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 INTERVIEW with "Science's Next Wave" (Singapore)

Full Interview by Dr. Jennie Wong with ART's Managing Director. Topic: Preparing Oneself for an Ever-Changing and Increasingly Tight Job Market

Question 1: In an increasingly technology-driven economy, is there a trend towards preference for multi-disciplinary trained personnel in industries?

Yes, and this is what people often are referring to when they say, "I wear a lot of hats." It used to be that startup firms, due to lack of resources, required a single person to fulfill several managerial or technical tasks. But now, that culture has crept into large multinationals, as well, and it is not uncommon to see people with multi-disciplinary experiences or training. In fact, these people often are those who are promoted through the management ranks. For example, in an electro-optics engineering group, a person whose training is in Physics (Optics) might also have a Mechanical or Electronic Engineering degree. That person might be considered a good candidate for Manager of an Optics group, because it is thought that such a person could better see all sides of the technology, and therefore be able to relate to all groups in the department. Now, taking this further, if that same person chose at some point to move into a manufacturing orientation from a purely R&D role, then that person might later be seen as a good candidate for a Director or VP of Engineering and Operations, and this as a stepping stone to COO. Now, on the other hand, if the R&D/ Engineering Manager had a particular flair for understanding customers and was a very good communicator, perhaps that person might go into a technical marketing role, even perhaps picking up an MBA, and advancing later to head a Sales and Marketing group. In many technology firms, technical people who become heads of Sales and Marketing are often prime candidates for CEO or CTO roles. In a very large number of firms, the resumes of the CEO's, COO's, CMO's and CTO's belong to people who tend to be "multi-disciplinary" in their education, work experiences, markets or job titles.

This is not to say that one who wants to focus on being "the best" in a very specific field or technology should derail their dreams simply for the sake of trends. Multi-disciplinary backgrounds often help provide more job opportunities, but it all depends upon the person. The best advice that I could give would be for one to follow one's own interests and abilities, and always keep an eye on current job trends. It's important to keep some sort of perspective on reality, and to also know that it is possible also to become so over-multidisciplinary that one might be considered "a jack of all trades and a master of none" -- that is, a person with so many varied experiences with thin experiences in each, and then be considered less desired in the job market. "More isn't always better."  Quality is what really counts.

Question 2: Do you think that getting an additional qualification in another discipline, rather than in one's primary discipline makes a graduate more employable?

This greatly depends upon the field and the industry. Sometimes an employer wants to see a very intensive and narrow specialization, while others might like to see diverse experiences. For example, if you are applying for a scientist job at an electronics firm that specializes in signal processing, that company might not like to see that person spend time during the interview talking about their business or accounting training. They might wonder if the person's best interests would be served in that job in the lab. But, say, if that same company did research that required significant customization and visits to sites around the world, a suggestion that that person had both a mind for science and for business might be very well received.

Question 3: Is super-specialization out of favor in today's increasingly cross-disciplinary approach in science and technology?

Clearly there are more requests for people with a cross-disciplinary approach, but there still are needs for really good "super-specialists," - the  "gurus." Sometimes in fact an industry might seem to be recruiting all at once thousands of people who only know one very narrow specialty. This is especially true in the software world. But in a business and technology environment that is changing very rapidly, there are more career risks with hoping that one's specialization will forever be in demand.

Question 4: In your view, what type of skills set will be in greatest demand in the next five to ten years?

Since it would take too much time to discuss each technical specialization's innovations and promises, and since technology-guessing would also require a crystal ball, I'll restrict myself to a discussion of general skills. 

