In mid-2001, Dalma Novak took a leave of absence from the University of Melbourne, Australia and began working for a venture-backed startup in the United States. The firm was developing a new submarine fiber-optic telecommunications network.
When the company failed several years later, she used her hard-won business expertise to co-found – with her husband who had shared the startup experience with her – a new company. Today, Novak is Vice President of Engineering at Pharad, LLC, a leader in developing advanced antenna and high performance RF-over-fiber technologies.
An IEEE Fellow, 2014-2015 President of the IEEE Photonics Society, and an internationally recognized expert on microwave and millimeter-wave photonics, Novak has now written an e-book on her career in academe, and as an entrepreneur. Seeing the Light: My Career in Engineering by Dalma Novak, Ph.D., is the newest volume in the award-winning IEEE-USA Women in Engineering (WIE) e-book series.
Except for Volume 1, which is an overview of STEM occupations, each volume is a personally written account of how a notable woman engineer became interested in technology, obtained her education, and developed a successful and satisfying career.
This year marks the fifth year of the landmark e-book series. It has been praised by educators and women’s organizations and honored with numerous publishing industry awards.
“Like the other e-books in this series, Dalma Novak’s unique and inspiring story will help to motivate the next generation of female technologists,” says Georgia Stelluto, IEEE-USA Publishing Manager; and Manager & Editor, IEEE-USA E-BOOKS. “Whether she is commenting on the business lessons she learned in a venture-based startup, or the long-term benefits of networking, she provides practical, down-to-earth guidance. She’s an exceptional role model for girls and women aspiring to a technological career.”
In her e-book, Novak relates how her family emigrated from Croatia to Australia when she was very young, and the importance both of her parents placed on education. She discovered her passion for math and physics in high school, where several teachers became her first mentors.
As an engineering student at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Novak was one of only two women out of a total of 65 students in her class. She writes about her anger, when she learned that one professor used a different grading scale for the women students than for the men. She also advises not to be alarmed by the low ratio of women to men in classes, because “all engineering students share the same aspirations, as well as the same insecurities.”
Dalma Novak began her career as an assistant professor in the electrical engineering department at the University of Queensland. But soon, she was offered – and accepted – a position at the University of Melbourne that included working in the then-new Photonics Research Lab. It was 1,000 miles away, in an unfamiliar city, and her husband needed to stay behind to complete his Ph.D. studies, but the young academic took the leap. Years later, she observes, “Increasing the size of your comfort zone helps you grow.”
Over the next 12 years at the University of Melbourne, both Novak’s academic responsibilities and her reputation within the photonics world also grew.
In 1999, and now an associate professor, she and her husband took a sabbatical in the United States: three months at the University of California, Los Angeles, and three months at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. where a departing NRL researcher suggested that Novak and her husband join his new startup. She now reflects, “Life-altering opportunities appear when you least expect them.”
Novak writes with honesty about the experience of moving from academia to industry. “Besides learning about the company’s technology I received immediate training in Product Development 101 … I was quickly educated in what was required to get an idea from concept to manufacturing.”
But by mid-2002, the telecoms bubble had burst and the venture funding was running out. Management refocused the engineering teams to get a product to market as soon as possible and start generating revenue. Now, Novak was now running an interdisciplinary team that completed the successful development of the equipment, and she briefly celebrated. Then, the hardware they had created was put into storage, and 2-1/2 years after another investor bought the company, it closed its doors.
However, the experience whetted Novak’s – and her husband’s – appetites to start their own company. They avoided venture capital financing by obtaining federal funding through the Small Business Innovation Research Program, and the business has grown steadily. “The many contracts that we obtained allowed us to recruit a number of engineers from multiple disciplines and to establish our own manufacturing facility,” she writes. “Who could have foreseen the enormous connection between the skills needed to be an effective academic, and those a successful technology business owner?”
Novak describes her longtime involvement with IEEE as an integral part of her engineering life. While serving as 2014-2015 President of the IEEE Photonics Society, she launched Women in Photonics, which supports the involvement and advancement of women in the photonics community.
Seeing the Light: My Career in Engineering by Dalma Novak is available at https://ieeeusa.org/shop/careers/women-in-engineering-book-20/, at the IEEE member price of $7.99; non-members can purchase the volume for $9.99 each.
Three other e-books in the series were published in 2018. They were written by IT executive Geetika Tandon, e-commerce veteran Michelle Nanney, and Roxsana Hadjizadeh of Cisco Systems.
The 19 previous volumes in the WIE series are also available at https://ieeeusa.org/shop-topics/?t=women-in-engineering; and are also priced at $7.99 for members and $9.99 for non-IEEE members.
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.