Archive for the ‘Engineering’ Category

In this season of politics and the pervasive media coverage of the current campaigns, it occurred to me how different campaigning in the corporate world is from what I see on the political campaign trail. Jack Welch provided an excellent description of “campaigning” in the corporate world (How to Get Elected Boss by Jack and Suzy Welch, BusinessWeek Online, May 15 2006). In short, you can think of it as persuading your colleagues and employees to buy-in to your vision. It is a part of successful leadership and it is very different from what appears to be effective political campaigning during an election year:

Style vs. Content – As illustrated by the first presidential debate as well as the numerous adds on both sides, it appears that how emphatic, even aggressive, one is on the campaign trail tends to determine effectiveness. In corporate leadership, one’s style does help to develop the culture of the organization but it is the results you achieve that pack the biggest punch. “Good to Great” leaders (http://www.jimcollins.com/books.html) tend to be less flamboyant and even shun the limelight but provide great results.

Platitudes vs. Clarity – In corporate leadership, your goal is to motivate and generate support for your corporate strategy. This tends to require clarity of vision. This can obviously be beneficial for political leadership too but it does not seem to be very important during the political campaign; perhaps because the issues are too complex, the audience too broad, the time frames too short, and the message is often distorted in the public media. And in corporations, those who we are trying to persuade have other options; they can find another job. Moving to another country is a bit more difficult.

Confrontation vs. Collaboration – It seems that being confrontational in today’s political (and media) environment is what the public demands. Perhaps that is entertainment. Great corporate leaders seem to be much more selective in their use of confrontation, perhaps because they know that in today’s business environment you are just as likely to establish a partnership with another organization as you are to compete with them. Sure, the highly confrontational corporate leaders exist and make the news but they are in the minority.

Popularity vs. Respect – Campaigning seems to be a popularity contest and that’s not what leadership or management is all about. Superficial popularity is in direct contrast to the respect and motivation that is needed in today’s corporations from the top leadership. It seems you strive to earn respect in the corporate environment and to be liked on the campaign trail.

Provoking vs. Motivating – Provoking someone to make a choice on a given day is quite different from motivating someone to come in to work eight hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year and give their best to the organization. We consistently hear that voters are voting against one candidate rather than for the other. This “lesser of two evils” mentality is consistent with the negative campaigning and confrontational approach we see in political campaigns much more pervasively than in corporate leadership.

Negativity vs. Encouragement – One of the major differences in campaigning is the tendency for personal attacks during the political process. It seems that we are motivated to vote against someone by the negative rhetoric that we hear about them. In corporate leadership, personal negative rhetoric is generally of little use in the long-term motivation of our employees.

Look at the first term in each of the comparisons above. In the corporate world one is likely to lose a job using these approaches rather than motivate followers. Make no mistake; I have great respect for some of our political leaders. What I’m talking about here is campaigning, not running the country. Of course, there is leadership required in the political arena and politics required in the corporate world. But I can imagine that we have lost many potentially great political leaders because they could not (or would not) make the distinction between leading and campaigning. What we hear in the media at the moment is the rhetoric of campaigning as opposed to the day-to-day leadership required of the President and Commander-in-Chief. I personally will be happy when it is over, no matter who gets the job.

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The topic of networking comes up quite often for our early career alumni and our MEM students. I like to emphasize that networking is about relationships. This means it is about giving and receiving value from another person. It is about sharing information and experiences. It is not about how big your contact database is or how many business cards you have collected. Unless you are just building a distribution list, it is more important to have a limited number of strong relationships than innumerable unknown contacts. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with having different levels of relationships: acquaintances, colleagues and perhaps close friends may be one way to classify them. You probably have parallels in your personal life. In fact, as the relationships get closer, the line between friendship and business relationship can tend to blur (there are dangers to this but I’ll save that for a future post). Building these relationships, even high quality acquaintances, requires that you have a genuine interest in the other person. I have a number of acquaintances who I do not see often, not even once a year, but when we do get together it is wonderful to catch up and hear about what they have been up to and share experiences. I learn a lot from these interactions and I believe it is mutual.

Which brings me to the most frequently asked question I hear from early career alumni and students – How do I bring value to a relationship with someone who has much more experience and responsibility? First a word of caution.  Don’t force the relationship.  Let it evolve naturally and if it does not, then let it go. It is not a task that needs to be accomplished; it is an exploration. So back to the question.  Below is a list derived mostly from students have provided to me at times even when my experience vastly overshadowed theirs (i.e., I was old, they were young!). Sometimes these have led to continued interactions and sometimes to simply an occasional (but enjoyable and fruitful) contact between two acquaintances:

• Articles of interest to your acquaintance
• Information about the school they would not otherwise know if you are both from the same school
• A comment about how their company is perceived by your peer group
• An experience you had with one of their competitors that they might like to hear (obviously this should be an open, public experience, not something the competitor reasonably thought was going to protected or private)
• Information about a person of interest to them you may have read about in the media, especially if it was not broadly publicized and was something they are likely to have missed
• A new product of interest that you observed or even that you tracked down (i.e., from a start-up or university such that they would not have seen it)
• A market of interest they may have missed, for example, in your home country where they do not have significant presence.