Strong communications skills are and will continue to be very important for technical people. In the "old days," there was a big chasm between the "engineer's mind" or the "scientist's mind" and the "mind of the businessperson," those people that scientists and engineers usually derided as "the talkers." Those were the days when literally, technical people and sales and marketing people rarely interacted, and they might actually have been housed in separate buildings or cities. Scientists in R&D and marketing people rarely spoke, and engineers never got to meet customers. During the '90's these walls really started to break down between departments. In manufacturing industries, it became clear that product excellence didn't come about by having sales and marketing in one place conceptualizing a product and telling engineering to design it, and then for engineering to design it and to tell manufacturing to make it, and then for manufacturing to throw the product over the wall at the end and to tell the quality assurance people to "inspect it and make sure that it be passed on to shipping." Now, with costs of new product introductions and R&D being so high, and sometimes with razor-thin profit margins, companies want technical and business people to work together, to communicate frequently, to build quality in at the front end, and to think in terms of pleasing the customers. It is not uncommon for engineers in large companies to be rotated among marketing, sales or finance groups, in part to train them to be the multidisciplinary managers of the future, but also to provide immediate technical input to non-technical departments. In the case of startups or medium sized companies, it is now very typical for technical and business people to be working together intimately and constantly. A saleswoman might herself be an engineer who is overseeing product design, and an engineer might be sent out to a trade show to meet customers or investors. So as part of being a technical person, just as you might need to have taken calculus, you need now to expose yourself to making formal and informal presentations. This could be in a formal classroom setting, such as taking a foreign language course, including conversation modules (not just recitation of grammar rules), literature courses (which force you to read a lot and write a lot), or going for an MBA. Even extracurricular activities such as participating in a debate club, radio station, or business club could help expose you to opportunities to make formal presentations that will prepare you for your future career as a technical person. 

International business will become ever more important, and in the case of Singapore, an ability to understand other cultures well will be more critical than ever. Solid English speaking and writing skills will continue to be important, as will solid Mandarin speaking and writing skills. And other Asian languages could be very useful for business, such as Japanese, Korean and Cantonese. Bahasa will become very valuable as Malaysia steps up as a major technology producer (and an employer of Singaporeans) and as Indonesia stabilizes as a major manufacturing center.  Thai and Vietnamese might also become particularly useful as their industrial development moves forward. In Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Turkish, Hindi, Tamil, German and Russian each will be spoken by tens or hundreds of millions of potential future customers who need to be reached by expanding Singaporean businesses. Beyond learning languages, understanding the countries that speak these languages could be very valuable, and that might mean taking a summer session in another country or a year abroad. Not only would the experience be invaluable for personal enrichment, but also employers would see a greater receptivity to working with colleagues and customers. Not only in five to ten years, but right now, many companies are structured intercontinentally, with design or research or marketing or manufacturing groups spread across many countries. 

This trend will continue, and Singaporean technical people who can communicate effectively with neighbors and people in faraway countries will be critical to Singapore's success. Once employed, it might be a very useful experience to seek an international posting. And it might not even be the most desirable thing to get a posting to Silicon Valley or Shanghai - where everyone else might be going. Imagine being the only Singaporean posted with a multinational in Brazil or South Africa?  These experiences could provide you with insight that most other Singaporeans will never have, and in the process, you could make yourself potentially very valuable to employers. If you are looking for a marketing job in China or California, how much competition do you expect to face? But what if you are one of only a few in your field who really knows Latin America or Africa? In the next five to ten years onward, Singaporean industry and employees will face a lot of competition, particularly in the easy or obvious markets explored so far. Soon it will be critical for Singaporean entrepreneurs to have employees who really know the entire world. Simply knowing English and Chinese will not be enough, because millions of mainland Chinese will also be bilingual in English and Chinese in ten years. It's what you can do with these language skills that will matter. And it's important to always remember that yesterday's underdeveloped country is today's industrializing country and tomorrow's technological country, and at each stage of development, they are your potential customers. 

Nowadays there is a lot of soul-searching about Singaporean competitiveness, because the discussions usually end up going for the line that "everyone is a competitor," but really, there are tremendous opportunities for Singaporeans if one's workforce is prepared to look for what is not so obvious. Singapore's potential customer base is vast, and that only a tiny percentage of them have been yet reached. Whether it's stringing solar arrays across the Sahara to electrify Africa, or selling tomorrow's version of multimedia products to entertain several billion world teenagers in the next decade, there are lots of opportunities for Singaporean technical people who see the benefits of communicating with their customers.

Question 5: Under what circumstances would switching fields in early or mid-career be advisable? How should one prepare for the ultimate move?

Sometimes you have to switch fields in early or mid career and sometimes you just want to do so. It might be that your first job out of school was in a field or company or product area that you simply dislike. Perhaps it was an offer that seemed hard to ignore, or perhaps family or friends suggested that you take that job. If you really dislike the situation you're in, you need to leave it as soon as possible, because the more time that you spend in that job, the greater is the chance that employers will "type cast" you as being only good for that field, market or product. Similarly, if you are stuck in a job in a field or market or technology that is dying out or that is offering few good opportunities in the place where you want to live, you need to change jobs before it is too late. It might seem that the likely move is to go to a headhunter to hear about other opportunities, but since most search firms are paid by their client companies to find people currently experienced in the target job, not just people from other fields desiring to enter that field, you might find that headhunters cannot be of much help. The solution in that case is to look for a transition job, which will get you out of your current situation and toward your new goal, while still capitalizing on your strengths and current experiences. In these cases, headhunters might be of valuable assistance, because often their hardest to fill jobs are for jobs requiring a person with one foot in one field, and one foot in another.

