Ultimate is a sport that inspires players and fans alike because of its ability to develop and showcase the athleticism, skill, teamwork and character of its participants. The arc of the disc in flight, the opportunity for each individual to contribute equally to their team’s success, and the trust given to each player to know and uphold the rules make ultimate a sport that is embraced for its fun and excitement on the field and for the community beyond it.
What does a quote about ultimate—as in, Frisbee® or flying disc—have to do with business process management? For Professional Program in Business Process Management graduate Daniel Zakaria, a lot: The skills he uses on the playing field have helped him with his career thinking.
“Ultimate has been a part of my life since I started playing in my second year of high school,” Daniel explains. “Playing a competitive team sport has taught me a lot about collaboration with others from different backgrounds. The game continues to teach me to persevere through challenging situations. I have found these types of skills to be directly transferable to a workplace setting, where we often work in teams to achieve incredible things.”
It was early on in life that Daniel understood the importance of having a process when others are involved.
“Growing up, my younger brother and I often played with LEGO®, along with a variety of other toys,” he says. “While my brother was fascinated with building amazing creations, I was much more interested in how to clean up the pieces and put them away efficiently. Little did I know, this would be an early indicator that I would become very interested in processes and the way things worked and operated in the world.”
Engineering Business Improvement
“At the end of high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study when applying to universities,” Daniel says. “Due to the encouragement of my father, I decided to pursue a degree in industrial and systems engineering. My father had studied something very similar when he went to university, and he believed that I would enjoy this field of study.
“When I visited San José State University for the department tour, I was immediately attracted to the project-focused teaching approach of many of the courses. This type of ‘learning by doing’ aligned closely with my preferred learning style, and I immediately was hooked when I started taking my major classes!”
As a member of the student chapter of the Institute for Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE), Daniel toured manufacturing facilities and saw opportunities for process improvement.
“On different tours of manufacturing facilities, it was always interesting to learn how different products were made or packaged,” he recalls. “I began to notice that there were all types of processes that existed in these facilities, not just the physically observable ones. Little did I know, this was some of my early exposure to business processes.”
Even outside the traditional business environment, Daniel incorporated quality control and assurance in college and to his work. “As a peer mentor team leader, we had workshop development standards and scheduling processes that we used regularly; as a teaching assistant with Silicon Valley Education Foundation, there were grading and scoring processes; and as an informal education intern at the NASA Ames Research Center, we had several types of requests processes to ensure that we were able to keep our educational program running effectively for student visitors.”
But it was a role in program management at networking company Brocade (now a subsidiary of Broadcom) during his final year of undergraduate studies that opened his eyes to the field of business process management.
“I took a semester off from school and accepted a co-op position, where I worked full time at Brocade,” he says. “I supported two different departments with the deployment and implementation of a new Portfolio Project Management (PPM) software tool. I played a part in developing training and educational materials for how to use the new software and learned about all the various business processes, ranging from project schedule management to various accounting and budgeting processes. All of these different processes needed to be built into the tool in order to create dashboards that senior leaders would use for decision making.
“Working at Brocade really opened my eyes to processes that aren’t always obvious because of their integration with technology and business tools. It was a formative experience for my career path because I saw the opportunity to have process-improvement methodology exist in a business office setting.”
Finding Opportunity in Business Process Management
While Daniel was taking courses at San José State, he also received his Green Belt certification in Six Sigma, a set of improvement methodologies that focuses on reducing defects or errors in processes. “A Green Belt is one of the levels of professional certification,” he explains. “I took a graduate-level course for Six Sigma methodologies and fundamentals, which can be applied to help solve various workplace problems to drive improvements.”
Wanting to make sure the career path was the right fit, Daniel took a year after graduating to search for the role that made the most sense.
“When I started at Corsair, I almost immediately was tasked with searching for ways to optimize various internal processes within the R&D engineering department,” he tells me. “In this unique position, I had the opportunity to work on a variety of internal process mapping and improvement initiatives. Some examples include building request processes into different business tools, working with project managers to improve schedule management processes and implementing a new bug-tracking software solution.
“I dove deeper into the BPM focus as I recognized my own personal interest in supporting internal team members with these complex initiatives. I strove to make these various processes visible while being easy to manage and maintain.”
Daniel had gained a strong background in process mapping and modeling from his time in college, but was curious to learn more about the business side. That is what drew him to our Professional Program in Business Process Management.
“I researched the Business Process Management (BPM) professional program because I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of some of the different tools and methodologies that were out there,” he explains.
In addition to the required course Business Process Modeling and Design, Daniel selected electives that reinforced what he wanted to know about in the field.
“I chose elective courses that helped me better understand how to deploy new processes and technology systems within business solutions. I recognized the critical need to consider change management across a variety of efforts. Not only is there a technical side to change, but there is a people side and identifying the correct communication strategy is very crucial to driving successful changes,” he says.