With today’s social media and various organizations’ databases, the logistics of keeping up with people is easy but the relationship building is as hard as ever, maybe harder given the demands on our time.  Utilize the social media before you need it and don’t expect the media to build the relationship for you.  (For our MEM alumni, I hope that you take a moment to join our Linked-in group and the MEMPC Linked-in group – but not because you expect it to do your relationship building for you!).

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For those of you who are aspiring engineering managers AND music festival fans, this post might be particularly interesting. Hopefully it is of interest to everyone as it illustrates how we can find lessons on business and management everywhere we look.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a very popular festival in the Appalachian Mountains near the town of Floyd, VA. The Appalachians have a long history of music from Blue Grass to Folk to Country (e.g.; see http://www.crookedroadenterprises.com/) and for the past decade have hosted an outdoor music festival called FloydFest (https://www.facebook.com/FloydFestVA#!/FloydFestVA). Those of you who know me probably don’t picture me at an outdoor music festival with 14,000 of my closest friends but several things came together to make this a special opportunity, including; the artists, special interest from members of my family and the location. Thus, despite it being a bit out of character, I attended all three days of the festival (well, a couple of hours each day anyway). Headliner artists included Jackson Browne, Brandi Carlile and Michael Franti making it of interest to even those who are not hardcore music festival fans.

But more to the point, as I attended the festival I realized how many exceptional business and management lessons could be gained from observing the festival and studying its history. FloydFest is particularly interesting because it has grown from a small local venue to a national event with 14,000 attendees, seven different stages for musicians, and VIP tickets costing $600 per person (although I don’t know the exact number of VIP tickets sold, it appeared to be hundreds rather than dozens). Thus, I compiled the list below while sitting on the grass listening to music on a beautiful sunny day in the mountains. These are not new but the context is quite unique:

Develop a portfolio of products – The festival is truly innovative in its vision for the type of music that it provides. A portfolio of artists in at least two different dimensions was presented to the audience; (i) both early career artists and well established artists, and (ii) styles ranging from traditional country to reggae. It struck me that this is a wonderful portfolio but has the potential problem of being interesting to such a diverse audience that making a strong, focused value proposition might be difficult. However, the organizers understood their customers extremely well which brings me to the next point.

Understand and segment your customers – Despite the large diversity in types of music, all of the customers had one general and important trait in common. They wanted to listen to music and be outdoors. The attendees ranged from children to people in their 90’s. (I’m not making that up, one of the musicians brought a ninety-something year old onto the stage to celebrate their birthday). Thus, as long as the organizers delivered an outdoor experience with high quality music, diversifying the types of music offerings is beneficial; enhancing the experience and bringing in more customers. Of course, the organizers must be aware of any correlation between people who like the outdoors and what type of music those people enjoy. As far as I could tell, there were no classical music offerings at the festival.

Know what your customers value – This means know what your customers are willing to pay for! In reality, there were many things about the venue and the festival that were rather primitive and frustrating for those of us who were not regular festival attendees. From the food choices, to the restrooms, to the parking; there were logistics that limited the quality of these services throughout the weekend. On the other hand, the sunsets, beautiful blue sky, and even the downpour which occurred in the middle of the weekend were all unmatched. Couple this with the diversity/quality of artists and the personal feel of the venues and you have delivered great value to your customers. Even the VIP customers obviously feel that these “product specs” are more important than the logistical challenges compared to a nice concert hall with real restrooms!

Organic growth – there is certainly nothing wrong with growth by acquisition or growth by significant external investment. However, the benefits of organic growth are difficult to match in many situations. Organic growth, like the growth experienced by FloydFest from the time it was a one stage local outdoor gathering to the 14,000-person seven-stage extravaganza that currently exists, allowed for knowledge capture, flexible response to the market, and word of mouth advertising to the customer base. There are still no FloydFest signs on the road at the venue – everybody has already talked to someone about where to turn – now that is organic! And again, the organizers know what their customers value; high quality music in the beautiful outdoors (with a diversity of outdoor cultural activities for young and old alike thrown in).

Find synergies in your product lines – one of the most interesting observations about the musical sets was the obvious friendships and partnerships that existed between the artists from different locations and musical genre. Most artists I observed had another artist from the festival come onto the stage as a guest for a song or two at some point during their set. In many cases they described a long and storied friendship. This provides all kinds of benefits such as making the experience unique for the customer, ensuring that the artists themselves have a good experience, and optimizing the efficiency of the “product” by utilizing artists in multiple ways.

