Can a good engineer become a successful entrepreneur?
by Ephram Suhir
When I joined a big corporation after coming to this country about 25 years ago, I was surprised to hear the following opinion from my manager, a very good administrator with an MBA degree from MIT: "A highly qualified professional is like an important piece of equipment. When you need it, you buy it. When you do not, you get rid of it."
Several years ago, I attended a meeting where a high-ranking executive of a large company spoke about leadership in front of an audience of engineers and scientists. The speaker, whose background was in both business administration and engineering, argued that an engineer or a scientist simply cannot be a high-level leader in an engineering company and should not be even trained to become one. Furthermore, in-depth technical knowledge should be viewed as a burden, an obstacle that prevents an engineering professional from becoming a successful leader by developing a broad understanding and a clear vision of various administrative, financial, and psychological issues.
Such a viewpoint is widely held, especially in large corporations. But is it right? Is it not because of such a perception that the communication giant AT&T was brought by its leaders from its top position in the world just 20 years ago to its diminished fortunes today? Has the time of Edisons, Fords, Bells, and Marconis gone forever? Could an engineer or an applied scientist make a successful entrepreneur? What skills would one need?
We live in a world that needs creative leadership, and the necessity for effective scientific and technological entrepreneurship is increasing. Rapid technological change and the emerging global marketplace provide challenges for engineers and businessmen. Understanding how to recognize and evaluate market opportunities has become crucial in the new environment.
A technological professional with entrepreneurial skills has a better chance than a business administrator of moving innovations from research into manufacturing and the marketplace. The professional qualifications of an engineer are not an obstacle, but an important prerequisite for making a business successful. But, of course, it is the engineer's entrepreneurial abilities and business-oriented actions that will make the business successful. These same abilities and actions will make the engineer a valued enabler of society's wealth creation, and not a commodity in the global marketplace.
An engineering entrepreneur should be able to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity; be flexible; "mind someone else's business" in addition to his own; understand and be able to speak the language of other professionals and other entrepreneurs, not necessarily just that of his or her own engineering or business domain; possess effective lateral (functional) thinking and vertical (in-depth) thinking, as well as a team player's attitude; be able to be both a convincing "speaker" and an attentive "listener"; be able to understand, explain, and persuade, and possess courage to take on reasonable risks and responsibilities as a leader.
In addition, an engineering entrepreneur should be a good psychologist and a people-oriented person; have a creative and an inquisitive mind; be internationally conscious; be knowledgeable in foreign languages and cultures; be able to think on the international level and in international terms; exhibit interest in, and possess good knowledge of, foreign values, attitudes, and customs. Communication skills, both oral and written, are important, and computer skills are vital. Such skills have become ingrained into the modern culture, and are no longer only an element of education.
Since most American companies conduct a large share of their manufacturing and sales operations overseas, an engineering entrepreneur should understand the economics and financial aspects of an engineering effort (for example, how to make a product offshore, decide on best buy-vs.-develop strategies, and so on); be goal-oriented, aggressive, highly motivated, and be a creative performer; possess strong analytical and planning skills, as well as negotiating skills.
A thorough understanding of the state-of-the-art in many related areas of engineering is critical, as is a vision for the most promising directions in the development of applied science and engineering. An engineering entrepreneur should be able to work well in dynamic and rapidly changing environments, under pressure and in short time frames; possess an ability to work effectively across multiple organizations, boards, companies, and departments, and with specialists of different disciplines and fields, and with people of different mentalities, origins, and cultural backgrounds; be willing to learn new things and be receptive to, and have a quick grasp of, new approaches and ideas.
An engineer can and should possess business skills and become a good entrepreneur-that is, guide the business side, as well as the technological side, of a successful enterprise.
Ephraim Suhir, a Fellow of ASME and of three other professional societies, is president and CEO of his company, ERS/Siloptix Co., in Los Altos, Calif.