Ambition is the personal engine that drives us to want to get ahead on the job and in society. Most of us have ambition to spare, plus the inherent desire to please our superiors and earn the respect of our peers. We tend to lack the knowledge and possibly the instincts to achieve these fundamental goals. If only we could learn how EEs who made it to the corner office reached that lofty pinnacle. What are the skills that propelled these executives to the top of their trade? And what about employment specialists, like headhunters and human resources administrators? What qualities do they look for in the candidate who lands the job?
To address these questions and issues, we talked to a number of top industry executives, human-resources specialists, and recruiters to get their views on what it really looks like out there and what working engineers and management can expect over the near-term.
The view from the top is almost as mixed as how most engineers got there. Not surprisingly, starting your own company works best. An MBA helps, but most EEs got to the corner office via on-the-job training and by demonstrating the traits that not only made them good engineers but also strong leaders and skilled communicators. Further, they display a willingness to synthesize their technical knowledge with the needs of the business.
Career experts tell us this may not the best time to move, unless no other option exists. In fact, if you're thinking about looking for another job, think again. From just a plain old job perspective, it hasn't been a good year for EEs at any level. Employment is down, not only for working engineers and engineering management, but also for new EE graduates. Even for those who are still on the job, getting ahead seems to have taken a back seat to just hanging in there.
THE VIEW FROM THE TOP
The qualities and skills needed to make the jump from EE to CEO in a high-tech company have changed little over the years. Once you've reached the pinnacle, though, the challenges encountered are of a new breed.
"Engineers need to have good technical intuition," says Howard Sachs, president and CEO of Telairity Semiconductor. "But they also have to be able to make reasonably good decisions with little or no data," which Sachs says is typically a big problem for most EEs. "They refuse to make decisions or estimates on sketchy data. This can be a killer for engineers in terms of their ability to make it up the management ladder."
Like most EEs who run industry companies, Sachs (who holds BSE and MSEE degrees and has worked at Fujitsu Microelectronics, Integraph, Cray Research, and National Semiconductor) managed to get where he is via on-the-job training. "You take a lot away from making your first P&L report to your board of directors. That can get pretty bloody. You must be willing to learn from that," he says.
Scott Sandler, president and CEO of Novas Software, which specializes in debug systems for complex chip designs, thinks personality is important. "You need to be a person with empathy who can relate to people," he says. "And you need communications skills. You have to be able to understand and synthesize the needs of people with the needs of the business."
"There are many qualities that make good engineers that also are traits you want in top management," says Michael Kaskowitz, general manager of Mentor Graphics' Intellectual Property Division and president of the VSI Alliance. But some end up shooting themselves in the foot. "Some engineers want to win a technical argument so much that they're actually hurting their relationships."
Kaskowitz says people who are good at engineering usually have strong analytical and problem-solving skills, and they're always looking for something new. "These are excellent traits for progressing into management. They will get you to the director of engineering level. The ones who get through that \[level\] usually have more, including an ability to lead and inspire others," he says.
PROMOTE FROM WITHIN
David Lyon, the chairman and CEO of Silicon Wave, took another route to the top. "The easiest way is to start your own company and promote yourself," he says. "Everyone has their own formula, but I found that system really works."
Lyon, who holds a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), worked for several years in the Boston area, mostly in telecommunications. Even though he took a fairly heavy academic and research track in college, Lyon says he always worked, taking jobs in different parts of the industry. Also, while at MIT, he took part in a cooperative program with Bell Labs, which led to his master's thesis. "That was a technical track, but you can't really separate what goes on in product development from the business side," he says. "It gave me some ability to think about how R&D blends into the business end of the industry."
That was before joining what he calls the "MIT Mafia" in San Diego—specifically, M/A-Com Linkabit, then run by another MIT PhD, Irwin Jacobs, who later founded Qualcomm. Lyon started in R&D at Linkabit, but he soon became the business group leader of the company's two-way very-small-aperture-terminal (VSAT) earth station product line. Lyon eventually left Linkabit and started Pacific Communication Sciences in 1987. He gained additional business experience as a board member of Libit Signal Processing Ltd., until Texas Instruments acquired it. He also co-founded Ensemble Communications.
Lyon says that he probably could have moved along in business a little faster if he had formal business training in finance and accounting, for instance. Should EEs who hope to advance in management go for an advanced technical degree or an MBA? "It depends on what you like to do. If R&D looks attractive, go with that because there are a lot more people who can handle a balance sheet than can handle technology," he says.
BASIC LEADERSHIP SKILLS
"There comes a point in an engineer's career when you're not doing engineering anymore, you're just managing people," says Linda Rae, senior vice president and general manager of Keithley Instruments. "So, in so many ways, you need the same skills whether you come out of engineering or finance, or marketing, which are good basic leadership qualities."
