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The Power of Empathy

It is easy for Michael Miller to recount the most important lesson he learned in Northwestern's MBA + MS in Design Innovation (MMM) program. It's a skill he leverages every day as a program manager at Google.

When Michael Miller (MMM ‘20) thinks about the most important lesson he learned from his graduate school experience, one word comes to mind: Empathy.

Miller is a program manager at Google and a graduate of Northwestern's MBA + MS in Design Innovation (MMM) program — a dual-degree program between Northwestern Engineering and the Kellogg School of Management. He said the most important thing he took from the classroom back into the workforce is the ability to step into someone else's shoes when envisioning new products and services.

Michael Miller“Every project we did was all about empathy,” Miller said. “Getting at the root of what someone is thinking, what they're feeling, what they're trying to solve, that is just a critical skill that has helped me in every single interaction I have.”

Miller works for Google Cloud. That section of the company provides a range of services that empower businesses with tools for everything from data storage to security and data analytics to artificial intelligence and machine learning.  

Even in the data-driven world of corporations and business-to-business technology, having genuine empathy for the customer’s current situation is the key to success, Miller said. 

“If I'm meeting with a person, I’m thinking, ‘What are they focused on? What are they trying to get out of it? What am I solving for this stakeholder?’” said Miller, who joined Google in 2022. “That’s the kind of empathy I'm really trying to dig into.”

Miller joined the MMM program three years after earning a bachelor’s degree in economics and financial mathematics. He lived in Chicago at the time and considered pursuing an MBA at Kellogg. When he toured the Northwestern campus, he was paired with a guide in the MMM program.

“I was obviously interested in wanting to hone my business acumen,” he said. “My guide kept talking about dialing in on design innovation and how MMM approaches it, working with clients and working really hands-on with design thinking. That was something I hadn't thought a lot about before.”

Miller was hooked.

He left his job as a consultant with accounting firm Ernst & Young and joined the next MMM cohort. Classes like Research, Design, Build and Business Innovation Lab gave him hands-on experience with industry partners. Throughout those classes was a constant emphasis on empathy through the principle of human-centered design.

That principle teaches that the way to create useful products and services is to start with the end user in mind and then conduct in-depth research to investigate the pain points in their lives. 

Miller said that approach fits well with the natural curiosity he has for people and their problems.  

“Trying to continue to be curious throughout whatever you're doing, whatever you're working on, unlocks so much more potential for other areas to look at,” he said. “It’s all about staying curious and digging in a little deeper to what you’re trying to solve.” 

When Miller graduated, he wanted to work in business-to-business (B2B) technology. His first job was a solutions program manager at Cloudfare, a technology security company. Both that and his current role gave him the B2B tech experience he was looking for. 

What he wasn't expecting was to be a bit of a consultant as well. That, he admitted, goes back to the empathy he learned in MMM.

"Working at Google Cloud sometimes feels like more than just a software business or an infrastructure business," Miller said. "(Clients) are looking to us not only to provide the services but also to show them how to turn their company into a software company. I think that is what's really interesting about being in the B2B space. It's not just the sales, it's the consulting, it's the partnerships, and it's the long-term planning."

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