Innovation Pays It Forward

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.

6 comments on “Innovation Pays It Forward

  1. karenfield
    February 12, 2013

    Congratulations to you on your long tenure at Keithley. You're lucky and your employer is lucky that you've both had a good long run. When I started out at Texas Instruments, a bit longer ago than I care to admit, there were either tons of blue employee badges (which meant less than five yrs experience) and lots of gold badges (over 25 years)–the problem was that the company had trouble retaining engineers after the first five years. So training costs were exhorbitant to bring in new people only to see them leave before getting much return on that investment. That's likely still the case today–though i suspect there is a lot less loyalty on the employer side now. 

  2. goafrit2
    February 12, 2013

    >> That's likely still the case today–though i suspect there is a lot less loyalty on the employer side now.

    The day Reid invented LinkedIn was the day loyalty ended. If a company can fire, why not be pro-active and advertise yourself? The tenured tradition is broken. For those that stay more than 10 years in company, I commend them. Unless I get to do new tasks in new depts, it may be hard for me.

  3. goafrit2
    February 12, 2013

    >> Instead of jumping ship, I stayed at Keithley and learned about one business

    It is also important to ask if the company has returned the favor by rewarding you for the steadfastness. You went with them; they must return the favor.

  4. SunitaT
    February 27, 2013

    Many of  the candidates do the work they hate or are not in the field where they want to go in their careers. In such case its better to shift the job in search of our area of interest.

  5. torfa
    March 17, 2013

    Many times, in the past 15-25 years, engineers who have the good intentions of staying with the same employer are laid off. So where is the loyalty on the part of the company. I understand the bottom line drives these decisions. And after the recession we have just been thru, and stil in for a lot of people, it behooves us to increase our skill set for sale, by working in as many different places and industries as possible. Being the generalist specialist has helped me get new jobs as a contractor, or consultant.

    My first “career” emplyer was Westinghouse Electric. I managed to get in 22 years before lay off and reorg of the company. I thought it would be forever. Few engineers can get more than 5-6 years with the same company now a days.

    best is to learn as much as you can about as many different things as possible. Jack of all trades and master of a few, wil sustain you for a long time.

  6. Netcrawl
    March 17, 2013

    @SunitaT, I agree with you! They hate the job because its not their field of interest, simpy put they want something great but they got a different. This is a seriosu matter for companies, manpower is a precious ingredient of today's business- we need to ge or hire the right man for the right job.

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