Remember, always assume that you are competing with candidates who have done exactly what the employer needs. This isn't always true, but it's better to assume the worst when you are changing careers. From most employers' standpoints, no matter how desirous you are of changing careers and no matter how experienced you are in your departing career, if you have not done the job required, you are considered an "entry level" applicant. So if you have been working in engineering at a top computer company for five years and have a high salary, but you want to go into sales at a telecom services company, for example, you are really competing at the level of a person fresh out of school with the salary requirement that is way out of line for your experience in sales. An easier approach to entering the sales world from engineering, for example, is to seek jobs as a sales engineer, applications engineer or technical marketer. An employer then might really appreciate your technical training, even if it is in a different field, and they might like the fact that you want to be with customers in a sales environment. After a few years in this new role, you might apply internally for a job in sales, or you might be able to look elsewhere, now with some relevant sales credentials. By taking these transitional paths, you can avoid the pitfalls of unemployment or having to take pay cuts to get toward your goal. Also, by taking gradual steps toward your goal, you can gain actual exposure to your target career, and you might actually discover that years ago you made the right choice going into engineering or going for your Ph.D. And because your move wasn't a drastic one, it still might be possible to go back to your original career path, and this time, you might have even more options because employers often like technical people who are risk takers.

Question 6: With rapidly changing economic trends, widespread restructuring and job cuts in the private sectors and an increasingly competitive job market, how could one stay relevant and competent?

It is important to always listen to what your colleagues are doing at other companies in your industry, and to be aware of what might be happening to them. Sometimes headhunters also can give some insight into industry trends in your field. It is typical to find oneself submerged in one's daily work, to the point that is seems that there never is time to chat with old classmates, to attend industry conferences, professional organization meetings, or user group meetings, but these extracurricular gatherings might be the best way to hear specifics about industry changes that could be affecting your career even if it isn't obvious at your workplace. You could be working at a small company or even a large company that appears to have their own unique, almost insulated, business culture, and your boss could assure you that "you are a member of the family and will be taken care of." But in reality, no company, no matter how good or well-funded it is, can remain aloof forever to world trends in their industry. Your company might value you tremendously, but even if they wish you the best, your particular on the job training and exposures might limit you career opportunities. Remember, most companies view their employees as "parts of a whole," as a team that together are to produce profits. In this simple formula, few companies seriously contemplate that by narrowly defining their employee's daily duties and experiences, they could be limiting that person's professional growth, and ultimately, creating a person whose skills could become too narrow, overpriced or outdated. When many companies decide to lay off such an employee, they usually only look at their justification for laying off a "square peg for a square hole" in an increasingly pegless world, rather than examining their own years of neglect or short sightedness that never gave that person a chance to adapt to the new work environment.

Even if you love your boss and your boss loves you, you are the captain of your own career, and it is necessary to not assume that your company will train you or keep your skills up to date or will pay you what you are really worth. Try to request that your employer give you new challenges or assignments that could help you gain valuable experiences and exposures. Other times you might need certain state of the art equipment, instruments, or software that might keep your skills relevant and your marketability high. Further training or university studies might be valuable to keep skills fresh. In many cases, simply being around people who know more than you, or whose professional depth synergizes well with yours, can help keep you at your best. This might mean asking for a transfer to another department or company location. 

In many cases, however, it simply is difficult to really grow professionally, and to keep your skills up to date, without taking a job at another company, sooner or later.  In this job environment, it is difficult for most people to stay more than five years at any one company. In fact, even if one wanted to stay more than five years, most companies do not seem to last in their current configurations for five years. Mergers, acquisitions, product sell-offs, technology changes, and financial shocks, might suddenly cause an otherwise happy employee to suddenly be "on the market." That's precisely why one needs to keep one's skills high. And that's why it's always a good idea to have your best resume up to date and for you to be willing to consider superior career opportunities at better firms even if you have a job. As headhunters will tell you, "The worst time to look for a new job is when you need a job." But that's another story.


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