Careers

Roads Less Traveled: How Eight Professionals Used Technology as Career Superhighways

By Helen Horwitz

When Maura Moran received her undergraduate degree in mathematics from the University of Dayton, she sensed her education still lacked something. Since she also was drawn to the written word and debate, she enrolled in law school only to realize she now missed the sciences. But while a law student, she found her calling during a clerkship in a patent law firm.

Moran’s career as an intellectual property (IP) lawyer includes practicing at both large and small corporations and at private law firms, including her own. While an in-house attorney for Digital Equipment Corporation, a patent she filed helped result in Digital winning a $1.5 billion settlement from Intel. (Digital later was acquired by Hewlett-Packard [H-P].)

Describing her work as an IP lawyer, Moran says, It’s a very technical career, but at a different level than design or qualification work. For example, if I’m a litigator, I have to make the technology understandable to the judge or jury. If I work in business, I must understand a company’s technology to ensure the business plan fits the company’s objectives, and that contracts result in win-win arrangements. 

I get to deal with clever people, adds the IEEE Member, and I don’t have to bail out anyone in the middle of the night. I also like putting deals together. Presently, Moran is inside counsel for Zoll Medical Corp., a Boston-area firm that makes products and software geared to emergency responders and surgical teams. She also is vice-chair of IEEE-USA’s Intellectual Property Committee.

Terry Wong, a former chair of IEEE-USA’s Entrepreneurial Activities Committee, found his career much differently. After obtaining a B.S. and an M.S. in applied physics from Yale and Stanford universities, plus a Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of California Berkeley, he admits he went Silicon Valley. He and a classmate started Calimetrics, and he led the engineering effort to develop an internationally recognized system for increasing density on optical disks. Wong and his partner sold the company in 2004 to LSI Logic.

When you start a company, you end up doing many things, he explains. I began to do less engineering as I learned how to raise money, manage an IP portfolio and handle other non-technical tasks.Today, he is a registered patent agent in Cupertino, Calif., specializing in patent strategy counseling and in preparing and prosecuting patent applications. 

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My background enables me to work on patents for a very wide range of applications, he says, and learning what’s happening in newer startups is exciting like taking an advanced course in new technology developments. He notes that after achieving three degrees, he wasn’t all that excited to go to law school.  He has passed the patent bar exam, so he can do everything except go to court.

Moran and Wong are just two of many professionals who used their technical degrees as a solid foundation for a satisfying career doing something else. Engineering and other technical degrees don’t have to be one-way career paths; law, finance and business are just a few of the roads many graduates take. Recent interviews with eight successful people, most of them IEEE members, demonstrate this winning combination: a strong set of technical skills plus a passion for the work at hand.

I never thought I’d be a traditional engineer, reflects John Lands, who has an EE from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Northeastern University. I wanted to be in charge and to show I had a better way to do things.

During his early years of increasingly responsible promotions in sales and marketing with companies like GE and H-P, he had become intrigued with new processes and products. When Lands learned about one that made sense, he left a well-paying corporate position and formed his own company, Orion Engineering. His product was a microwave Doppler module operating at 24 GHz. A major agricultural implement manufacturer wanted to show the true ground speed of their tractors, and when they bought 100,000 modules, we were off and running, he recalls.

Today, instead of the 12-person staff he managed and 4,500 square foot manufacturing facility he ran for 19 years, the IEEE Senior Member happily operates a greatly scaled-down business. Lands works part-time in his 400-square foot home shop in Arvada, Colo., where he fabricates singlehandedly  a portable lightning detector. It accurately tracks the approach of lightning from as much as 40 miles away, signaling movement with audible signals and an LED display. The device is widely used at airports and professional athletic fields, as well as by the military.

I’ve never made as much money with my own business as when I was last employed, Lands adds, but I’m not sorry.

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Technology finance raising venture capital for startups and private equity funds to help successful companies grow attracts many engineering graduates. Not surprisingly, many of them live and work in Silicon Valley, where high-tech startups, high-risk and high-potential rewards (or losses) are cultural hallmarks.

Masazumi Ishii wears two technology-finance hats: he is a managing director of AZCA, Inc., a Menlo Park firm that provides consulting and investment banking services to high-tech companies, and he is the venture partner for Noventi, which manages early-stage technology venture capital investment funds. His fascination with the Valley started when he left his native Japan for Stanford to study for an M.S. in computer science. Coming from such a conservative culture, I was susceptible to Silicon Valley Fever, he laughs. These were the early days of Apple and other personal computer startups, and it was clear that technology would drive the economy of the future.

An IEEE Member since his undergraduate days at the University of Tokyo, he received his M.S. at Stanford thanks to an IBM grant. But afterward, he says, I started feeling that perhaps I wasn’t an engineer after all. I wanted to be on the business side, using IT as a resource to move business forward.

Ishii’s early career includes ten years with IBM Japan and several years as a senior management consultant with McKinsey & Company. Besides leading projects for global corporations interested in international diversification, he significantly contributed to developing the firm’s Pacific Rim practice. It provided East-West links for companies entering new markets and establishing businesses on both sides of the Pacific.

