Prism - September 2002
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Engineering Their Way To The Top

- By Thomas K. Grose

An MBA is no longer the only way to climb the corporate ladder. Engineers are moving into the upper echelons of businesses and, at the same time, staying true to their roots.

Once upon a time in Corporate America, engineering degrees rarely ensured a career path that lead to power, prestige, big-ticket remuneration, and the ability to shape a company's future. Oh, the technologists often felt gratified. They were well compensated to do what they liked doing best, usually spending endless hours buried away in a lab. And that could pay off by leading to technological breakthroughs—work that was often recognized and applauded. But it didn't help them climb the corporate ladder to the stratospheric heights where executive vice presidents and the even more exalted roam, unless they were willing to trade in their lab coats for boardroom pinstripes and take on administrative duties. “Technical folks tend to have dead-end promotion paths as compared with managers and marketing and financial people,” notes Karl Auerbach, a computer scientist whose résumé includes a stint at Cisco.

Increasingly, however, that situation is changing within America's high-tech sector. Many companies have instituted programs that enable top engineers and scientists to stay put in the lab and continue their research, while conferring on them the trappings of executive-level power, particularly the wherewithal to help direct their company's technological future and devise new processes and products. These engineering graybeards are usually called “fellows” or “distinguished engineers,” depending on the company, and some firms have both. IBM, for instance, calls its most select engineers fellows, and its distinguished engineers (D.E.s) are one rung below. Microsoft calls its honored engineers D.E.s. But the titles don't matter so much as the fact that they offer talented, creative, and hard-working engineers career trajectories that have mainly been the providence of MBAs.

“A fellowship is a way to be recognized not just for management achievement but for technical achievement as well,” says Patricia Selinger, 52, an IBM fellow of eight years who works in the software group. Adds General Electric fellow Ernie Hall, 50: “It's important to honor the outstanding people who have decided to stay in a technology career. It provides for a dual career path, and it rewards technologists, but frees them from needing to go into management.”

The notion of engineering fellows is not new. The first fellowship program was created 40 years ago at IBM. It was seen “as a way to promote creativity among the company's ‘most exceptional' technical professionals,” explains Catherine Kovach, IBM spokesperson. Since then, IBM has named 170 fellows (including five Nobel Laureates) and has 55 on active duty. It began its Distinguished Engineers program in 1995. While they're not guaranteed a fellowship, IBM's D.E.s have certainly moved closer to the ultimate title. G.E. created its Coolidge Fellow award in 1970. It's named for William D. Coolidge, the G.E. scientist who invented the process for making incandescent filaments and a commonly used X-ray tube. To date, G.E. has named 61 fellows, and 18 are still on staff. But it wasn't until the 1990s that fellowship programs really took off among large tech companies, in part as a response to the allure of well-funded startups that were offering Silicon Valley's top scientists eye-popping compensation packages. Today, it's the big companies that can afford to underwrite huge research efforts and fatten the bank accounts of lab stars. Now, companies as diverse as Apple Computer, Intel, Sun, and Xerox have programs to honor and reward their most talented engineers. Microsoft only recently created its D.E. program, in July 2000, when it bestowed the title on 16 researchers.


The programs vary from company to company, as does the amount of power and autonomy granted to the engineering superstars. At some companies, fellows—either individually or as a group—have a huge say in whether certain projects or product development efforts continue, and their opinions matter greatly. At others, that aspect is more muted. The highest priority for G.E.'s fellows, for example, is to act as mentors to younger colleagues. And the amount of latitude fellows have to follow their creative muse wherever it takes them also varies. Some fellows are pretty much free to go where their research instincts suggest; at other companies, it's more of a joint decision made with senior managers.

IBM's program honors sustained technical achievements in engineering, programming, science, and technology. Kovach calls IBM's fellows “the company's most valuable technical resource.” And that means their opinions count—nearly as much as those of senior managers—and they are expected to be forward thinking. Nicholas M. Donofrio, IBM senior vice president, technology and manufacturing, says the company relies on technical leaders, including fellows, “to provide the vision and direction that ensures we always are anticipating the future needs of the marketplace and prioritizing our R&D efforts around technologies that will transform the industry.” Ghavam Shahidi, a 43-year-old IBM fellow who works in microelectronics, succinctly says the raison d'etre of fellows “is to come up with new ideas.” At Cisco, fellows and distinguished engineers are primarily meant to “set and influence the company's technical direction and advance state-of-the-art technology.” And Bell Lab's Jim Galiano, assistant to the president of Bell Labs Research and Advanced Technologies, says its fellows “help shape our future direction.”

