As engineers, we all have invested a number of years to attain our degrees after an intense curriculum of science, mathematics, and technology. The young engineer then goes to work for a firm that assigns him tasks as part of a project. Typically the engineer with defined tasks and deadlines is working more as a ‘technologist’ supplying his labor in this role.
As a technologist, his work- time is “owned” by the organization employing him and assigning him his next design and development tasks. There is little time left for him to think about other ideas outside his immediate assignments. In this environment, how and why does the mind of a gainfully employed design engineer transition to start thinking and acting as an entrepreneur?
In my case, the transition occurred during my second year of working in industry. Working beside colleagues who shared the desire to innovate on their own helped to spur entrepreneurial ideas. This first experience in entrepreneurship started in 1982 during my second year working in industry when a colleague and I decided to develop a 5,000 word, hand-held dictionary based on the Z80 (8-bit) processor. At the time there were no word-processor dictionary programs and we believed that such a device would be of great benefit to the users. As young engineers full of excitement and energy but lacking experience in the world of business, we decided to ask the opinion of then-MIT Professor (in entrepreneurship) Stanley Rich whose first reaction after seeing the dictionary was that of excitement, and he promised to get back to us a week later. When he met with us again a week later, he told us that the personal computer was going to be a passing fad just like the CB-radio and his initial excitement had faded.
As young engineers and inexperienced in the business world, we trusted the professor’s opinion rather than relying in our own instincts. We shelved our plans and did not pursue the matter any further. Three years later, Franklin introduced hand-held dictionaries that were very successful.
A few years later while working for a speech recognition company, a colleague and I decided to develop a digital stethoscope with sound recognition to detect specific diseased-sounds. We developed a prototype but we failed to raise capital despite repeated attempts and gave up after a year.
It was not until the third attempt that I finally succeeded as an entrepreneur. While working on a speech recognition project in the mid eighties, I lead the development of a DSP chip for our speech recognition system. The result of this project was a device with a general purpose set of programmable digital filters with high word resolution. It was decided to market the device to the outside world.
The success of this project and the growth of the DSP chip technology gave me the idea to organize seminars in DSP technology. With the company’s permission I organized and funded seminars in which I invited companies with DSP chips to join me and present their technology. The seminars were such a success that I decided to dedicate my efforts toward this endeavor. A few years later, I founded a conference and trade show in signal processing applications. The event resonated within the community and six years later it was the largest signal processing event in the industry. Miller Freeman (later to become part of CMP) acquired the property in the late 1990s.
My experience with the events company propelled me in 1994 to start an education company using the Internet as the medium of communication. This company was TechOnLine. It provided both education and access to evaluate products over the Internet. This company was acquired by CMP in 2005.
I believe that the metamorphosis in which the mind of the working engineer crosses the boundaries from a world of holding a safe job and a secured salary to that of a risk taker and becoming an entrepreneur does not occur overnight. People outside of the engineering profession don’t tend to regard engineers as “innovative” or “risk-takers.” The usual stereotype is the smart but conservative nerd who stays the course and doesn’t make waves.
In fact, the successful engineers are the ones who do challenge the status quo, have some creativity and are prepared to take on calculated risks. Industry needs employees like this, but these are also the qualities that typically comprise the entrepreneurial personality.
The opportunity to innovate and be entrepreneurial exists within many progressive firms. For those that don’t provide these sorts of opportunities to their creative minded employees, it is their loss. The experience gained as an employee provides the knowledge that the entrepreneur uses to forge his image of how the world should be, whether within the firm or outside on his own. The engineer who is not afraid to take a calculated risk should have this opportunity.
Success is never a guarantee. This is true for the dedicated employee or the entrepreneur. I do believe that the likelihood for success increases when the entrepreneurial mind remains focused on always seeking a better opportunity despite earlier failures.