And last but not least…..

It’s all about the culture – Every organization has its own culture and what we saw at FloydFest was how that culture can impact customers. There is a “peace, love, joy” culture that has been cultivated from the early days of the festival and this has permeated the environment even as the venue has grown by an order of magnitude. This culture is passed down by word of mouth, PR and direct advertising. It manages the expectations of the customers as well as the performers. It probably encourages some would-be customers to screen themselves out of the event if they do not subscribe to a mellow, things may not be perfect but you will have a great time, environment: a little mud, some poor lighting, too many people in some lines, and some acts starting a bit late are all part of the experience and nothing to get upset about. After all, it’s about making music in the mountains. For the most part, the audience reaction was very consistent with the culture and a good time was had by all.

So the next time you are doing something unrelated to your business, see what lessons you can learn. Many so-called “breakthroughs” come from importing ideas across industries and product areas. It has been said: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed” (William Gibson). You might learn about the future of your business by some “outside of the box” observations of the others.

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A thorn in every manager’s side is the very smart employee who is just not self-motivated, at least not with any consistency.  When they are engaged, they are spectacular and provide brilliance that is not matched by any other employee but when they are not engaged, watch out. They go AWOL, they promise to deliver what you need but don’t make any progress at all by the due date, they are so absent at times you are not sure if they still work for you.  But then, suddenly, they deliver the breakthrough that you needed.  ARGHHH!  You can’t live with them but you can’t live without them (or at least you worry you can’t).  You love them and you hate them. How do you manage such an employee, or if this sounds like you, how do you manage yourself?  After managing employees for more than 25 years, it has only been in the last year or two that I really understood the importance of this problem and the lesson it provides for managing all types of employees.

First, as such an employee’s manager, you probably need to accept that you are not going to fundamentally change this person.  You can minimize the damage they do (maybe) and try to optimize their value but fundamental change is a different story.  The good news is that they might still be very valuable to your organization.  Furthermore, managing this type of employee is just an extreme example of managing any employee.  That is, you need to find out what motivates them and provide as much of that as possible.  In this extreme case, many times what motivates them is the intrinsic project.  Are they excited about the activities and if they are, you get brilliance; if not, you get nothing.  Don’t get me wrong, this is not easy.  You usually cannot simply ask the employee what motivates them or what they need to be more productive because they don’t really know.  And if they do, many times they are not comfortable telling you.  This is one of the reasons that MBWA is so important – it allows you to get to know your employees and observe, to some extent, what is happening (MBWA = Management by Walking Around).  Perhaps in today’s virtual world where teams are located at far reaches of the globe, it is a combination of MBFA and MBCA (Management by Flying Around and Management by Calling Around).  For those of us early in our management career and who are action-oriented and have a “just do it” mentality, taking the time to do this MBWA can be disconcerting.  We feel that we are not really doing anything.  But if you consider that one of your primary jobs is getting the best from your employees, this may in fact be the most important thing you have to do.  The bottom line is, get to know your employees so you can provide the environment, incentives and activities that motivate them since, although it may sound a bit cliché, everyone is different.

One of the classic mistakes I see young engineering managers make is not understanding how different people really are. They have a tendency to assume that everyone is pretty similar and thus what makes them happy will make their employees happy.  In reality, I have had people working for me who were so incredibly sensitive to feedback that it was best for me to provide a gentle nudge in a particular direction or mention in passing what I might do in their situation rather than make a specific request.  They still beat themselves up that they had not already thought of what I suggested and apologize! On the other hand, I have had employees who would not “get it” despite numerous very direct conversations (at least from my perspective) until I had written them up in a formal reprimand – they simply did not feel they could ever be wrong and did not understand they needed to do what I requested as their manager.  Similarly for the work environment.  Some employees thrive in a bustling, communal, interactive, multitasked environment whereas others require a relatively quiet, uninterrupted atmosphere to do their best work.  And it is your job as manager to know which is which and give them what they need to be most productive, at least to the extent possible.

So this begs the question – “When do I give the employee what they need to be most productive and when do I decide enough is enough?”  Well, first of all, don’t think of it as giving them something extra or a perq simply because they are motivated differently than you are or need a different working environment than you do.  Don’t make it personal even though it is likely to be more effort for you than if they were just like you.  Value diversity.  As the saying goes, if they always agreed with you then one of you is redundant.  So you decide if it is “worth it” just like for other decisions you make – is the net value to the organization positive.  If it takes too much of your time, disrupts other employees or in some other way costs the organization to accommodate the employee, then at some point, it is not worth it and you need to encourage (or require) that the employee finds an organization that is a better fit.  But the collective value of motivating and accommodating different types of employees is quite a powerful force so don’t be too hasty with that decision.  If they are valuable to the organization, try to accommodate their needs and work style and you will gain a loyal employee while benefiting your organization.  I have seen this work time and time again.