“In addition, I also had been operating in roles that floated on the border between IT and business operations. Learning best practices about translating requirements between stakeholders would also be key for my career.”
Some of those best practices were presented by Dr. Brian Harman, whose section of the Business Process Modeling and Design course had a resonating impact on Daniel.
“From a conceptual perspective, a key takeaway for me was continuing to refine my skills in visual management—making the unseen processes visible,” Daniel lauds.
“Additionally, there was a focus on tailoring process models for the appropriate audience. We learned to strike the balance of just the right amount of information to present. The way that Dr. Harman led the course was also very impactful. He made learning very fun with his enthusiasm and own curiosity to learn. This energy is something that I continue to emulate to this day in order to drive gains with my clients or customers.”
This shared knowledge and interest carried over into learning from his peers in the online learning environment. “The course I completed online had a sharing and response component to foster learning. It was interesting to be able to take a class with people from all over the world, and I learned a lot from the stories and experiences that were shared.”
BPM in Different Industries
A few months after completing the professional program in 2019, Daniel became a business process specialist at Fisher Investments. A pivot to the financial services industry appealed to him as he continued to enhance his career path.
“I made the switch to have a new experience and join a team of folks working on process improvement initiatives,” Daniel relates. “One of the projects I immediately began supporting revolved around building different process maps to support customer relationship management (CRM) modernization. We worked with different stakeholders and future users of the software to map out the current state of processes in order to inform what the future state would look like. Outside of the process modeling, I also worked briefly with internal teams to create service-level agreements (SLAs) between client-facing operations teams and the internal production team.”
By the end of 2020, Daniel was onto his next career opportunity in the solar industry as a senior continuous improvement analyst with Borrego Energy. While he utilized the knowledge he gained in our professional program and tapped into his undergraduate education, Daniel also returned to the core of what he wanted to do.
“I chose to move to the renewable energy sector because I wanted to work in an industry that better aligned with my values,” he states. “This was my first time in a role where there was a heavy focus placed on coaching in the workplace, and I instantly fell in love with it.
“We were working with different internal leaders at various levels to define the problem-solving approach that teams would take, and coach or teach to that standard. This role challenged me: I had to pull heavily from my undergraduate toolkit of improvement methodologies to support the structure building that my team was doing. Simultaneously, I kept learning about new methodologies from my teammates!”
The ongoing learning process was something that Daniel enjoyed and has helped drive his success.
“I continued to lean on the process modeling techniques I learned through the BPM program,” he continues. “Whenever the opportunity arose to make complex processes visual to tell a story and facilitate learning, I looked to capitalize on it. There were times when a countermeasure identified involved a technology component. I was able to use some of the business requirements skills to communicate the technology needs between teams.”
Applying BPM in His Work Today and in the Future
“Change is constant in the workplace, so I definitely use the process modeling and change management methodologies,” Daniel answers when I asked him about how he continues to use the skills gained in our program in his latest work. In early 2023, he became a senior process improvement consultant for Valley Medical Center in Renton, Wash.
“I have worked in a few different manufacturing settings, financial services, construction and now in health care,” he says. “From experience, change is constantly happening, across all of these different industries. It continues to be important to define a change approach and to involve and engage the people who are impacted.
“There continues to be power in process mapping and modeling. For different types of learners, consuming a process visually can be easier to learn. Process modeling is a powerful technique when deployed and used for the appropriate audience.”
If change is a constant, how will Daniel know when to stop improving business processes for an organization? Is that even possible? With all of the business challenges and factors that exist, he doesn’t think so. He expects to always be learning something new to improve BPM.
“I recently joined a team of consultants that supports developing the problem-solving capabilities of our internal team members at Valley Medical Center, as well as the surrounding medical clinics,” Daniel tells me. “This role is similar to my previous one where a heavy focus is on internal capability-building of team members and engaging with those closest to the work to improve internal processes—in this case, to improve patient care.”
As he continues to learn about and how BPM challenges exist in this hybrid work environment, Daniel is confident that he can always lean into his education with us.
“The approach I take now is that the BPM tools I learned during the professional program are a part of my toolkit that I can pull from when appropriate. It’s also important that I consider my new team’s current standards and practices to continue to learn from the foundation that has been set, before iterating on improvements.
“I do strongly believe that the visual management and change management strategies I learned in the Professional Program in Business Process Management will play a key part in my success in this role.”
Daniel also has this advice for other students coming from a different field and those who may be unfamiliar with the different options for business process management in their careers:
“Be curious, humble and open to learning! BPM fundamentals can be applied across many different industries. Processes exist all over the world, and the techniques learned from this program have wide applications. Learning to become a lifelong learner has benefited me greatly, and seeking and learning from the expertise of others has contributed to my development. I am always eager to continue to learn from my peers and clients as I look to contribute to improvement in all aspects of my life.”