Marcel Pelgrom

Marcel Pelgrom consults on analog IC design.

10 March

Your career may already be inching towards the abyss right now because you fail to see the signs. Some career advice from analog IC designer Marcel Pelgrom.

Geert Mak is a Dutch historian-writer-documentary maker. His recent television series deals with European history in this century. In the trailer, he says: “Nothing is more difficult than to recognize history when you’re in the middle of it.” We’re often blind to the obvious directions of the developments we’re part of and consequently don’t recognize their implications.

On a Tuesday afternoon in early September 1990, Philips pulled the plug on the famous Mega project. A room filled with hundreds of engineers learned they were laid off. Talking to them in hindsight, it was surprising that most of them had absolutely not seen the bad omens. They either ignored them, explained them away, considered such a large financial write-off impossible or believed it was just jealousy. The fact that the VP of the most profitable Philips IC branch, after doing a quick calculation on the backside of a beer mat, had refused to be associated with Mega, that several research managers had declined to co-operate and many other criticisms had been voiced, hadn’t impressed them.

How do you convince someone that his well-paid, favorite job is in jeopardy? Arguments don’t play a role. People instinctively turn away from reality rather than recognizing the fragility of their position. Hope is stronger than data.

Everyone is the leading actor in his/her own history. How to avoid this blindness? Today, almost every freshman gets a temporary contract after leaving university. After one or two years, a permanent contract is obtained, which is often when the first signs of blindness start to appear. Nobody fits perfectly and perhaps it was sheer luck that you made it into that position.

You better start watching for signs that things are moving your way. Are you asked to represent the team or company despite your junior status? Does higher management unexpectedly turn up if you give a briefing? Are you regularly asked for your professional opinion by your colleagues? Are other department heads eager to explain their interesting projects to you? A good manager will challenge you beyond your strict tasks.

If you don’t recognize any of these, you could be blind to the trouble you’re already in. Confront your superior. Don’t be shy and express your real ambitions. Don’t go for management ambitions just because you believe that looks good. A starting point is a question like: “I want to achieve this – where do you see me in three years?” That should open your eyes.

Engineers approaching a mid-life crisis have mostly reached a somewhat stable position in the hierarchy. Some successes and failures have stalled them to a sort of niche: a safe place but also a bit of a prison. You’re known for project A or trick B, and you’ve developed a certain way of looking at things. Tunnel vision is a sort of blindness, too.

If nobody calls your name for an interesting vacancy or a challenging new project and instead, you’re commissioned with non-crucial business, like relation management, environmental officer, patent or recruitment assistance, then be warned: you’re slowly moving towards the abyss. It’s not easy to have a look around and move to another project, or even to a new department or company. Yet, it’s the best way to cope with your blindness.

Still, things can happen beyond your own sphere of influence. It’s never a bad idea to explore side paths in your career. A PR person liked my writings and I could have jumped on that train. Being offered the opportunity to teach and interact with students led to an honorary professorship and even a salary from Stanford.

Regularly, ask yourself the question: “What will I do if this job stops?” Don’t run around blindly in this world in the belief everything will be okay. The world changes faster than we can see.