So what about the flip side of this discussion?  What if you find yourself at odds with the motivation style and environment of your organization.  If your boss gives hugs and warm wishes whereas you need a threat and kick in the tail to get going.  If you need to be left alone to do your best work but your organization has pep rallies and joint morning calisthenics.  Well, in the extreme (like these examples) it is probably time for you to find an organization which is a better fit.  But if you just need some reasonable accommodations rather than a wholesale change in the organizations culture, it is worth a try even if it is not easy.  If you build trust with your boss, gain credibility with early wins and are clear about you can deliver for the organization, the chances are you will find common ground.  If you can show the value you provide and you can be clear about what helps you deliver that value, most managers will work with you.  But to do this, you need to understand what your manager values and what she needs to do her job too.  If what you need makes it fundamentally harder for her to do her job, then forget it.  Her time is probably stretched much too thin already and you still need to be considering how to make it easier for her, not more difficult.  For example, if you work best with uninterrupted effort so you only want to check email once a day but your boss is must prepare data for her manager every two hours that requires your input, you have a problem. All of this requires significant self-awareness on your part.  If you are a high performer you probably have this awareness and you will adapt to your environment as-needed while still asking for what helps you perform at your best.  If you have an overinflated opinion of your value, which it turns out many underperformers do, it is going to be difficult.  You are not self-aware enough to know you are not self-aware.  There may be a couple of future posts for these topics –  (i) Don’t be Shy but Don’t Whine and (ii) Being Self-Aware Enough to Know You Are Not Self-Aware Enough.

To sum up the current Post, be sure you internalize the significant differences between each of your employees with respect to how they are motivated and the environment that allows them to optimize their performance.  When it comes to obtaining the best from your employees, there is really no substitute for understanding them as individuals.

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Every year one of my blog posts is from the speech that I give to our Master of Engineering Management Students at graduation as they embark on the next phase of their careers.  The post below is from our 2012 graduation ceremony that took place a few weeks ago.  As I summarize my speech on this beautiful July 4 holiday, I am humbled by the incredible opportunities that I have each year to meet such exceptional people as our MEM students.  It is hard to imagine that a brief speech or blog post can have much impact at such an auspicious time in their lives but here is my attempt…

Paraphrasing A. Whitney Griswold (great educator and former President of Yale): 

Education is not a quantitative body of knowledge but rather it is a taste for knowledge, a capacity to explore, to question and to perceive.

My hope is that your time here has provided a platform for your future endeavors.  It should have helped you begin to develop your intuition about business, organizations, management and leadership but more importantly, it should provide a base which gives you this capacity to explore and question and ultimately understand.  And this understanding will provide the foundation for your decisions and choices.

The reason this is my hope and I start this brief speech in this way is because; and this is the theme of my speech:

“You can’t predict the future”

It is said: Heroes are ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances.  They did not know it would happen to them.

“You can’t predict the future”

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm; Winston Churchill.  We don’t generally expect failure but…

“You can’t predict the future”

George Bernard Shaw said:  Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself –

“You can’t predict the future” but you do help create it.

And that is what you are doing here today and for the last 1, 2 or in some cases 3 years; creating your future.  So what are the lessons for us in this simple phrase; “you can’t predict the future”?

  • Validation – First, it validates the excellent, even courageous decision you have made to make the effort and take the time to further your education.  There is no way to better prepare for an unpredictable future than to educate yourself.
  • It’s the planning, not the plan – The planning process, not the plan itself, is what you should focus on as you embark on your journey.  The process requires you to think through your options and prepare yourself for an unpredictable future more than the plan itself.
  • Embrace change – you will make some decisions that you want to change.  Expect that and change as needed when you do.  In my experience, no decisions are stagnant.  It may take time and will certainly take effort but you can change the future even if you cannot predict it.
  • People evolve – When I first graduated with my PhD, there were two things I was sure of:  I did not want to travel and I did not want to give public presentations.  I did not realize that I actually liked travelling and presenting; it was the fear leading up to them that I did not like.  But with a bit of experience and a bit of time, that fear subsided. So test yourself over time, you are not static, don’t expect your preferences and skills to be.
  • Focus on the little things – You cannot predict the future so big decisions are not the issue. They are easy to analyze and get as close as possible to a “good” decision without actually knowing what the future holds.  It is the choices you make every day that really build the platform that determines your life!  How much time do I spend at work, with my family, with myself? What are my priorities? Who do I choose as my confidants? What challenges will I take on today? And the list goes on…
  • Keep your mind open – I constantly hear from Alumni and our industrial advisory board stories about the fortuitous opportunity that came their way.  In fact, it is well beyond that – it includes the unpredictable reaction they had to a project or an assignment.  They go through a large fraction of their career thinking, even telling people – I don’t want to do XYZ.  But lo and behold, they are asked to do it anyway and they love it! Don’t discount opportunities too early.  One of our Pratt alums and a former Officer of a fortune 100 company in charge of their Global Supply Chain of 10’s of thousands of products, tells a great story about his own career.  He did not want to take an overseas assignment.  It was simply something he was sure he would not like.  When told that he was desperately needed in Europe after the passing of a colleague, he reluctantly agreed on the condition it was a short term assignment.  After a year or two, he did not want to come back!  He loved his new location and was ready to stay there for the rest of his career. A decade later, the only way the company got him back to the US was by explaining that he could not become an Officer of the organization and take over the very top job in Global Supply Chain if he did not return to the US!  And of course, without the international experience he obtained, and found he loved, that opportunity would have been unlikely!

