TLI Student Snapshot: Ali Akbari

It’s been a long path to graduation for Ali Akbari ‘24. Ali hails from Iran, where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. TLI was exactly the kind of leadership program he wanted as a way to advance his career, but with relations between our two countries being on the frosty side, he knew that getting a visa to come to school here was going to take some patience. 

He persevered, though, and now that he’s wrapping up his M.S. in. Management of Technology, he looks back on what led him to TLI, his enthusiasm for the program, his connection with fellow students, and the help he got from folks along the way.


Q: Hi Ali! Please tell us a bit about your background and what drew you to TLI.

A: I'm originally from Iran. I did my bachelor’s degree there, in Mechanical Engineering. After that, I joined a company called KTNG [Korea Tobacco and Ginseng] in Tehran. I worked there as a production supervisor for about nine years. 

After that long I felt it was time for a change in my life, and I wanted it to be a big change.  In choosing a program, I wanted something related to my degree and my working experience, and also to be useful for my future. 

So I started searching for different programs, different universities. I found the webpage for TLI while I was checking all the universities and I saw there was a program called Management of Technology. That’s exactly what I was looking for.

I was a supervisor at my job. Any supervisor who wants to get promoted, they need to learn leadership and management skills. This program had that, and there was a technology component as well. I've worked in a technological environment and I'm coming from an engineering background, so it seemed like a good fit.

I did interviews for the program and asked questions. And then I chose to come to this program in 2022 and I’ll finish next month. 

Q: The company you worked for, KTNG, what did it produce?

A: KTNG is actually one of the biggest cigarette producers in the world. I was a production supervisor in tobacco manufacturing. But I don’t smoke myself.

At that time, the situation at the company wasn’t very good; it was a Korean company and because of US sanctions against Iran, they were thinking about reducing their activity in the market and maybe closing down the branch. They have production in Russia, Indonesia, Turkey and Iraq I think. And they have a sales office in the United States.

Q: Was  it difficult for you to get the visa to come over as a student?

A: Yeah, especially students from Iran. It’s a stressful process and you have to produce a pile of documents and you say, Hey, this is my background. They check your documents and check your background and check your resume, and then they grant you a visa. 

I originally wanted to join TLI in 2021. I went to the embassy in 2021. But there were a lot of delays in the process, so eventually I emailed the TLI people and staff and said, hey, I didn't get the visa yet, so I have to come next year.

Q: That must have been difficult.

A:  Yes, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I was supposed to be here a year sooner than I actually arrived.

Q: And you're in your second year in the MOT program, correct?

A: Yes, MOT, in my last semester.

Q: I understand you weren’t able to take part in the international trip due to visa issues.

A: Yeah, because I'm on a single entry visa, I couldn't join the other students for the international trip. Well, I could join them, but if I exit the United States, I have to go back to the embassy and apply for a visa again. I don't want to go through all that again.

I explained my situation to the people at TLI. Judy [Pennington, MOT program fellow] was very helpful and told me, “We are going to send you to a domestic visit instead. We are looking for a substitute program for you that will fulfill the international trip requirement. We can send you somewhere by yourself.”

She asked me about the companies and places I would like to visit. I told her my interests, the industries I like to visit and I told her more about my work background.

She came back and said, “Okay, we had some communication with Deloitte Company. They have a smart factory in Wichita, Kansas. Would you like to go there?” And I said, yes, I'd like to go there. 

I visited their smart factory about 10 days ago. It was amazing. I really liked it. 

Q: What did you see there?

A: It  was really fascinating, really closely related to my experience in operations and manufacturing. 

The smart factory is a factory that, to the greatest extent possible, is operated by computers and robots, and all the systems are as fully automated as you can make them. Everything is connected. You can control the whole process from your management room and you can have all the data in real time. 

I remember when I was working in manufacturing, at the end of the month we had to go to warehouses and check the inventory and the amount of each raw material. But at a smart factory, all that information is available to the management team in real time, minute to minute because every piece of it is connected. 

They utilize AI chat bot on their machinery in an extremely sophisticated way. For example, when the operator was working with the machine and saw an error or problem, they could chat with the machinery and say, “Hey, I see this problem. How can I solve it?” The AI interface had been loaded with all the manuals, all the technical background and data connected to the machinery; it would reply, okay, when you see this, go and check these particular things and it should solve the problem. You have to change this part, you have to press this button. It was giving real time solutions and it was amazing.

Q: What were some of the other applications for that technology?

A: They have been developing solutions for smart warehousing as well. We don't have them in Minnesota, but there are Amazon Fresh stores where there is no cashier, there are no employees. You scan your Amazon account at the entrance, you go to the market. When you take anything, you put it in your cart. The price will be deducted from your account and you can just take it and walk out of the store. 

Deloitte wants to leverage this technology for warehouses. When an employee enters the warehouse, they can take whatever they need; the sensors and the cameras will understand who took what at what time and make the deductions in inventory.

So if someone needs a spare part, or needs to draw from a raw material and take it from the warehouse, it can be subtracted from the warehouse inventory at that moment. It was amazing. 