A distinguishing feature of some fellowship programs is that fellows are given a chance to do innovative research. At General Electric, the fellows get a year's research grant “to do research anywhere in the world on any topic.” It's not necessary for the research to have commercial applications, but as Healy points out, fellows typically pick projects within their areas of specialization, “which tend to be never too far from G.E.'s core technologies.” G.E.'s Mel Jackson divided his time studying electron-beam physical vapor deposition at Penn State; the strength of advanced intermetallic materials at the French space agency, ONERA, and at the University of Tennessee; and the structural stability in advanced intermetallic composites at Imperial College, London. He was looking for new materials for the next generation of jet engine hot-gas paths. And G.E.'s Pierro Bonissone studied fuzzy logic and soft computing at the Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona in Spain in 1996, learning to create soft computing systems by integrating some constituent technologies. These systems are now used in several G.E. applications, including insurance underwriting, aircraft engine and medical equipment diagnostics, and industrial process controls.

At IBM, the fellows are given five years to “embark on new directions in their particular fields of expertise.” The caveat is that the projects are reviewed annually, and the plug can be pulled if it's determined that they won't lead to anything commercially useful. “It's not just pie in the sky,” says Shahidi, who works with high performance transistors used in such things as IBM servers and Apple laptops; he's also involved in a joint project with Sony and Toshiba on the next generation of Playstation. On the other hand, Selinger notes, the projects officially last five years, “but practically they can be never-ending, if you do good work and are successful.” Selinger is currently developing a common, single interface to access both structured data, like tables, and unstructured data, including e-mail, Word documents, and video. An early solution is the IBM DiscoveryLink, which can access several databases via a single query tool and has been used in life sciences studies, including the mapping of the human genome.

Engineers are a somewhat argumentative lot, so it's not surprising that some dispute the need to give a handful of researchers exalted titles and power. Karl Auerbach, the industry veteran who is now on the board of ICANN, the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers, admits that “there are good reasons to reward creative work,” but fellow and D.E. designations still trouble him. They can “become an obstacle to the introduction of ideas by younger people who are afraid of people who have big titles.” More worrisome, Auerbach says that “in the software and networking area, I have seen them used as an inducement to retain employees rather than to reward original thought. The notion that promotion and titles should be used to retain people is widely accepted, but it results in something called the Peter Principle, in which people are promoted to one level above their competency.” Auerbach also argues that the power some fellows have allows them to make bad decisions that can go unchecked.

IBM's Shahidi says fellows do try to avoid coming across as God-like to younger staffers. “We really work to make sure that doesn't happen, mainly by listening,” he says. General Electric's Hall says his company “historically is a meritocracy that does not care much about titles; it's more about what you can bring to your team.” G.E.'s focus on mentoring, he adds, also helps bridge generation gaps, because younger scientists are encouraged to regularly discuss their careers and projects with fellows. Cisco also emphasizes their teaching roles. As Cisco fellow Fred Baker told Packet, the company's internal magazine: “The primary job of a Cisco fellow is to educate others. The most important thing I can do is make sure that the next person who fills my shoes is better than I am.”

Fellows are also dismissive of the notion that there are no checks and balances on them. “Fellows can influence company direction, but not really make changes. There is usually a consensus opinion. We do have to show direction, we need to help in the decision-making process, but we don't make decisions for top executives,”says Kumar Wickramasinghe, an IBM fellow who specializes in nanotechnology measurements. His colleagues, Shahidi and Selinger, agree. “One good thing about IBM is that all people are thoroughly encouraged to express their opinions—you're always challenged, and that's a very healthy thing,” Shahdi says. Adds Selinger: “Our fellow fellows are not shy about expressing opinions. There is an effective peer constraint system.” She's daily in contact with three or four other fellows, including her boss, “and we're always exchanging ideas or arguing.” Nevertheless, Bell Labs' Galiano admits that the opinions of fellows can carry just that extra bit of weight. “They have more influence.”


And having influence and access to top executives is something that fellows agree is enticing. IBM's fellows many not be the final arbiters, but being part of decision-making processes is still a heady experience,Wickramasinghe admits. “That's one of the exciting parts of being a fellow, to see if you can help change the direction of the company.”

Selinger says the charge to make their opinions known about various projects comes naturally. “Many of us became fellows because we were already doing things like that,” she says. “All of us are overachievers who are motivated to get impact.” Anything that allows them to drive their inventions and visions “is a strong motivation for all fellows,” Selinger adds. Indeed, shortly after she was named a fellow, Selinger made it known that she felt IBM needed an Unix database. It soon had one.

How fellows are selected also varies from company to company, but in all instances, the barriers to entry are high. At IBM, nominations come from top executives and the final selection rests with the CEO. IBM calls its requirements “stringent.” They include a “sustained history of technical achievements and business accomplishment,” and candidates must have added to the body of knowledge in their area of expertise, while showing potential to make continuing contributions to IBM and the industry on a whole. At General Electric, any technical person can nominate someone to be a fellow. “It's a grassroots thing,” says Hall, a materials science expert who develops new technologies to measure compositions at the nanoscale. A panel composed of top managers and other fellows makes the final decisions. “It's really about peer recognition, which makes it more special,” Hall adds. Bell Labs, whose program dates to 1982, names only about five fellows a year. Bell candidates are nominated by top executives, and a committee comprising the chief technology officers from its major units, headed by the company's chief technology officer, meets annually to vet the list. Galiano says making the choices is a hard task, since the nominees tend to be “the best of the best, the top 10 percent. Yet only the top percent are named.”

Within most companies, it's rare that fellows act as some sort of super fraternity with many organized meetings, but they do communicate with one another and sometimes act as a group. Many work within teams or units that include other fellows. IBM's fellows automatically join its Academy of Technology, which meets annually, but the fellows themselves organize only about 10 informal meetings a year. At G.E., Hall says how active the fellows are as a group tends to be determined by the changing composition of the clan. Currently, he says, some of the fellows are meeting monthly to determine ways to make more contributions to the company. One possibility is organizing a world-class technology symposium at G.E. And a few years back, the fellows administered a visiting scientist program.

Some companies also expect their fellows to act as ambassadors to industry, government, and academic groups. Selinger is currently helping to organize and recruit speakers for conferences and programs, which keeps her in contact with fellows from other companies, like Microsoft. Seeing fellows from other firms is a useful “cross fertilization,” she says, that allows the technologists to keep tabs on what's going on in their industry.

But while she finds these exchanges of ideas helpful, she's quick to stress, “that doesn't mean I would phone a non-IBM fellow for help when I have a design problem.” The need to communicate with all their other colleagues, internally and externally, means that fellows cannot just limit themselves to being lab aces. Cisco fellow Bruce Davie told Packet magazine, “You have to do more than think up smart things. A fellow is well-rounded, is good at public speaking, writes well, knows how to deal with non-technical politics and broker compromises that result in useful ideas.”

Fellows also emphasize the importance of teamwork. Selinger says the lone wolf genius working solo in the lab, a la Thomas Edison, is a minority figure these days. Most of today's good science, she says, accrues from the space program model of teams of brilliant researchers working in tandem with one another, and that most certainly includes fellows or D.E.s. And sometimes teams form around fellows with little formal planning. Recently, IBM's Wickramasinghe set himself up in a lab at the company's Almaden Research Center in San Jose to pursue a new technology to extend the storage densities of magnetic discs. He had perfected an experiment in a lab to extend storage by a factor of 10, but was nowhere near creating a product. But as word spread about what he was doing, many colleagues joined him on an ad hoc basis. “That allowed me to drive from an experiment phase to a likely product that should be ready in one or two years,” he says. Perhaps Wickramasinghe's anecdote best exemplifies the essence of being an engineering fellow. A top technologist, by the sure dint of his laboratory brilliance, leads by example to devise a useful product that pushes his company into new territory. And in turn, he's as well rewarded and regarded as any senior vice president for marketing and sales. Within America's high-tech industry, new recruits armed with freshly minted advanced degrees in engineering may today find that their career path is just as good today as an MBA's. And they need never leave the lab to pursue it.


Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at