Those are just some of the lessons I think we can all learn from the fundamental fact that we do not know what the future holds.  In closing, please remember what Newton Baker said (“The person who graduates today and stops learning tomorrow is uneducated the day after”) because…

…you simply can’t predict the future



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It is truly a small world! This is true in both space and time.  I have been reminded of this in several ways over the last few months, including:

  • running into MEM alumni in a grocery store and a coffee shop in San Francisco while I was on sabbatical
  • running into an MEM alumnus while leaving a Mall near a workshop I attended in Boston
  • chatting with someone after a presentation I had given and finding they work with colleagues I had written papers with 15 years ago (this one actually happened twice in the last week)
  • meeting the husband of a woman I worked with 20 years ago while she was a masters student

And the list goes on (while on a past trip walking through Hong Kong, while waiting for a flight in the Tokyo airport, etc.!). It’s a small world. Spatially because I can go to cities from Boston to San Francisco and coincidentally run into MEM alumni. Temporally, because I still have connections with students I have not seen in 10 years or colleagues I worked with more than 15 years ago in previous fields. (We had all recently talked about that past work with our new colleagues and have now coincidentally ended up in fields that are once again connected for one reason or another). This is all quite surprising to me. It is a small world.

So why do I bring this up on my engineering management blog? I think it illustrates a couple of important points:

1) Don’t burn any bridges – There will be times in your life when you don’t like your boss or your coworker or even one of your employees. Fine, you don’t need to like them but you do need to treat them with respect. And I don’t mean you need to treat with respect IF they treat you with respect. That’s easy. I mean regardless of how you feel or how they treat you, take the high road. Change something to move away from them but while you are working on what that something is, continue to be professional and respectful. You may be thinking; “even if I run across this person in 10 years, I don’t want anything to do with them so why should I care about burning a bridge?” First, consider that how you treat this person you don’t like will be perceived by others, so any bridge you burn will not be isolated to a single person. Second, people change. And the way you treat this person may even contribute to such a change. So, don’t burn a bridge, you don’t know when you will cross paths with people from your past.

2) Utilize your network – If you make it a habit to develop relationships early in your career, they can last a lifetime. And integrated over that lifetime, they can add immense mutual value. It is not a one way street; you need to be willing to give value, not just receive it, but if you are, there is no predicting when or how you will reap benefits from these relationships. Of course, the intrinsic value of simply connecting with others who have different experiences and perspectives will also be part of that. If you are still in an MEM program, even if it is a distance format, you should be even more aggressive in making connections – it is one of the best times to make connections with people who you have so much in common with. When I have seen former colleagues who I have not connected with in a decade, many times we pick up right where we left off! It is always interesting to inform my upcoming career decisions with their experiences and quite enjoyable too…which brings me to my last point.

3) Have fun! It really is a blast to reconnect with people who you have a shared history with but took a different path. The shared history provides a connection and an experience base that gives you a common language. You quickly and easily expand your knowledge and vicarious experience through such interactions. And there is a good chance that something or someone they know or some experience they have had is just what you need to help with some issue you are facing.

So take time while you are in the early stages of your career. Develop relationships that can last a lifetime and try not to burn any bridges. And if we have worked together in the distant past or you were a student in one of my classes or programs, I hope if you see me on the street in some unlikely place, you will take the opportunity to reconnect or just say hello and exchange a quick update.

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We are fortunate to have a guest post by MEM alumnus Somana Konganda who works for Amazon.com Inc.  He shares some important experiences and thoughts about intellectual property.  This is particularly important because MEM students many times do not realize how critical this part of their training is.

