Is mid-level management a dead end?

Q I think mid-level managers are neither fish nor fowl, cannot make either technical contributions or major business decisions.

Th Mchang

Milton Chang

Q I think mid-level managers are neither fish nor fowl, cannot make either technical contributions or major business decisions. How can I ameliorate the risk of transitioning from engineering to management?

A The simple answer is to keep up with technology while you learn and practice the art of management. Most people ease into management positions while gaining responsibily in their job. What you said may be true, if you assume a person is working alone, but it is certainly untrue when working in a team. The demarcation between an engineer and a manager is less clearly defined than you think. Successful technologists who have made significant technical contributions are often great leaders who have drawn other people to participate in the work. That is, they are able to get work done—more work than they can do themselves—through others. The ability to work with people and to enable them to perform to their best is almost a necessity in engineering, or engineering management. Once you understand that, you can accomplish so much more.

As an example, not too many years ago, medical doctors could earn about the highest income, but then came the high cost of malpractice insurance. Today, many excellent doctors are working for a salary in big hospitals, whereas other doctors who have business acumen are thriving, running their practices as businesses and managing colleagues who work for them.

It is simply untrue to assume that being a great technologist excludes you from being a good manager or a good businessperson. It is always good to have multiple skills to add to what you do. As a practical matter, it is difficult for a pure technologist to survive in today’s environment. One can argue that they have to be as enterprising as any entrepreneur. I also think that, given the rate of change, technical obsolescence is a threat to any pure technologist; it simply isn’t wise to be a one-trick-pony pure technologist who doesn’t work through others to add to one’s repertoire of skills.

QWe have a technical breakthrough that could make a big difference to the development of our business. Given that a patent application is now published before it is granted, should we just forget about patenting, keep it as trade secret, and focus on developing market dominance?

A The decision should be based on a a number of considerations. How much dominance can you gain in the marketplace, and how long can the market dominance last? How likely or how quickly can competitors learn from your product and reverse engineer to do one up on you? What is the likelihood that you will get a patent?

Coke kept the recipe secret for more than 120 years, but Pepsi tastes close enough to get a good share of the business. Our industry competes on performance more than marketing, and it probably won’t take long for competitors to improve on what you do. I also suspect you may be too optimistic about how quickly you can gain market penetration, let alone market dominance; it is easy to underestimate the ability of competitors.

You are probably referring to publication of patent applications 18 months after filing. Prior to 2000, a patent was not published until it was granted, which could take several years. The good news is the publication date starts the clock for royalty payments; the bad news is the cat is out of the bag for the world to see, if you don’t get a patent. You can gain a time advantage by filing a provisional patent, which will add 12 months to the 18, for a total of 30 months.

I recommend that you discuss this matter with a business-savvy patent attorney. You should properly document the invention to establish the date of invention, develop the product as quickly as you can and promote the product vigorously, and file a provisional patent followed by a nonprovisional patent before introducing the product. You would then have the maximum time allowed to gain market penetration and would also not be left without any patent protection.

Th Mchang
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MILTON CHANG is managing director of Incubic Venture Fund, which invests in photonics applications. He was CEO/president of Newport and New Focus, and sits on the boards of Precision Photonics and OpVista. He holds a B.S. degree from the U. of Illinois and a Ph.D. from Caltech. He is a Fellow of IEEE, OSA, and LIA, a former president of LEOS and LIA, recipient of Distinguished Alumni Awards from both universities, serves on the board of trustees of Caltech, and is a member of the Committee of 100. Visit www.incubic.com for other articles he has written.

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