Rae has a BSEE and master's degree in EE, as well as an MBA. She joined Keithley in 1995 in product marketing and later served as head of the company's Component Test and Optoelectronics Groups. Rae thinks other qualities help along the way. Communication skills are critical, as is an ability to relate to a variety of audiences at different levels of the organization. Another plus, she says, is being able to see and then describe your vision and do so with some passion. Other key attributes include the ability to deal with conflicting situations and time-management skills.
Rae believes that some formal business education can be a big help. "Engineers are trained to think in certain ways, and business is not like that," she says. "There can be five different answers to everything. You never get enough information, and sometimes you just have to make a gut-feeling call."
Kaskowitz's view is that too many engineers moving into management struggle to give up the technical side to address the critical functions of business, such as finance and administration. "The challenge is letting go of the technology, but the reality is that as a senior engineering manager, you want your management to give you more responsibility," he says.
So if you want to break out and become an executive beyond the focus on technology, Kaskowitz says you have to give your engineering director the same responsibility and authority that you would have wanted in that position. "At some point, you have to decide which way you want to go."
But you should give the top technical staff input to the company's strategic business decisions. "Everyone wants to have influence," says Kaskowitz, who has more than 20 years experience in the IP and EDA industries, along with a BSEE. Just about all of his business training has been on the job. "I was fortunate that, early on, I had a mentor who was a senior vice president \[of another company\] and that was very helpful."
Sandler says he began to edge into the business side when he started to shift from "pure" engineering to applications engineering, including a year in Japan as an AE consultant. "It's really a marketing role in that you get to work closely with customers. I was more successful at explaining technology to people than developing it," he says.
In fact, Keithley sends all of its engineers out to meet with its customers on a regular basis, usually with members of the marketing and sales staff. At this point, they hear first-hand how products are being used and what new features their customers are looking for, a program that Rae believes helps identify and grow future business managers. "We have found this to be very valuable. It requires a certain level of communications ability and professionalism that you don't always get right out of the chute with an engineer," she says.
THE LEARNING CURVE
What are the new challenges these executives now face? What has changed? "If I look over the past three decades, there have certainly been several down periods along the way, but there are similarities to how we respond to them," notes Lyon. "One example, I think, is that more people are doing more with less."
On the other hand, he says, the industry has matured significantly. "There is more competition and you never quite know where it's coming from next," he says. But according to Lyon, that's balanced by the fact that the tools and the productivity that is possible from a small number of people has been greatly magnified. "It's unbelievable."
For Howard Sachs, one of the biggest changes over the years is that product development cycles are shorter and continue to shrink. "You make too many mistakes and you're finished, especially if you're a small company," he says.
For Keithley's Rae, it's global competition. "We have seen more of our business go offshore over time," she says. Customers, particularly in China, she says, are very savvy in how they negotiate prices. They're often willing to pass on new features in a product or other differentiation to meet a certain price point.
Not surprisingly, a survey of executives by Korn/Ferry International, a leading recruitment firm, found that nearly half (43%) of the executives polled say that a "clear vision" is the most important attribute of a business leader. Another 38% cited "the ability to motivate" as the key skill for a CEO.
Industry CEOs, top-level managers, and the working engineers in their companies also agree on the value of continuing education. One increasingly popular method involves seminars organized by TEC International, which has more than 8000 members ranging over a variety of companies and industries, including electronics. The seminars, held regularly in cities around the world, usually consist of top executives sitting together and sharing their experiences and problem-solving solutions.
TODAY'S JOB CLIMATE
These days, beyond trying to attain executive-level positions, engineers are looking for more stability and security in any new job, according to human-resources executives and recruiters. This is making a dramatic impact on the industry, which is cyclical in nature.
"Engineers are much less enthusiastic today than they used to be in terms of their long-term future," says Nance Cohen of Cohen Associates, a recruiter who specializes in placing engineers and engineering managers working in the high-frequency end of the industry. "The biggest thing now is their uncertainty about the future. This is much more obvious than a year ago."
Increasingly, she says, managers are less willing to make changes. "It's very hard to find top-level management or even mid-level engineering managers who are ready to make a change, and that's because they're afraid—unless they think their current job is in jeopardy," she says. Cohen also says that unemployed California-based engineer managers seem to be much more willing to leave the state than in the past.
For many of those searching for a job, she says their situation is exacerbated by their concern about revealing personal data on online job boards, which makes it harder to find job openings and harder to find good job candidates online. "If you're looking for top-quality candidates, the place to find them is through a recruiter, because your most highly qualified candidates are always employed somewhere else," she says.
New EE graduates aren't faring much better, as many companies have seriously cut back on their college recruiting. "We are doing very little college recruiting," says John Warren, the worldwide VP of human resources at Anadigics. "Our needs today are for experienced individuals." He says the change is due to manpower reductions and expense controls over the past three years. "We no longer can afford the time and expense to devote to new college hires. Our customers are far more demanding today and are expecting short timelines, which limits what we can do in terms of bringing along inexperienced talent." In fact, Anadigics eliminated its entire recruiting staff in favor of contract recruiters that are added or dropped as its needs vary.