Post by Somana Konganda

Having after dinner drinks with some Dukies and Jeff in Seattle, we had the following discussion –

Me:  Jeff, I filed two patents with my company recently.

Jeff:  That is cool! What did you think about the experience?

Me:  It was far more exciting than I expected. I have to say, the core IP and Business Law Course I took during the MEMP came back to me!

Jeff:  That is great. Would you write about this? I know future students will want to hear about it

Me:  Alright! I would need some time though…..

So here I am writing about my experience and also trying to pull together anecdotal information that will be useful for those of you in similar situations.  I have also tried to include information on both how you file your patent individually or through your company.

Most of us innovate at our jobs quite often –in large and small ways. We might be working individually or in a team.  But either way, many times these innovations contribute to something much bigger than solving an immediate and specific problem. As Engineering Managers, it is very important to keep an eye out for such opportunities – that you or your teams are solving a problem much larger than what you originally expected. It is our responsibility to ensure that we capture the value of the innovation for our organizations by protecting it. In my experience, the MEMP core IP and Business Law course is designed to provide you with the knowledge and judgment you need to do this.

Protecting an innovation with patents has very high stakes. In the corporate world, a strong patent can equate to billions of dollars of revenue or loss, depending on which side of the patent you represent. I once met an entrepreneur who was forced to ramp-down his $300 million company because he lost a patent lawsuit related to his company’s core technology. It was particularly unfortunate because he was the first to bring the technology to market, but did not file a patent on it. The competitor copied and patented the technology and sued his company. The silver lining is that this guy is smart and he took this as a learning opportunity and is now successful in a different venture. Not all of us will have such a second chance.

As clear signs of how high the stakes are, in the recent past we have seen:

  • Google’s purchase of Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion driven by Google’s perceived need to establish a strong portfolio of patent rights in an attempt to ward-off patent attacks by competitors in the fiercely competitive and growing smart-phone market.
  • Microsoft, along with a consortium of other companies including Apple, Research In Motion and Sony, agreed to pay $4.5 billion to buy 6,000 patents from bankrupt Nortel Networks, thereby keeping them out of the hands of rivals, including Google.
  • Microsoft is seeking double-digit royalties from other Android makers. One report suggests Microsoft wants $15 per device from Samsung, though the company might take less per Android device if Samsung is willing to commit to a solid Windows Phone road map.
  • Or currently being unveiled, the love-hate relationship with the patent battles between Apple and Samsung

So where do you start?  First, you need to discover if your idea is patentable. The best way to do the initial research is to go through the US Patent and Trade Office’s site (www.uspto.gov). It can be time consuming depending on the type of invention. Next, find yourself a lawyer who deals with your type of invention. Typically in larger companies you will have internal lawyers to help with the process.

I started to research copyrights and patents and thought it would be easy. I proceeded to do my own search trying to see if there was anything like what I was thinking of out there already. This was important not only for my adventure in applying for a patent, but also to protect against infringement. I came up with nothing. By this point the thoughts were racing through my head about how neat this opportunity could be. Make no mistake though – just because nothing is found does not mean you will be granted a patent. Actually, it doesn’t even guarantee that the invention has not already been patented. Sounds like a crazy waste of effort, but you need to give your patent attorney as much information as possible about the most closely related inventions you can find.

After much reading and careful consideration, I decided to contact the lawyers for a patent search. So, why did I go to a lawyer? Courses in the MEM made me pretty savvy in technical writing so why not write the patent application myself? The application written by the attorney was completely different than the one I had drafted.  You can try it yourself, but if you make a mistake, a resubmission could potentially cost you a substantial delay, a loss of rights, or a lot more money than you would have spent had you gone to a patent attorney in the first place.  Even with an attorney, you will probably get involved in the patentability study and helping to determine what was “known prior art” related to your invention.  You should also be prepared to wait. It may take your lawyer a while to complete your application and there is a backlog in the USPTO so it may take quite a long time to get a ruling on your application. But if the invention is successful, it will be worth it.

Editorial Note:  To conclude, I would like to emphasize the importance of intellectual property.  The value of a firm today is all about the knowledge the firm has.  Understanding the basics about how to protect that knowledge is critical.  This is true for everyone; from those who are developing products to those who are conducting due diligence on a firm.  See https://jtglass.wordpress.com/2011/12/30/top-5-misperceptions-of-engineering-management-students/ for more info about why this is an important topic.

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What can I possibly add to the numerous commentaries about the life and death of Steve Jobs that are already permeating the web? Perhaps not much but I want to give it a try with the following perspective: What should early career engineering managers and engineering management students take away from the Steve Jobs phenom.

