His Company Makes Best-Selling Robots Like the 'Roomba'

Jeffrey Beck, who graduated from NCE in 1986 with a mechanical engineering degree, is president of the home robots division of iRobot Corp.

The Newark College of Engineering (NCE) offers first-generation college students a practical education.  And for many NCE students, that practical education, when combined with hard work, becomes a pathway to professional success.  

Consider, for example, Jeffrey Beck, who was recently named an NCE Outstanding Alumnus. Beck earned a mechanical engineering degree in 1986.  His parents were born in Germany but immigrated to America. His family settled in West Paterson and he and his older brother were the first in their family to attend college. His parents instilled in him a strong work ethic and while an NCE student Beck worked at a printing plant as well at UPS. It was hard work, but he didn’t mind.

Looking back, Beck says what liked best about NCE was its emphasis on practical learning. His professors taught him how to apply science and emphasized hands-on engineering. His NCE education was also inter-disciplinary: though he majored in mechanical engineering, he took classes in an array of fields such as electrical engineering, computer science and chemical engineering.  Beck credits his professional success -- he is president of the home robots division of iRobot Corp.-- to that education. 

“Without the broad-based science background I received at NJIT, my career would not have been possible.”

After college, Beck worked as a mechanical engineer for some years. Then he earned his MBA at Boston University and moved into the management side of technology.  Now, as president of iRobot’s home division, the leader in the field, Beck manages the division’s overall strategy.  He oversees teams of engineers and managers who build the firm’s home-maintenance robots: Roomba, a vacuum cleaner, Scooba, a floor washer, Verro, a vacuum for swimming pools and Looj, which cleans roof gutters.  Beck’s division is also developing robots that will assist older people and allow them to live independently in their homes. 

Robots are complicated machines, says Beck, and creating one calls upon mastery of myriad fields. And that’s where his NCE education has stood him in good stead:

“A robot is created by integrating all the sciences,” he explains. “Robots are the ultimate in integrated engineered systems. Mechanical, electrical, materials and software engineering solutions all must operate in harmony to have an effective autonomous machine.  Because of my NCE education, I have a good understanding of those core technologies and can work with project teams and guide the company’s strategy.”

Beck noted that NCE tends to attract students who possessed a strong work ethic. Most of his college friends worked to help pay their way through NCE. It was not a college for “blue bloods,” he said. “We rolled up our sleeves and worked hard.”

Beck, for instance, fondly recalls his UPS job. He started at UPS loading and unloading trucks, a back-breaking job. He soon realized that package sorters had easier jobs and made more money. So he asked a UPS manager if he could become a sorter.  At that time, sorters had to memorize hundreds of zip codes. The manager  handed the young Beck a thick deck of flash cards, replete with zip codes, and told him to memorize them. If he passed the sorter's test, the manager told him, he’d get the job. If he failed it, he’d remain a truck loader.

 “The manager looked at me,” recalled Beck, “and said ‘good luck kid. It usually takes a year to memorize all those zip codes – unless of course you are one of those damn engineering students.’”

Beck, who was indeed one of those damn engineering students, memorized the zip codes in a week: He passed the test and got the job.

(By Robert Florida)

This story is tagged: alumni, nce, mechanical engineering, 1986, jeff beck . Or read more Feature Stories.