Making the Switch to Business or Marketing
Offers chance to develop vision and tell the technology story
By PEGGY ALBRIGHT
Computing professionals who are out-of-the-box thinkers and want to create influential roles within their companies and beyond should consider moving into business development or marketing.
Some view working in these fields as tantamount to abandon their training or surrendering to a soft discipline or commercial interests. But there’s a real need for technology experts in these roles—and the work can be very meaningful. Often, making a shift in these directions can lead to a more challenging and interesting career, and chances for promotions that might not otherwise come along.
Anticipating the future
Furthermore, when the role involves advancing new technologies or technology-based strategies, it can yield special opportunities to help individual companies and industries anticipate and prepare for the future. Who wouldn’t want to do that?
Marcus Weldon, the corporate chief technology officer at Alcatel-Lucent, and his colleague Christopher White, advisor to the CTO on strategic industries at Alcatel-Lucent, enjoy these types of roles, as does Sean Koehl, technology evangelism manager at Intel Labs. All three began their careers in scientific research in disciplines like physics or chemistry, combined with computer science, and later added business emphases.
Weldon and White both came into their current positions at Alcatel-Lucent from research roles at Bell Labs. Today they work closely with the company’s business strategists to provide technology strategy and direction for the company, a top-tier global telecommunications equipment and services supplier.
“Our role is to predict the future of telecom and telecom technologies in particular and map that to a business strategy with the imperative to invest or not invest [in a technology]” Weldon said.
Koehl, who previously held research engineering as well as technical marketing roles at Intel Labs, now works exclusively to help the company communicate the value of its research. The primary audiences for his work include thought leaders in the computer industry who help shape the evolution of computing, as well as product managers within Intel whose products might benefit from the lab’s research.
“As a semiconductor company that has a very large role in the computer industry, what we do affects everything from how systems are designed, to how they are programmed, and what kind of applications people can build for them,” Koehl said. “We want to give people an indication of where things are going with our research vision to guide their development work.’
Secondarily, he is also tailoring some of his work to showcase the lab’s products and ideas to consumers to help generate market interest in products that derive from Intel’s labs.
As individuals who have found prominent roles that combine technology with business, Weldon, White and Koehl are helpful case studies for others who may want to pursue cross-disciplinary careers.
Plentiful job opportunities
Job opportunities are plentiful. Alcatel-Lucent, for example, has several thousand roles in the company for product line managers, marketing specialists, technology strategists or professionals in the CTO office who need the capability to combine technology and business skills. Likewise, the many marketing and business development jobs that exist across Intel are often held by people who have technology backgrounds. In addition, Intel Labs itself employs a number of technology strategists who, like Koehl, work to convince internal business groups at the company to adopt the lab’s technologies.
As a company, Alcatel-Lucent itself symbolizes the value technology-based business professionals can have, Weldon suggested. The company was formed in 2006 when the French telecom company, Alcatel, acquired the American telecom firm Lucent Technologies.
Lucent had a renowned technical and research staff with a less technically proficient upper management, and the management and staff did not relate well with one another. Alcatel had more technical expertise in its upper management who connected well with its technical staff. The respective strengths of the two firms complemented each other and, along with a strong CEO, have helped make the combined companies grow into a stronger firm.
“It underscores the importance of having these roles,” Weldon said. “You could argue that Alcatel-Lucent wouldn’t have successfully merged, or reached where we are, without these people to bridge between the working level and executive branch and to each learn from each other.”
Telling the technology story
While those who hold these types of roles share a cross-discipline foundation in technology and business, the functions they provide in those roles can vary.
Intel’s Koehl, as an evangelist for Intel Labs research, said a lot of his job involves “translating and retelling the technology story in a different way that is easier to understand by a broader audience.” It requires interpreting highly scientific and technical information that he gathers from the lab’s researchers as well as a view of with the “big picture” that gives context and meaning to the work.
Taking on a job like this means abandoning the deep focus on a particular discipline or an expert role computing professionals often develop and nurture and functioning in a more flexible and open-ended fashion.
“In a role like mine, you have to leave that [expert role] behind and become a generalist,” Koehl said. The benefit, he said, is the opportunity to learn about and participate in a variety of fields. The work also offers a lot of autonomy, flexibility and freedom when pursuing and structuring projects.
Embracing the vision
Weldon and White characterize the work they perform as visionary in nature. The purpose of their work, they say, is to convince the audience to pursue a “new reality” based on their visions for what the future holds. The work requires an understanding of deep-level technology trends and market details, a high-level perspective that gives the detailed information context, as well as an ability to “connect the dots” between the concepts, details and layers of context to reveal how and why trends are moving in a particular direction.
“One of the critical pieces of taking technical people and putting them in marketing and business is the capability to draw the lines to connect the high-level picture with low- level picture in a way that is credible and can possibly be executed on at some point in time in the future,” White said.
Like Intel’s Koehl, White emphasized that performing this role requires being able to communicate exceptionally well. He pointed out that it takes passion and confidence to convince decision-makers to adopt cutting-edge ideas and products.
Formal training in business development, marketing, or communications is not necessarily a requirement for transitioning from a technology job into a business role, particularly when one is pursuing a new role within the current organization. Intel is very supportive of employees who want to expand their skills into new areas, and Alcatel-Lucent often puts its better technical professionals through training to enhance their ability to communicate with colleagues.
Having an MBA not essential
While pursuing an MBA is considered a common means of moving beyond a technology role into business, White suggested that the degree “is a bit disposable” because it has been pursued by too many engineers thinking it will transform their careers. A technology professional who has a lot of desire to pursue a new career can do it with our without the MBA, he said.
“Desire is more important,” he said.
Weldon, who has a PhD in physical chemistry (as well as bachelor’s in computer science and chemistry) believes a doctorate is ultimately more valuable because the discipline required to attain the degree forces people to extend the problem-solving skills that many computing professionals possess. Expanding those skills into new fields helps instill confidence and fosters a more holistic view of things, which is valuable in technology-based business roles.
Crossing the cultural divide
Crossing the cultural divide that exists between technology and marketing and business development is probably one of the biggest challenges that technology experts making the switch will face. It’s likely that technology colleagues will view a fellow technologist’s shift to business with skepticism. At the same time, those in the business domain will assume that a new entrant from the technology domain will be over-reaching.
“There is a transition phase that can be hard,” Weldon advised. “You want to get through that phase quickly.”
While the transition can be difficult, Weldon encourages people to consider making the shift. The upside: expanded career opportunities and an easier path to management and the C-level suite.
“It doesn’t feel any less interesting to be in this world. It doesn’t feel like you’ve sold out your skills,” he said. “It’s a case of finding how you can use those skills to add value in any dimension.” CW (19 September, 2011)