You can use a virtual environment to help with repair and maintenance on the machinery. They are able to create a digital twin of the factory on the production line. They test everything on the digital twin. They will run the machinery in this virtual environment for a year, two years, three years and see which parts are going to break. And they can predict that ten months down the road, this part is likely to fail. 

Q: What do they produce at the smart factory?

A: For the most part, it’s a test bed for the technology.  They do produce a product called Smart Rover, a little car, an educational kit for children. Kids can learn some low level coding to control the car, but it is not a mass production item, more of a business-to-business project between Deloitte and other institutes and schools. 

The smart factory is not geared to produce things for the consumer market. It’s more of an introduction of the smart factory model to the clients.

Q: Now that you've almost completed the program, how did you feel you benefited?

A: We’re living in an era when  technology is moving in fast forward and everything in technology advancement is changing so quickly.  I do believe everybody needs to go and study somewhere every 10 or 20 years because of the speed of technological advancement. 

I’ve learned a lot from the program. I did my Bachelor’s 13 or 14 years ago. A lot had changed in that time. No PowerPoint and computers were used in class then, there was no Zoom and no video recording. So everything was new to me coming into the program.. 

The method of teaching, the method of learning, was perfect for the subject matter. What we’ve learned about how to use technology to improve management processes has been amazing. 

Q: Tell me about your capstone project. What did you choose, and how is it going?

A: I was really struggling with choosing the subject, because usually a capstone is identifying a problem in a company, research about that problem and looking for the solutions. And at the end you make recommendations to solve that problem. 

But as international students, we are not allowed to work off campus on F1 visa, so it is a little bit challenging for us to choose a topic for our capstone because we don't work in a company. 

I reached out to TLI instructors and told them, Hey, I have this problem. I don't know what to choose. And Judy helped me so much; she said, okay, let me talk to some companies. We have some connections. 

[TLI Operations Director] Travis [Thul] helped me too, they started contacting the people they know. And Judy told me she found a research opportunity at Land O'Lakes Company. 

So I met with some Land O'Lakes managers. First I had a meeting with their CTO here. Then after learning about my work experience, he introduced me to their supply chain manager. I described what I wanted to do, and he introduced me to their supply chain IT manager. 

And they said, okay, sure, we have a project related to supply chain reporting –  they were looking for a way to speed up a reporting process. So currently I'm working on that project in Land O'Lakes company for my capstone. 

The TLI staff and especially Judy and Travis, were so helpful. They were so supportive. When I wanted to choose my capstone topic, they felt my situation. They helped me so much.

Q: It sounds like Judy and Travis were very attentive.

A: Yes, and that’s been true since my early days here. Coming over to a place where the culture was different and where I knew nobody, was difficult. It was a big shock for me. I wanted to look for a student job but I didn’t know where to start. Should I send my resume to someone? Should I try to arrange interviews? 

But TLI again, especially Travis, was so supportive. I remember one day Travis showed up and said, “Hey, I'm Travis. If you're looking for anything, if you need any help, if you’re looking for a student job, just tell me”. And I told him, that's exactly what I need nowadays. I'm looking for a job. And he said, “Okay, I will help you”.

He got my resume. And just two days after that he told me, okay, we are looking for a student worker here at TLI, tech support for our faculty. And that was great, but the weekly hours weren’t enough for me.  

And Travis said, okay, because you have an engineering background, we have another program at TLI, it is called Electrification training for engineers. You can join that program as a T.A. in our lab. And I joined Electrification Lab, and that’s where I’m working now. 

I know we all have to navigate the system and it’s difficult. But TLI made the process a lot easier. 

Q: You’re due to graduate next month. What are you thinking about in terms of your next step?

A: I’ve been sending my resume to different companies. I hope to land something soon.

Q: Was there anything that surprised you about the United States or about Minnesota once you'd gotten here?

A: The winters are terrible. Not this last one, but the one before was shocking for me. But I have to admit, I was surprised by how people are kind here. I really like the nice people here. They're supportive, they're kind. 

There are a lot of emotional shocks when you’re away from your family, your friends, your culture. When you move to a new country, you don't have any friends. You don't know what the next step of your life is. You don't even know where you are going to live. You don't know what your new home looks like. In the early days after immigration you don't have a car.

So you have to adapt to the new environment. And that's a big shock.  That was tough for me. And I remember I was homesick at the first days and I missed my friends so much. Yeah. But anyway, I got used to it. 

Q: Have you made some friends since you've been here? 

A: Yes, I have 12 friends at my class! I have some Iranian friends too. There is an Iranian community here in the Twin Cities. 

The Iranian New Year, by the way,  is on Tuesday.

Q: I didn’t know that! Happy New Year! 

A: Thank you. Thank you. So we have our New Year's and we have a ceremony and parties here.

The Iranian calendar is based on the solar calendar, with the beginning of spring, and follows the zodiac signs. 

Q: Have you been in contact with people back home, your family?

 A: Yes. Every day I talk to my family. They're so excited for me.  I talk to my friends maybe once a week, twice a week. Thanks to technology, we can make video calls. 20 years ago it would have been much more isolating.

Q: We appreciate the time you’ve spent talking with us during a very busy time. Congratulations on the upcoming graduation, Ali. And best of luck to you. 

A: Thank you.