, looking for things he could do well, picking up new skills that would give him strength of his own. This included joining the varsity tennis team at his alma mater, Bethel High School in Hampton.
Sloan’s brother graduated high school first, choosing to enroll at the University of Virginia. Two years later, in January 2000, Sloan found a home for his growing interest in engineering while watching the Virginia Tech Sugar Bowl. Virginia Tech lost the football game, but won a new student. Sloan applied without even visiting the campus.
“Coming to Virginia Tech was more or less a leap of faith,” said Sloan. “It was partly a rivalry with my brother. It was also partly what I had seen on TV, because everyone was cheering and excited to be there. That was the moment in time I decided to shoot for Virginia Tech, and it was the only school I applied to.”
Finding a place in engineering
Selecting an engineering college was the first step, but Sloan still didn’t know exactly what direction to take within that field. His future began to crystallize when he became active with the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED), directed by Bevlee Watford. Part of that program includes the opportunity for incoming first-year students to come to campus early, which he seized. He arrived in Blacksburg mid-summer to take a few introductory classes.
CEED proved vital to his success as a student. Not only did it give him the opportunity to learn the pace of college life before the semester started, but he also gained a resource that would remain central throughout his career: a network.
“The influence of Dr. Watford and the CEED program was truly helpful,” said Sloan. “Coming from the eastern part of the state, having never really explored Virginia Tech, creating that family feel, made us very close. One of the things I find that corporations and university struggle with is creating the community. It can’t be a single entity. It has to be an ecosystem of support services.”
Following his first year in general engineering, Sloan chose to pursue a mechanical engineering degree. To make some money, he also applied to the campus co-op program, which gives students employment and immerses them into the professional and industrial world. He was hired to a job in the field of mechanical engineering, but he often had projects that required collaboration with electrical engineers. He was intrigued by the way the two groups sometimes struggled to work together.
Meanwhile, at the University of Virginia, Sloan’s brother was working toward an electrical engineering degree. When the two were home for the holidays watching the yearly football matchup between their two schools, they engaged in their own verbal spar pitting mechanical engineering against electrical engineering. The old sibling rivalry boiled up, and Sloan went back to campus with a new determination: He would get an electrical engineering degree in addition to the mechanical engineering degree he was already pursuing.
After the holiday break, Sloan met with his advisor and the department head for electrical engineering. Both of them thought his objective would be difficult and for good reason: What he was attempting had never been done before.
Sloan’s double-degree drive didn’t fully start until his junior year, so he had some catching up to do. The workload would be heavy, but he had help. Having remained connected to his CEED network, Sloan called on fellow students Troy Green and Matt Jackson, both electrical engineering majors.
“They said they loved what I was trying to do and they’d love to help out,” said Sloan. “They were a little bit further ahead, and they helped me catch up.”
The elevated course load brought an unexpected outcome: Sloan found that he was becoming much better at learning. Although his course load was nearly double that of his classmates, he retained the information from his studies more quickly in the high-volume environment.
“One semester, I was taking 24 credits. I don’t know how I did it,” he said. “I didn’t get straight A’s in every class, but my GPA actually got better the further I got into the program. What I realized was that it was easier to capture information. It’s like being a runner. If you try to run a marathon and you haven’t practiced, you’re going to fall out in the first five minutes. As you start using your mind more and more, you get better at it and it becomes easier to learn.”
After five years, he reached his goal. He had completed two degrees for a total of 186 credits while taking three semesters away from campus to complete co-ops. His average course load was 23.25 hours per semester. With that much knowledge in engineering, he received several job offers at the campus Engineering Expo, but he made another unusual choice: He chose a job in sales.
“My mechanical engineering advisor, Karen Thole, probably just shook her head,” he said.
Widening the network
Sloan was hired by Rockwell Automation, a company that manufactures and sells industrial automation hardware and software. His employer felt he could bring a unique perspective to the mechanical and electrical systems that the company provides its customers.
“They valued me as a problem solver. They sold both mechanical and electrical components, and I could see things from a systems perspective,” said Sloan. “The solutions I could put together wound up being pretty innovative and saved customers time and money.”
Being part of the business world opened his eyes to a host of new possibilities. For the next decade, he would move around a bit, deepening his understanding of the interdependent relationships between business practices, personal relationships, and the integration of engineering.
In 2014, Sloan accepted a position with the Baumer Group leading the company’s North American efforts in agriculture technology. Although he had a solid foundation in the principles of engineering and business, he was not as familiar with the science of farming.
“I knew nothing about agriculture,” he said. “I had never stepped foot on a farm, but I was responsible for building business relationships for Baumer’s advanced sensor technologies.”
One of his first calls was to the agriculture economics department at Purdue University for basic information about the agribusiness market. Then, he enrolled in a Master of Agricultural Economics program to learn more. He chose a dual-degree program that also allowed him to pursue a Master of Business Administration.
With his degrees and strong interpersonal relationships, he built an award-winning network for Baumer. After Sloan publicized that work, Swiss technology company ABB called him with a new challenge: building a network with senior executives in the energy industry. He discovered that the best place to meet those executives was at public utility commission hearings of the Illinois state government.
“Lo and behold, in typical engineer fashion, I walked into this commission hearing with my khakis and a polo. Everyone there is in a suit and tie, so I sat in the back,” said Sloan. “Toward the end of the hearing, this guy comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, young fellow. You’re new here, huh? What are you here for?’ I told him I was there to build relationships with executives and learn more about the electric utility industry. He told me that it might be helpful if I acquired some background in law and regulation.”
ABB gave Sloan the green light to enroll in the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law to pursue a Master of Science in Law, which deeply submerged him into the intersections of law, business, and technology. He didn’t want to be an attorney, but he did need to understand how utilities make money and how to navigate the world of contracts and electric utility regulation.
“Most engineers are absolutely terrified to step into the legal arena,” said Sloan. “I brought technical expertise to the commission hearings when they asked for expertise on different technical subjects. I also understood the legal and regulation piece.”
As he looks back over a career that has taken many unexpected twists and turns, Sloan considers the networks he has built to be his most valuable asset. Not only has he created communication channels for companies, but he has also made connections for himself. Among those networks is the advisory board of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, which he joined this past May. His role gives him ample opportunities to interact with current students.
“When I sit with students and talk, I can see it. Engineering students today are different than when I was at Virginia Tech. They are working in a hybrid environment. They’re not just focused on one thing,” he said. “I want to tell them what I learned, not to get hung up on the small picture, to continue to persevere, to build a network of people around you to help you through things. You don’t have to be the smartest person, but you do need to learn to ask for help.”