Working at a company for 10 to 20 years may have been the norm in the past, but increasing competition is forcing companies to change and adapt quickly, and in that environment, individuals with broad skills and experience are highly valued. Having worked in California’s Silicon Valley for 30 years, this was very true, as the only constant is change! Start-ups came and went and people changed jobs whenever they got bored or were laid off. I am going to tell you why change is good. Buckminister Fuller, the inventor of the Geodesic dome and lots of other cool stuff said, “You can never learn less, you can only learn more.” The following are some examples of lessons learned from 40 years of experience at more than 20 jobs, both large and small.
Startups – The Amiga
As a kid, I took my toys apart to see how they were made. In college I discovered industrial design, which to my delight combined my mechanical and aesthetic interests. But when I graduated San Jose State University in Silicon Valley in 1975, the economy was in bad shape. The only job I could land was as a mechanical designer, making use of my drafting skills.
In 1984, I was again out of a job and literally stumbled into a startup in Santa Clara. Although they said it was a video game peripherals company, once hired I discovered that they were actually working on the first multi-tasking personal computer – the Commodore-Amiga. It was going to be an awesome game machine that would also be a personal computer. The startup was founded by Ex Atari chip manager Jay Minor who brought on board several hardware and software engineers from the gaming industry.
The cool thing about startups is there are so few people that everyone has to wear many hats. Although my job was to create mechanical drawings, I also became the document control clerk, later the industrial designer and then a manufacturing engineer working with the manufacturer in Japan.
Wearing multiple hats can be fun and sometimes frustrating, but working with various functional groups gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation of their duties and responsibilities. Those experiences were invaluable later when I became a program manager.
Big Companies – Sun & Apple
As companies grow and their product lines expand, the workload increases in every functional area. Rules and procedures are established to ensure consistency and improve coordination between functional groups. However, each group tends to focus only on their own needs rather than the product. One way I have found to help bridge that gap is to build personal relationships within each group.
For example, in 2004 I worked at Apple as a project manager on a new graphics card from nVidia that was going into the next PowerMac. That card was required to power the new 30-inch flat panel display that was going to be introduced at the upcoming Mac World. The first thing I did was to put together a schedule and it quickly became apparent that Apple’s Graphics software development was not being coordinated with nVidia’s board development. I sat down with the direct responsible engineer (DRE) in each functional group at Apple (graphics software, hardware, compliance, quality, manufacturing, etc.) and with the project manager at nVidia to find out what was complete and what work remained and got estimates for the time and resources required to complete them. Unfortunately, the graphic card development was not lining up with the PowerMac schedule. Apple’s policy was that a product had to be in stock at least a month before it was announced at Mac World. A late product would mean hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. Suddenly, there were evening “War Room” meetings with Directors and VP’s and senior engineers and me. Engineers were pulled off of other projects and told to do whatever necessary (nights and weekends) to get it finished in time – and it was. The personal relationships I made with DRE’s in the various functional groups during schedule creation paid off and the card was finished on time.
Managing People, Processes and Tools
At Amiga, the chief engineer had a very convincing story about how he was from Jupiter, here to observe us Earthlings. At another company, a draftsman reporting to me had an enlarged picture of himself on his motorcycle with a rifle mounted to the handle bars. I’ve worked with prima donnas and humble, industry-leading engineers. Despite their differences I reveled in their brilliance and quirkiness. Learning how to work effectively with coworkers is probably the most important skill you will acquire – and it takes a lot of practice and experience, preferably at multiple companies.
Product development processes also differ at every company, but the basic elements typically are: identify customer needs; build a business case; 3) design, build and test the product; and put it into production. Most tech companies use a “Stage Gate” process, in which business teams regularly review progress and approve or deny the continued use of human and financial resources. Companies with processes that are simple and effective make everyone’s life easier and make everything go faster. Unfortunately most company’s processes have become very complicated over time. The problem gets worse at big companies, even at Apple. Apple achieved great things through blood, sweat and tears, despite processes that were OK at best. My advice is to get some experience at a small company. It is good to experience things being done quickly. Take note and perhaps you may be able to help improve a process at a future job.
Part of managing a process involves effectively using tools, including software programs that people use to get their daily job done. A tool could be Outlook email, SAP parts management, mechanical or electrical design CAD tools, and database management tools for storing and managing document changes. Big companies may have byzantine processes but they can afford the best tools.
Furthermore, exposure to multiple tools at different companies can be beneficial. For example, it took me three to six months before I was proficient on my first mechanical CAD program. But with each new CAD tool I used the learning curve got shorter.
A very cool tool I used at a medical device company was a database program used for writing product specifications and test procedures. This satisfied the FDA requirement that every feature of a product did what it was supposed to do.
Companies are under financial pressure to keep their overhead low while at the same time facing competitive pressure to get products to market faster. In this climate, individuals with multiple skills and varied experiences are very valuable! One way to make yourself more valuable is to get lots of experience and the way to do that is through job changes.
A layoff can be a blessing in disguise (in retrospect). A job opening at a bigger or smaller company may be worth pursuing because it can expose you to new technologies, new skills and new processes, and help you develop people skills that will make you stand out from the crowd. Remember, change is good!
Howard W. Stolz, PMP, is a senior project manager in the combustion products group at Honeywell in Minnesota. Stolz has designed or managed the development of more than 100 products. He has a BS in Industrial Design but spent the first half of his career as a mechanical designer and the second as a project and program manager at start-ups and Fortune 500 companies, including Sun Microsystems and Apple Computer.