A focus on problem solving can be applied beyond engineering, as can a willingness to leave your comfort zone.
As engineers, we often find ourselves challenged by the different skills required in a rapidly changing technology landscape. Specific engineering skills deemed “hot” 10 years ago might seem less so today.
As a tech industry veteran, I often find myself fielding questions from younger colleagues, or those still pursuing academic careers. How do I remain relevant and stay ‘in demand’ over the course of my professional life?” they ask.
At a recent dinner in San Francisco with Junko Yoshida, global co-editor in chief of EE Times, we discussed this very topic in the context of a conference for Women In Engineering where I was speaking. Junko asked what my one piece of advice would be for female engineers transitioning from school to their first jobs. My immediate reply was: “Seek opportunities that offer a diversity of experience early in your professional life.”
As engineers, the principal skill we should all develop during our undergraduate days is the ability to solve problems.
Academically, the focus might be on a general process within the context of a particular technical subject. But problem solving is something that can be mastered and applied to areas of business beyond traditional engineering. Any business — whether it’s struggling or growing — always needs contributors and leaders who understand how to crack the current conundrum.
It nearly always comes down to applying the fundamentals of “problem solving” to any situation. You may be designing the next RF integrated circuit or the next machine learning algorithm. You could be leading a team of developers, or you might already be CEO of a startup or an established company. Regardless, the first order of business is to grasp the basic problems you face and attack them systematically.
Do this right often enough and you will create value, maintaining your relevance to both your company and the industry.
But how exactly to do this?
I sought opportunities within my company that were outside my comfort zone. For example, despite my graduate degree in signal processing/communications theory, I also worked in sales and marketing. I wanted to understand the “business” of technology.
My grad school peers all thought I was nuts!
After all, I had no formal education in sales, marketing or business. But I knew my knowledge of communication systems would come in handy when working with my customers’ engineers. I could help them design systems using my company’s communications chipsets. My background enabled me to ascertain customer problems and offer solutions using my company’s products and services. Revenue — the ultimate measure of success in any company — followed.
Without that direct customer-engineer relationship, I would have struggled to understand and appreciate my customers’ problems. That experience is rare for engineers.
I’ve since witnessed the same issues emerge in the business development of, for example, modern-day IoT and cloud management. Applying the same problem-solving techniques generates similar outcomes.
The business of technology tends to be cyclical, irrespective of segment. Thus far in my career, I’ve had the opportunity to use my problem-solving skills in RF/wireless, semiconductors, cloud-based management/machine learning, digital media and most recently digital marketing. None of these are part of the typical engineer’s expertise,
As we gain more work experience, we build a path that ultimately leads to purely technical contributions or some sort of general management. But a background as a generalist often translates into success among key decision makers.
So, here are my life lessons:
1. Understand and appreciate how you can evolve beyond engineering by applying basic problem-solving principles to every business domain.
2. Develop interpersonal skills: It’s easier to devise solutions if you’re a good listener who asks intelligent questions.
Those two lessons alone can take you a long way, keeping you relevant through all the ups and downs of a career. They might even enable you, in the immortal words of Sheldon Cooper, to “live long and prosper.”
— Chris Fisher is currently the CEO of a stealth-mode digital marketing startup. He also works as a business development consultant to numerous companies in the wireless communications industry. In the past 25 years, he has been a co-founder of and management team member for several technology company’s within the mobile, Wi-Fi, UltraWideband, app enabled mobile accessories, and digital marketing industries. Some of these companies were sold, or went public