Business Forum: Practice intrapreneurship to prepare for any career in photonics

Photonics technologies are found in a wide range of products and play a part in almost every industry.


Photonics technologies are found in a wide range of products and play a part in almost every industry, evolving from "solutions looking for problems" to "problems looking for novel photonics solutions." This trend means we will have more opportunities for jobs, innovation, and starting our own companies. Let's explore how we can steer our career strategy to capitalize on this trend.

The financial outlook for wage-earners has been less than positive for some time. In most parts of the world, there is greater concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and a shrinking middle class. In the lingo of economists, middle-class Americans are earning money in a deflationary economy, where wages are falling in real buying power. In other words, engineers who pursue a pure technical career track are losing out. We must rethink our careers to get a fair shake and a piece of the action in this technological- and innovation-driven economic boom.

Using my personal experience as a case in point, with a PhD, I landed a good-paying job in an aerospace company making $18,000 a year. That was 1969 and, with that, we could afford a new house in a nice middle-class neighborhood, and my wife could be a stay-at-home mom to raise two children. Today, an engineer has to earn at least three times what I earned in equivalent dollars to buy the same house. With that 20:20 hindsight, I can now say an engineer must think strategically to improve their economic outlook and gain control of the destiny of their career.

Students who aspire to become engineers can follow a straightforward roadmap by first building a solid foundation in STEM and achieving academic excellence. That can bring a desirable job and help to launch a high-trajectory career. Regardless of the career you choose, always opt for a job that provides project management responsibilities to enhance the opportunity to learn and grow. A corollary is to never take a job that is routine in nature, even if it offers a higher salary or an attractive compensation package. Rapid changes in technology will likely make you obsolete.

Then, you must keep up with technological advances and perform to your utmost for your company. You will get recognition for doing so and gain the opportunity to take on greater project management responsibilities. The skills you pick up can provide a hedge against technological obsolescence because you will be able to hire and manage more-current engineers to do the cutting-edge work to satisfy the needs of your company, even if you fail to keep up with technology.

Going one step further, you may also want to take on intrapreneurial or commercialization and business development responsibilities. Doing so provides you the experience to start and run your own business because running a business unit within a company has many similarities to running a standalone business.

Starting a company can provide you the ultimate control of your own destiny. Making the move from having a regular paycheck will not be an easy decision because of the high failure rate of startup companies. Intrapreneurial experience can bring a degree of self-confidence to go forward, and the experience can help you avoid many of the common mistakes to improve your chance of success.

If you do decide to start a company, use the low-risk startup model I have been advocating. That is, start in a well-defined niche in an industry you know and manage with prudence to grow your company over time. For sure, taking the plunge as some would suggest, without proper preparation, is foolhardy. Learning on the job by taking on managerial and intrapreneurial responsibility is a win-win for you and the company you work for.

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