THE INTERSECTION OF BUSINESS AND PHOTONICS TECHNOLOGY
MILTON CHANG of
Incubic Management is the
author of Toward
president of Newport and
New Focus, and is on the
boards of several
companies. He is a trustee
of Caltech and has served
on the SEC Advisory
Committee, NIST Visiting
Committee, and the
authoring committee of the
National Academy’s report
on optics and photonics.
He is a fellow of the IEEE,
OSA, and LIA. Direct your
and career questions to
Practice intrapreneurship to prepare
for any career in photonics
Photonics technologies are found in
a wide range of products and play a
part in almost every industry, evolving
from “solutions looking for problems”
to “problems looking for novel photonics solutions.” This trend means we will
have more opportunities for jobs, innovation, and starting our own companies.
Let’s explore how we can steer our career strategy to capitalize on this trend.
The financial outlook for wage-earn-ers has been less than positive for some
time. In most parts of the world, there
is greater concentration of wealth in the
hands of a few and a shrinking middle class. In the lingo of
Americans are earning
money in a deflationary
economy, where wages
are falling in real buying
power. In other words,
engineers who pursue a
pure technical career track
are losing out. We must
rethink our careers to get
a fair shake and a piece of
the action in this techno-logical- and innovation-driven economic boom.
Using my personal
experience as a case
in point, with a PhD, I
landed a good-paying
job in an aerospace com-
pany making $18,000 a
year. That was 1969 and,
with that, we could afford
a new house in a nice middle-class neighborhood, and my wife could be a stay-
at-home mom to raise two children. Today, an engineer has to earn at least three
times what I earned in equivalent dollars to buy the same house. With that 20: 20
hindsight, I can now say an engineer must think strategically to improve their
economic outlook and gain control of the destiny of their career.
Students who aspire to become engineers can follow a straightforward road-map by first building a solid foundation in STEM and achieving academic excellence. That can bring a desirable job and help to launch a high-trajectory career.
Regardless of the career you choose, always opt for a job that provides project
management responsibilities to enhance the opportunity to learn and grow. A
corollary is to never take a job that is routine in nature, even if it offers a higher
salary or an attractive compensation package. Rapid changes in technology will
likely make you obsolete.
Then, you must keep up with technological advances and perform to your
utmost for your company. You will get recognition for doing so and gain the
opportunity to take on greater project management responsibilities.
The skills you pick up can provide a hedge against technological obsolescence because you will be able to hire and manage more-current
engineers to do the cutting-edge work to satisfy the needs of your
company, even if you fail to keep up with technology.
Going one step further, you may also want to take on intrapreneurial or commercialization and business development responsibilities. Doing so provides you the experience to start and run your
own business because running a business unit within a company has
many similarities to running a standalone business.
Starting a company can provide you the ultimate control of your
own destiny. Making the move from having a regular paycheck will
not be an easy decision because of the high failure rate of startup
companies. Intrapreneurial experience can bring a degree of self-confidence to go forward, and the experience can help you avoid many
of the common mistakes to improve your chance of success.
If you do decide to start a company, use the low-risk startup model
I have been advocating. That is, start in a well-defined niche in an
industry you know and manage with prudence to grow your company over time. For sure, taking the plunge as some would suggest,
without proper preparation, is foolhardy. Learning on the job by
taking on managerial and intrapreneurial responsibility is a win-win for you and the company you work for.