My first thought is; be careful not to take away too much from the life and death of Steve Jobs. I don’t mean this to be negative and I am as big a Steve Jobs fan as anyone – he was, rather he is, an icon. But what I mean is that the way he managed his life and career may not be a way that most of us should emulate. Or to put it another way, if we try to do things the way Steve Jobs did, it may not lead to success for many of us. Of course, the general characteristics he embodied such as; vision, creativity, persistence, customer centric design, etc. are great for us all to strive for. But let’s face it, people like Jobs (or Bill Gates or Andy Grove or John Chambers or Jack Welch), are icons due to an extremely rare combination of intellect, drive, judgment, perception, and the list goes on. There is a bit of luck and timing involved too but these folks are way out on the tail of any bell curve you want to use to characterize people. So back to Steve Jobs, his incredible ability to change the paradigm of an industry time and time again is truly remarkable and something I do not think can be copied. And some of his management approaches, and life decisions, while accomplishing this may not be right for many of us (for example, see http://blogs.hbr.org/davenport/2011/10/was_steve_jobs_a_good_decision.html). Can you afford to use intuition (or your “gut”) rather than analytics to make major decisions or can you afford to micromanage a process rather than empower the process owners? In many cases Jobs could. And for Jobs, dropping out of school was a good decision (see his Stanford Graduation Speech; http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidewalt/2011/10/05/steve-jobs-2005-stanford-commencement-address/). Would it really be right for you? I could go on but suffice it to say: Choose the exceptional characteristics that you want to integrate into your career but use your own self-awareness and judgment to know the limits for you.

My second thought about the passing of Steve Jobs is simply that we are all mortal. It is somewhat sobering to be reminded that anyone, even someone who has done so much to shape the current world we live in, can die too young. For those of you starting out your careers, I think this supports what you hear from all the career experts – choose something you love to do. As with Jobs, you may be doing it until very close to the end of your time here. But also, and a bit more subtly, it is a reminder that every decision you make until you die is a choice. Whether that choice is to work 12 hours a day or to achieve balance between work and home life, it is your choice. One is not better than the other. As Jack Welch, another management icon, has said, it is not about balance it is about choices. There are only so many hours in the day and so what you choose to do with your time, either way, has consequences. When you make choices, understand those consequences and determine if they are acceptable. Include risk and probability in your assessment as you make these choices and take a long term view. I think Steve Jobs death brings this into focus. He seems to have done what he loved until very close to his death.

Finally, Jobs death puts a spotlight on Leadership: Its importance and its complexity. There are no formulas. Few could have predicted that Steve Jobs could leave Apple, reshape animation entertainment, and return to save Apple, making it the most valuable company in the world. Very smart people asked him to leave Apple, successful leaders in their own right. Jobs himself hired John Sculley, who was not succesful for Apple. For many years I thought that the value we put on leadership in our organizations, as judged by the exorbitant salaries we pay, was over the top, not reasonable. But over the years, as I have observed what great leaders can do for an organization, I have become more and more supportive of such pay. (Of course, there is a limit and I am not referring to the high profile cases where performance does not support such pay or with some of the Wall Street pay that is not related to running a great company – but that is another story). So Jobs is an extreme example of what great leaders can do and how much influence they can have on an organization, an industry and even a society. As with any extreme, there are plenty of characteristics other than great leadership that come along for the ride but the point is simply that leaders can have exceptional impact.

In summary, for early career engineering managers and students about to start their careers; (i) leaders have incredible impact, consider how you can develop your leadership skills for you future career, but remember (ii) it is about choices and every decision you make on your way to a leadership role will impact all aspects of your life so choose based on the consequences of your decision and finally (iii) don’t expect that you can do it the same way Steve Jobs did.

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Managers, individual contributors and students alike, constantly need to learn new things.  Sometimes this occurs with plenty of preparation time and sometimes it requires cramming – to prepare for a meeting or a new project or a deadline or, for students, exams!  In technical organizations, being able to learn enough in order to quickly assess  a situation (e.g., about a new market, an up and coming technology, a competitor’s approach to a new product), is particularly valuable.  I have seen both technical and marketing staff make themsleves invaluable to their organization simply from their skill to learn new areas quickly.  Of course, learning it yourself is only half the battle, you also need to be able to communicate effectively to all different levels and types of employees in the organization (but that’s a post for a different day!).  In addition, you need to remain objective in your assessment of the area you have just learned.  This is non-trivial because you have just spent an intensive time studying the area so it is easy to lose perspective and become a champion for it whereas the organization needs you to provide an objective assessment.  But back to the main point, learning a new area is a type of expertise you can develop that will make you an important contributor to your organziation.  Below are a few tips I wrote up for our undergraduates that I think apply equally well to new managers,  individual contributors preparing for a new project/area and Master of Engineering Management students;

1) Know Thyself – find out what works for you to optimize your study time. For some people this means a quiet library spot and for others (like me) it means working in a noisy coffee shop. For some (like my wife) it even means studying with the TV on in the background (I do not understand that but I bet some of you do). The corollary is “Don’t fool yourself” by sitting somewhere with a book open and then calling it study time!

