CLIMBING UP THE LADDER
It seems that there are three phases in the professional life of any person. The first phase is getting a job -- any job – after graduating from school or college. One typically moves around from one temporary job to another during this phase. The second phase involves settling down in a semi-permanent job. People buy homes, start families and plan for a future during this period. The third phase is “climbing up the ladder”. This means recognition, promotion, etc.leading to wealth generation and enhancement of social/professional status.
Many people are content with the first two phases. This is especially true in academia. I know many friends who graduated from universities with PhD degrees and after a few years of post-doctoral research fellowships or lecturer-ships they end up in a tenure-track faculty position somewhere and eventually get tenure. They happily spend the rest of their career basically in the same position and eventually retire with a good pension. I do not know how people enter the third phase, but here is my story.
When I left academia and decided to work in an industry to start my second phase, it was not clear to me what to expect. I was thrilled with the job offer from RCA which included not only a significantly higher salary compared to the compensation from my faculty job but also a great relocation package and fringe benefits. I joined an engineering development group at the RCA facility in Indianapolis which was the headquarters of the Consumer Electronics Division. Fortunately for me, my boss Dave also did not quite know what to do with someone like me with a PhD degree in physics.
It was Dave's boss Jim McDonald who had created the development group and was the one who suggested hiring a PhD physicist to bridge the gap that existed between the RCA research lab in Princeton, consisting of mostly PhDs, and the hands-on design engineers in Indianapolis. Dave used to be the manager in the speaker division for more than thirty years, but that department was disbanded, and he was transferred to the group I joined. He was approaching retirement age and happy to follow whatever Jim instructed him to do. As a result, Dave basically left me alone.
We also had a product design group which shared the same office space and Dave was the manager of both the development and the design group. The combined department was called "Magnetics Engineering". The other engineers from my development group were spending all their time learning how to use some computer simulation programs the research lab had developed and to give feedback to the lab about the "user-friendliness" and accuracy of the programs.
Although I had developed FORTRAN 77 programs during my graduate studies, I had an aversion to spending a lot of time understanding and using programs developed by others. So, I spent most of my time talking to the actual product designers who had years of experience, all quite a bit older than me. They were glad to see my interest in their work and happy to spend time with me.
I realized that these design engineers really did not understand all those theoretical models of the lab guys and were quite content to do the design work in the old-fashioned empirical way. Coming from the fierce "publish or perish" culture of academia, I was itching to write some papers. With blessings from both Dave and Jim, I started to write a series of "Engineering Reports". These had a different flavor from the reports of the RCA lab in the sense that I used considerably simpler models and generously used input from the product designers.
The lab guys were patronizing me at first but not that thrilled when I started to publish some of my work in journals such as Journal of Applied Physics and IEEE Transactions. My relationship with the lab, especially the "section head" of the group that interacted with us, grew almost hostile. They not only became critical of the simplicity of my work but suggested that I was causing a distraction from the really useful work of product design.
Jim McDonald just loved this feud because he could show those Princeton folks that he had his own guy and did not have to take everything coming out of the lab as gospel. While writing the reports and publishing papers with no close supervision from anyone seemed to be a perfect job for the first couple of years, I was getting weary of the constant arguments with the Princeton guys and a general frustration that I was not being more useful to the company. I also developed an intense dislike for Dave's "hands off" management style and in particular how he kept the engineers in the development group, including myself, isolated from the real world of design and production. His basic weakness was a lack of understanding of the theoretical models and the actual design process. He was almost a caretaker of non-technical problems and a baby-sitter for the new engineers.
I felt that the development group could be managed much better by forming a strong bond with the lab as well as getting the development engineers involved in real-life design work. I wanted to do that job. I had no doubt that I could do an order of magnitude better job than Dave and already had some ideas about how I would go about it if I had the opportunity; but who would I talk to? Certainly not Dave; Jim would probably laugh at my ambition and audacity since I had zero experience as a manager.
I concluded that the only way I could get a promotion to be the manager of the development group was by threatening to leave. That would work only if I had an actual offer for a managerial position at a competitor company. I loved working at RCA, and I loved my domestic life in Indy. I really had no intention of going to another company even if they offered me a manager’s position. Our two main competitors were Zenith, based in Chicago, and Philips whose design/manufacturing facility for similar products was in Seneca Falls, New York – a small town about half-way between Rochester and Syracuse. I called both places expressing my interest and, not surprisingly, was invited for an interview at both facilities.
