Can the telescope project be saved?

A Washington Post article about NASA canceling the telescope project is attached.

Jun 1st, 2006

Milton Chang

Q: A Washington Post article about NASA canceling the telescope project is attached. I have been working on this and am wondering how the technical community can pressure Congress to restore the project.

A: I can’t be too helpful here since I do not know enough about the Terrestrial Planet Finder project to take sides. The only downside of the cancellation according to science writer Michael Benson, who wrote the article, is the “loss of support for a new generation of young scientists” which undoubtedly includes you.

If Congress were responsible for canceling this project, then one could argue that politicians do not understand science and therefore we must do something. However, this appears to be a decision made by NASA leadership and therefore that argument can’t be used. Besides, I would be very surprised if NASA does not have good backup reasoning. While canceling a program is not a big deal to an agency, it obviously is to you. However, this is not a battle that can be easily won or even makes any sense.

You can either dwell on this issue or move on to find another frontier. The choice is obvious. It seems to me the sooner you move on, the more opportunities there will be to pick from before other engineers on this project get in the front of the line.

Q: Now that my stock options are fully vested, what position should I take in negotiating with my management in getting additional option grants?

A: A short answer is the company should consider some nominal “evergreen” stock option to show their appreciation for your services. I might add that if your focus is to maximize compensation, then you may have to work for a different company to get new option grants. If you exercise the stock option you vested at the current company-to in essence become an investor-you can ride on the current stock at the same time. You have to do so with care since the ride could be up or down.

From the company standpoint, stock options are granted as incentive when a new employee joins the company, and also to convey that “We are in it together.” You are in essence getting the ride with investors without taking any investment risk, and that benefit continues if you stay with the company. So the original purposes are being served even though no additional options are granted. However, if you leave, then the company has to grant new options to your replacement. Therefore, the company is better off granting you some additional stock options based on an appraisal of your future potential.

It is important to take this opportunity to reexamine whether the current job is on the critical path of your long-term goals, or whether it is providing a learning experience to give you more career options. At the end of the day, fair compensation is a necessary but insufficient condition to keep you.

Q: How would it work out if we keep our excellent engineering team here in the Midwest but move the rest of the company to California where our customers are?

A: Having the company at different locations can be done and is being done, but you would have a great deal of discontinuity that may introduce inefficiencies. My choice is to keep the company in one place. If you decide to stay put, the infrastructure needed to be able to deal with remote customers could set the stage for growth. If you move, you can encourage the current employees to move and also renew the talent pool with new hires. The move would be costly, but over time inefficiencies of keeping a separate site integrated can cost even more. A company should be a self-sustaining entity instead of being overly dependent on any one individual or group of individuals.

MILTON CHANG is managing director of Incubic Venture Fund, which invests in photonics and in businesses related to core technologies. He was CEO/president of Newport and New Focus and sits on the boards of several companies, including Arcturus Bioscience, OpVista, Rockwell Scientific, and YesVideo. He holds a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in electrical engineering. He is a Fellow of the Optical Society of America and the Laser Institute of America (LIA), and is a past president of the IEEE Laser Electro-Optical Society and LIA. Recently, he was elected a member of the Board of Trustees of Caltech. Visit www.incubic.com for other articles he’s written.

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