He believes his engineering studies gave him both an understanding of technology and the ability to think analytically. Management issues are often ill-defined, with many complex factors, he explains. While you can’t solve management problems the way you solve engineering problems, being able to think objectively is very helpful.

Richard Yen says his parents, who both were software engineers, encouraged him to study engineering. But while working toward his EECS at the University of California Berkeley, he felt he would eventually switch to business. His early career centered on early-stage technology startups, and his first job was as a software engineer with the investment management firm D.E. Shaw & Co. Yen joined its Boston-based Internet group and was instrumental in developing the core technology behind the company’s successful web brokerage. He also obtained an MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.

Today, he’s in San Francisco and a director at Saban Capital Group, a private equity firm where he specializes in investments and buyouts in digital media, mobile and the consumer Internet.Private equity is exciting to me, Yen says. I work with large, established companies that have sustainable, profitable businesses and help them improve.

He adds his engineering background is an enormous advantage. When I talk to a technology company I know what to ask, what I don’t know and what could be a potential concern, he points out. Being an engineer, I like a lot of facts.

Like Richard Yen, Carole Carey also gave in to family pressure when selecting her undergraduate major. I was born in the Philippines, and in that culture we do what our parents tell us, she explains. I was interested in fine art and architecture, and also chemistry and math, but my parents wanted me to study nursing.

After completing nursing school, Carey came to the United States and eventually became head nurse in a major Cleveland hospital. Some years later while living in Maine, she took an engineering class at the University of Maine and aced it. After that first course, I knew I could do it, she recalls. Shortly after moving to the Washington, D.C., area, she enrolled at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore where she received her BEE, and then her MES from Loyola College of Maryland. 

In 1990, her passion for public health, combined with her engineering training, led Carey to the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. For many years she was a senior scientific reviewer, heading a multidisciplinary team that evaluated safety and effectiveness data for innovative devices, such as cardiac pacemakers and implantable defibrillators, before they could be approved for use in the United States. 

She also has been a Mike Mansfield Fellow and expert regulatory scientist in Japan where she trained alongside technical and device regulatory counterparts from the Japanese government. The prestigious Mansfield Fellowship is awarded to select federal employees who want to further their agencies’ work on Japan-related programs.

Carey’s efforts became personally meaningful after her father died of cardiac arrest. Working with the American Heart Association and other groups, she contributed greatly to the federal policy implementation for public access to AEDs (automated external defibrillators). In 1996, her review team cleared the legal use of AEDs on U.S. commercial airplanes, followed in 2001 by an act mandating AED placement in federal buildings. Today, AEDs are familiar sights in airports, schools, stadiums and other public places. 

An IEEE Senior Member, she currently chairs the standards committee of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society.

In Berkeley, California, Mark Ferrari works in quantitative investment research, which he says taught him that like most physicists, I didn’t know as much about statistics as I thought I did. After completing his undergraduate physics degree from Yale, he enrolled at the University of California Berkeley, for his doctorate where he started having doubts about a career in physics.

After graduate school, I had a dream job for several years with Bell Labs but I learned I didn’t want to be a research physicist, says Ferrari. In physics research, the rewards are at the end of a very long road. I needed an environment where the turnaround is faster and your team and your clients have a stake in the results.

Quantitative investment research is a sophisticated technique attracting those who have expertise in physics, math and related disciplines. The researcher examines vast databases to find predictable patterns within financial data. For a private equity startup, Ferrari led a research group that developed a model to better estimate the financial success of movies before they go into production.

A consultant, he says his career has always been about research, discovering things or building something new the world hasn’t seen. He adds his math skills, especially knowing how to work with dirty data, are a big advantage.

In Houston, Daniel Schmidt is senior vice president and legal counsel for CHR Solutions, a business and technology provider for telecommunications services. But he started out as a civil engineer with a B.S. from Texas A&M in College Station and says it had never crossed his mind to do anything else.

My dad was an engineer, and I always liked seeing how things worked, he recalls. While attending college, he got a job with Compaq Computers designing printed circuit boards on the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, and after graduation became a manufacturing engineer watching over the production lines that ran 24/7. When Schmidt was promoted to project manager, he moved to Compaq’s relationship group where he worked with other manufacturers on interoperability issues. Frequent exchanges with company attorneys about intellectual property soon kindled his interest in attending law school at South Texas College of Law in Houston.

As legal counsel for CHR, Schmidt manages all legal functions of the company and provides legal advice to the executive team and the board of directors. He reviews all legal documents, sales contracts and required security and compliance filings for the company.

In a legal career, he says, most of what I deal with is reactive not proactive. That makes it important to recognize the issue and what is important. He points out that many engineering principles also apply to law. For instance, in root cause analysis in engineering, you have to consider what you do and don’t know so you don’t go down the bunny trails.’ The same kind of analysis applies to law.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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