At this week’s Frontiers in Optics meeting, Milton Chang shared his advice about how to forge a path toward entrepreneurship at the OSA Student Leadership Conference. Here are highlights from his talk.
Many of you are already off to a good start toward constructing a fulfilling technical career: You have shown active involvement in your community and picked a technical field for your future. You will find your niche and do well.
I was once where you are: wondering what to do with my career. I immigrated from Hong Kong for college; worked my way through my undergraduate years; and was employed by an aerospace company for a few years. Then I joined a start-up as the 7th employee. Eventually I became president of that company—The Newport Corporation—and took it public.
You too can build a successful future. With your technical know-how, you can do anything you want, as long as you continue to broaden yourself, learn and study. Here’s how to ensure that your career will move in the right direction over the long term:
Gain as much expertise as possible to compete for opportunities. Hiring managers are looking for someone with expertise who can get the job done. Having a graduate degree is a great starting point—
but don’t stop there. Learn as many skills as possible to gain access to jobs that others will not have. Often having the combination of a few skills will lead you to many more opportunities than you would have with just one area of expertise: 1+1=10.
Having a breadth of knowledge enables you to make sound decisions. When choosing your career path, you don’t want to have blinders on—so make sure you learn about subjects beyond your technical area. In particular, having business acumen and an understanding of management can make you more effective on the job as an engineer and also provide you with more career options.
Your reputation and your network are your resources. There are two types of networking you can engage in as a professional: The “shoulder slapping” variety, in which you forge friendly connections with a wide range of others, and the stronger relationships you have with a few confidantes. Both types are important to your career.
For those interested in pursuing the entrepreneurial path, here’s how to get started:
Be really good at what you do and know your industry. This is the #1 requirement for being an entrepreneur. You need both technical expertise and knowledge of business and management. Avoid pursuing an idea that is outside of the industry you know intimately; instead go for a niche that capitalizes on your expertise and grow the business over time as you gain experience.
Start by joining a well managed company. Perish the thought of starting a company right out of school—you simply don’t know enough yet. Strive to succeed by first learning what it takes to succeed and by building your professional reputation and network.
Take on project management. You don’t want to just grind away at a narrow task or technology that could at some point become obsolete. Engaging in big-picture project management will help you gain well-rounded skills, build your network and learn how the world works. This is what will make you become more valuable over time. Volunteering for a professional society is a great way to start.
In summary, I recommend that you think broadly about your career first, and then decide later if entrepreneurship is right for you. For more specifics on starting a business, read my book Toward Entrepreneurship: Establishing a Successful Technology Business.
Milton Chang (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the director of Precision Photonics, mBio and Aurrion, a trustee of Caltech, and a member of the SEC Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies.