By Thomas K. Grose
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.
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 breakthroughswork 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.
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.
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.
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.
vary from company to company, as does the amount of power and autonomy
granted to the engineering superstars. At some companies, fellowseither
individually or as a grouphave 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.
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
countnearly as much as those of senior managersand 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 opinionsyou'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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.