The Zenith interview came first. I liked the place. Having lived in Milwaukee for several years, I was very familiar with the city of Chicago and Zenith was regarded as highly as RCA by most people. However, it turned out that they already had a very capable design manager in place in my area of interest and the best they could offer me was the promise that I could be groomed to replace him when he retired; but that could take years.
Seneca Falls was not an attractive place. It was a small town which experienced major snow falls during the winter and was difficult to access by plane. Fortunately, they already knew my work and potential capabilities from my conference presentations. I made the repeated emphasis on the point that the only reason I was even contemplating leaving RCA was the fact that I felt that I was ready for a managerial position.
Philips really did not need a manager but understood my reason. They did make me an offer as a manager of a design group with a salary about 15% more than what I was making. It was understood that I would have only two people reporting to me, an engineer and a technician, but the offer letter did not specify that. I knew what to do with that letter. Mentioning it to Dave Laux would have been a waste of time and he would see this as an imminent threat. I had to go directly to Jim. It was somewhat unnerving, but the comforting thought was that Jim really liked me!
What I did next rivaled some of the other daredevil acts in my life. I made an appointment to see Jim and went to his office at the scheduled time with my offer letter in hand and closed the door. After the usual greetings I simply handed him the letter without saying anything. After allowing him a couple of minutes to read the letter I said “You know Jim. I really do not want to leave RCA. I love this place. I bet that you can give me exactly an equivalent position at the same salary right here right now as the manager of the development group in Magnetics Engineering and we will both be happy”.
Jim was a Scottish fellow who spoke with a thick accent. He paused for a minute and looked at the floor in his characteristic style. Then he said “You have to understand that the development group is really a temporary organization. I established that because all of our design engineers are fast approaching retirement age and we needed to groom some new engineers to take their places. The real job is managing the product design group”. Then he put me on the spot and asked, “Are you ready to be the manager of the product design group?”
This was a brilliant move on Jim’s part. I always admired his quick thinking, but now it seemed he had already decided my future. I paused for a few seconds. I thought of all the design engineers old enough to be my father and with years of experience and my own complete lack of both design and management experience; but I had reached a point of no return. Jim knew that the only answer that could come from his favorite engineer was “Yes, I am ready”. He also did a clever thing. He said that he would make me the manager of the design group but keep Dave as the manager of the development group. That way, he did not have to worry about what to do with Dave and not create any turmoil within the engineers of the development group.
The announcement came the next day and absolutely stunned everyone. For me, this was an incredible experience. My respect for Jim went up several notches. He was risking the future of perhaps the entire division because he believed in me, and he had the guts to make an instantaneous decision instead of procrastinating for days.
I immediately suffered from “buyer’s remorse”; what did I just do? Could I really manage these experienced engineers? Why did I give up my stress-free semi-academic life? I did one smart thing. Don Over was one of those experienced engineers with 30+ years of working life at RCA. He was a pleasant and friendly person and always treated me with respect. He also acted as a manager in Dave’s absence. As soon as the announcement became public, I went to Don’s office. I briefly told him that I really wanted to be the manager of the development group and how Jim decided to give me the design group instead. I was candid with him and said, “Look Don. I do not know anything about design; I would have to completely rely on you for guidance and support”. Don was reassuring and said “Sure. I am here anytime you need me.”
As I was reflecting on the whole episode, I realized that I became a manager at such a big corporation at a relatively young age. Almost all of my friends from college days eventually went into management positions, but at an older age. I also wondered if the kind of arm-twisting that I had to do was really a secret strategy for getting early promotions.
Many people, especially the Bengalis, think that, if they do their jobs perfectly year after year and contribute to the company’s success, his/her boss would show up one day and say, “We are very pleased with your performance and have decided to promote you to a management level”. It simply does not work that way. In order to become a manager, you must demonstrate a drive and passion in addition to your capabilities. That was what Jim saw in me that day!
(Posted January 1, 2023)
Note: Readers interested in commenting on this article should email their remarks to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org