2) Reading and Studying are NOT the Same Thing – Too many people read a bunch of pages in a book and then are surprised when they do not do know the material. Reading something is very different from understanding and internalizing it. You need to test yourself and have your colleagues test you on the new material. Ask yourself questions about it, think about it, decide if you agree with what you have read. I like to make 2 columns; put key words and phrases on the left and the concepts and ideas related to them on the right.  When you are done studying, the right hand column should be irrelevant. All you need are the key words or phrases to trigger the thoughts and concepts on the right.

3) To Memorize or Not to Memorize – Lets face it, sometimes memorization IS the best approach to a set of material. Most of my colleagues with great memories do well when they need to quickly learn a new area. But there are also plenty of times when memory is NOT what you need. You need to understand and be able to argue a point and analyze a situation. Know what approach is best for a given type of material and study accordingly.

4) Balance – If you study all night and can not think the next day, you have not done yourself any favors. Try to balance your study time and break time so that you are at peak performance when you really need to call on the new material. This takes planning and also takes us back full circle to number one; Know Thyself.

I will close by emphasizing that learning is a lifeling requirement no matter what your position.  Optimizing how to learn a new area can make you invaluable to your organization.  If you are known as the person who can learn quickly and effectively then you have certianly given yourself more opportunities and security in your career.

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I recently relocated to San Francisco for a 6 month sabbatical and it has been a very interesting, even enlightening, experience.  The cliché’s about San Francisco aside (the spectacular food, the great parks, the fog rolling in, the cold summers, the hills….all absolutely true), a move is quite interesting in that it makes you relearn things that you could previously do without thinking.  When you move from a small place like Durham to a big place like San Francisco this is doubly true.  And during this relearning process I have been reminded of how problematic indecision can be.  Let me explain.

When you move to a new city and you need to do simple things like get to the grocery store, find a gym, get your dry cleaning done, etc. it is very easy to let the unknown dictate your actions.  That is, you keep waiting for a “just right” circumstance to emerge rather than simply trying something.  I have seen this dozens of time in research labs that I have managed and in all types of new project teams too.  There are other ways to think about this; the most common being that it is a “too much thinking and not enough doing” mentality.  You are frozen in time because there is no clear path and this ambiguity causes you to have a delayed action.  When you finally start just trying things, you find it is not nearly as difficult as you expected but you spent so much time worrying about it that you are behind anyway.  Also, there is a “time value of time” that makes this much worse than the direct or immediate impact (i.e., a waste of time is like a snowball and builds on itself because you become behind in all of the things that were dependent on the first decision; the one that you did not make in a timely manner!).

So as Nike coined, “just do it”!  In fact, Nike coined this catchy manifestation but the concept has been around for longer than any of us – experiment, experiment, experiment.  Learning by doing.  Perhaps we could say “just try it”.  In the area of innovation, 3M was a pioneer in the concept of just trying it, without expecting perfection (and remember, perfection is the enemy of completion).  You expect to stumble when you are always moving forward.  If you are not stumbling a bit, then you must not be moving enough!

So how does this relate to your career?   Too often I have seen employees in new projects or new jobs take the safe “sit at my desk and wait for directives” approach and then when a directive comes, there approach is “think about the directive until I have what appears to be the perfect solution.”  Unfortunately, your colleague is out trying three different solutions while you are thinking about one and they are learning three times as much as you are during this same period.  And they have chosen the solutions with intelligent, educated guesses (even though they did not have all theinformation that wanted) so they make more progress at the same time!

Of course there is judgment and balance in this as well as a heavy dose of corporate culture.  The cliché “You don’t have time to do it right but you always have time to do it over” is the opposite extreme of acting without enough thinking.  You need to be self-aware to know if you are an over-doer or an over-thinker but in my experience, most of us lean too much towards the overthinking, indecisive side of things; especially early in our career and in a new job.  There is a generic curve I like to think of that can be called the Quality of the Solution vs. Time to Obtain the Solution and it is not even close to linear! (Quality of Solution vs Time to Solution Graph) It starts with a steep linear sloop but then tapers off quickly and then slowly approaches perfection but never gets there. You want to work in the knee of this curve and recognize when indecision or a desire for perfection is taking you into the long plateau.

So in summary, keep a close eye on yourself and your new employees to ensure that indecision, a lack of a clear path forward, a discomfort of the unknown, a fear of failure, etc. is not creating an unnecessary delay in action. Just try something!  If you don’t, the decision to be indecisive can cause a tremendous inefficiency and will likely cause you to miss some opportunities for you and your organization.

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