Optimizing Your Career

Milton Chang

Meeting Change Head-On

Most of us can earn a satisfactory wage. But do you ever wonder how much more you could contribute to society if your self-image evolved from being a specialist to being a savvy, all-around individual who has a technical background?

Your technical training enables you to do much more than work in the narrow technical area in which you were trained; knowledge is enabling, limits are self-imposed. You can use the problem-solving skills you acquired in the complex technology arena to become a professional in any field. Given that the application of technology is ubiquitous, having a technical background can provide a competitive advantage in any field. We can invent and design and build things, and set standards, of course. But we can also choose to move on to become a manager and leader of our company, a politician or an entrepreneur. Optimizing our productivity enables us to make greater contributions to society and also enhances our careers.

Preparing for Career Optimization

We all want to self-actualize - to fully reach our innate potential. As a young person starting off, you must first develop a vision of your ultimate goals and along with it a roadmap to get there. But be prepared to modify your goals and roadmap as you proceed because you don't necessarily know the realm of possibilities in fast-changing technologies or what your passion may ultimately be.

It is necessary to first gain technical expertise to start your career. Getting an advanced degree is a good thing. Your academic and professional credentials are the only things an employer has to judge you by. Choose a job based on the learning and growth opportunities it offers rather than on a handsome compensation package. An ideal job is one that offers project management responsibility for you to practice managerial skills.

Work diligently to excel on the job, learn to work with people and hone leadership skills, build relationships with suppliers and customers, and reach out to volunteers in professional societies and community action groups. Work as if you are working for yourself, because you are. You are being paid to gain experience and build a reputation that will enable you to start your own business if you ever decide to do so.

Never stop broadening your exposure beyond your specialization and take an interest in multiple technologies and in business and management. Doing so does not diminish your ability to achieve technical excellence in your chosen field - none of us can fully reach our learning capacity.

Multidisciplinary cross-fertilization enables you to see unusual combinations to make breakthrough innovations. Not only that, you may discover in the process what you really like to do and have an aptitude for.

Having insight on business and management enables you to make engineering decisions that benefit business and take on managerial responsibilities to guide others who are current on technology. That could sidestep the issue of obsolescence and prepare you to start your own business. You can learn by attending seminars, taking MBA classes and reading magazines such as Fortune, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and Forbes.

Entrepreneurship Is a Career Option

Entrepreneurship is not for everyone, but you don't have to avoid starting your own business out of fear of failure. I believe, based on my experience, every startup company can succeed because many of the fatal mistakes can be avoided.

Instead of following the pack to pursue a grandiose "hot idea," which often turns out to be a wild goose chase, start in a niche that capitalizes on your professional expertise to serve a need in an industry with which you are familiar. Doing so will avoid many of the pitfalls startup companies make that set them up for failure. Your first product or service should be highly specific to avoid market risk; it is easier to raise a modest amount of capital, and you can manage a modest business with common sense. This approach does not mean your business has to remain small. You'll be gaining practical experience to become business-savvy, gathering valid product ideas from customers and using existing operational infrastructure to grow the business efficiently. And you'll be able to raise capital at an attractive valuation to expand the business when you have a track record under your belt.

This commonsense approach is rational and consistent with the definition of entrepreneurship, which is to make effective use of capital to create value - being capital efficient. I used these principles to grow Newport and New Focus toward their initial public offerings, and incubated about a dozen companies as an active angel investor; none have failed.

Yes, You Can

Your technical career can evolve. Researchers at Spencer Stuart, a major executive search firm, found that the undergraduate degrees of 33 percent of CEOs in Standard and Poor's 500 companies are in engineering and only 11 percent are in business administration. I worked my way through college and was a working engineer in an aerospace company before I attempted entrepreneurship. I did it, and so can you.

Milton Chang is managing director of Incubic Management LLC, Menlo Park, Calif., a venture capital firm specializing in investments in seed, startup and early stage companies. Chang is the author of Toward Entrepreneurship (www.miltonchang.com). He was president of Newport and New Focus, which he took public. Chang is a director at MBio Diagnostics and Aurrion, and advises companies and mentors entrepreneurs. He is currently a member of the Securities and Exchange Commission Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies and a trustee of the California Institute of Technology. Chang is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Optical Society of America and the Laser Institute of America, and past president of IEEE Photonics Society and the Laser Institute of America. He was on the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the authoring committee of the National Academies' Optics and Photonics: Essential Technologies for Our Nation.

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