Long periods of unemployment have also led to career changes, with many EEs successfully shifting their training and skills into related work. "I have seen some of our top talent changing careers—to teaching, for example, or moving to other industries where business conditions are either more stable or at least more predictable," says Warren. Other examples include investment banking, patent attorneys, and technology journalists. (Scott Adams, cartoonist of Dilbert, was an engineer.)
Warren says the most important piece of advice he can give EEs today is to increase their skills. "Career growth is extremely important to key engineering employees," he says.
A CORPORATION OF ONE
Susan Gauff, former senior vice president for people and communications at Sarnoff Corp. and now head of the Growth Solutions Group (a "human capital" consultancy in Princeton, N.J.), says that engineers are increasingly on their own when it comes to improving their chances of advancing their careers. "You have to take responsibility for yourself. You're a corporation of one," she says.
Technical training is mandatory for top executives in the industry who must communicate with the engineering staff and make strategic decisions for the company. But Gauff believes that as you rise to the highest levels of management, technical skills become less and less important.
"It's very easy for people moving up the management chain to spend too much time maintaining their technical skills instead of paying more attention to all of the other things, such as finance, marketing, and administration," says Gauff. "Some of them just can't let go."
On the other hand, she says, you have people like Bill Gates, the ultimate "techie" who turned into the ultimate marketer, and Andy Grove, the supreme techie, who turned himself into the ultimate manager. Gates and Grove, like so many other top executives in the industry, moved up the ladder without the benefit of an MBA or other formal business education. In fact, most of today's industry executives climbed the corporate ladder the old-fashioned way—through on-the-job training.
"My opinion on this subject is that an engineer who is adept at managing his or her career is one that is easy to promote," says Warren of Anadigics. "Someone who is always looking for ways to increase their experience, who volunteers for projects just so he or she can gain the expertise, or those who show the initiative to develop their own skills will be the one that gets ahead."
"Companies should identify high-potential people early," notes Gauff. "Many companies have a fear of networking, that if you put your best people in contact with others from competing companies, you might lose them. I hear it discussed all the time. But just the opposite is true. What keeps people at a company is that they're given an opportunity to grow. When they're not given an opportunity to grow, they look for other places to work."
Smaller companies usually can't afford to send their people to school for an MBA or to an extended executive training course at Harvard, Yale, or the Wharton School. But, says Gauff, more people are paying for this training themselves because they recognize the need for it.
It gets tricky when a company identifies a particularly talented technical person and wants to keep him or her on a technical track. Companies tend to find it difficult to properly reward those people and have them feel that they're playing a role equal to others who are rising through the management ranks.
"Compensation systems often don't recognize the difference between the very talented technical people and those identified as having strong management potential on the business side," notes Gauff.
Ellen Stuhlmann, the managing director of ExecuNet, an online executive search group, offers several suggestions for executives looking for a job. One is to enhance your visibility. "Contact your industry association and volunteer to help by joining a committee or work on a special event," she says.
Also, if you don't already have a list of networking contacts, make one. Revisit it once a month to add new contacts and update existing contacts. Revamp your resume as well. "Chances are there's room for improvement," says Stuhlmann.
To help expedite the search for a new job, many online job boards have been revamped to offer more features, promote networking, and encourage community building. "Online Job Resources Add New Features" (Drill Deeper 5852) provides a list of the more widely consulted online job sites in the industry and some of their new tools and resources that help make for more-effective job hunting.
AN AGE-OLD ISSUE
Age discrimination is another problem that pops up every several years in the industry, although some engineers believe it's been ongoing. According to EPCGlobal, an online staffing firm specializing in engineers and construction professionals, job competition and concerns over age discrimination have resulted in some job candidates removing dates and work experience from their resumes.
"I do believe that some candidates omit dates \[from their resumes\] so they won't be seen as too old or overqualified," says Robin Wappler, EPCGlobal's Houston operations manager. "In some situations, the information they're leaving out could stop them from landing interviews and selling themselves into the client's environment."
Results of a survey conducted by HotJobs, the online job board, indicate that 63% of job seekers leave a date off their resumes to hide their age. Wappler says a candidate should never lie on a resume. However, there's no problem with listing college degrees without years of graduation.
Longer-term, the picture doesn't seem to improve: "The future of engineering in the U.S. may be in jeopardy," says Richard J. Noeth, director of ACT's Office of Policy Research. Noeth co-wrote a report that analyzed 12 years of data obtained from roughly 750,000 students who indicated their plans to major in an engineering field upon college entrance. Among the more than 1.1 million seniors in the class of 2002 who took the ACT Assessment college entrance and placement exam, fewer than 6% planned to study engineering in college, down from a high of nearly 9% in 1992.
The study also found that among the potential engineering majors in the class of 2002, one out of 10 had taken no more than basic mathematics courses in high school, and just over half had taken calculus. This doesn't bode well for the industry, especially if there is a job boom down the road. Will the technical talent be there when it's needed? No one knows, of course, but the industry has always had a way of righting itself, even from the worst of times.