I cannot help but reflect on how things might have turned out if I had pursued a slightly different career path. I received my Bachelor's degree in 1988, and started working the same year. I have no regrets, but a colleague (no longer working at the company) told me that the best thing I could have done for my career would have been to jump ship every four to five years. He told me to do this so that I could get an opportunity to learn more about some of the many different dimensions of the engineering profession, more about different kinds of businesses, and so that I could learn from as many different people as possible.
I believe that he was right if you value creating new products in greater variety. But innovative products do more than just replace the prior art. The products enable their users to also innovate, so those users can also pay it forward to their customers, enabling them to create their own disruptive products. Never underestimate the multiplicative effect of creation. A cure for a deadly disease could ultimately come from a sensitive measurement and a new 10MHz 18-bit SAR.
Wherever you work in this chain reaction of invention, do not sell yourself or your designs short of what they are really worth. The Hollywood equivalent would be George Bailey's story from It's a Wonderful Life. Only a chain reaction of innovation can do so much good. So how can this progress be cultivated? First we all, must share the desire to create. Second, we need to cooperate with one another. True disruptive innovation is rarely totally home grown, and is often due to insight from an individual with a new perspective. Someone who just doesn't know any better.
Outsiders have a habit of solving problems unconventionally. Certainly the audio guys know a thing or two about low noise that may come in handy in test and measurement instrumentation. Interestingly, there are other ways to share this elusive insight that falls squarely on the Integration Nation topic. It isn't necessary for us to change jobs every few years -- we can just choose to communicate with one another. We can start by talking with others within our own organization, whether or not they are working directly with us. We could also ask for new capabilities from our analog vendors, where the pay it forward concept begins.
We likely will not get exactly what we want. Our vendors care about technical specs like power dissipation, voltage ratings, and the like; then they want to know how many we plan to purchase. But we may get a building block, or perhaps an idea from a factory applications engineer who has solved a different problem for a totally unrelated application. In order to learn from the experiences of others, we are going to have to let our guards down and talk about more than just the weather, or the few new parts for which we may or may not have any use.
Instead of jumping ship, I stayed at Keithley and learned about one business, and most of the different dimensions of engineering from a small, close-knit team. It was lucky for me indeed that Keithley is such an unusual place and had so much to offer. I've learned a great deal designing test and measurement equipment, but the most valuable lesson I have learned is how to communicate with my peers, and the amazing power of the pay it forward concept.