Your Early Career is a Contact Sport

 I’m always amazed when I talk to friends from outside of the Bay Area that the general consensus is that a day at work here plays out a lot like the movie “The Intern.” It’s all about the perks and the fun, without any of that pesky work getting in the way.  The cool, free lunches and disruptive unicorn ideas replace the discussion on basic blocking and tackling to deliver customer value that you can hang your individual or team hat on.  I may be old school in some ways, but your early career is not about coolness. It’s much more about gaining the basic skills you don’t learn in high school and college about how things really get done in the real world.

Your early career should be messy, difficult as hell, loaded with uncomfortable experiences and ultimately about building your reputation as a doer.  So many folks expect to work on strategy formulation and be employed within executive roles within a year of their starting at that trendy company south of Market in San Francisco.

Get over yourself, dude!

Your first three to five years is about training your mind to forgo immediate gratification and just do basic blocking and tackling and developing techniques that allow you to effectively work with people to get your job done and achieve results.  The goal is for your team to smile at you when the job is done, not view you as an apple polisher.

Sounds like a challenge, right? Don’t worry, I’m here to help you avoid the bumps in the road by presenting you with some advice I learned from hitting a few myself during my early career. Here are a three experiences I had that really defined my early career and left me with the bruises to show for it.

Go Home and Have your Mom Wipe Your Behind! 

While working as a summer intern at IBM TJ Watson Research Center in New York, I had the opportunity to work under the supervision of an IBM Fellow.  Being a ChemEng, I got to work on the industrial process called electroless copper plating.  You have seen smaller versions these things, the big, green circuit boards with copper circuits often called the motherboard.  Not really the highest of tech nowadays, but some fascinating chemistry going on, including how to seed the green plastic with Palladium metal for the copper to grow from.

It didn’t take long for my first challenge to pop up. When our production facility in upstate NY lost the process to make high yielding circuit boards, and revenue was being missed out upon as a result, my manager sent me up north for a field trip and fact finding mission.

When I arrived, I found that the building was like all the factories of the time. As I entered, I was greeted by a large, wet chemistry building. As a twenty-one-year old whipper snapper, it was an inspiring experience to see all these “old guys” running the operation, plating those gigantic PC boards.

I was greeted by the shift manager and informed him was that I was from R&D and was here to help figure out what went wrong. Great opening line, right? Wrong! He told me to go back home and have my mom wipe my….. You can imagine my reaction. I felt like I was back in grade school being scolded for acting up in class.

Momentarily kicked down, but otherwise undeterred (maybe it was my youthful, blissful ignorance, or maybe it was my confidence in my ability to do the job) I asked to see the problem. It appeared to be sludge in the bottom of what looked like a gigantic bathtub. I recalled something I had learned from my pristine lab 80 miles south. The pH can go out of whack, and when it does you need to add more acid (pouring acid in a lab was part of my no so glamorous daily routine).

With a bit of an attitude in my tone, I asked the plant operator what they did when the pH was off. He answered that they just dumped a 55 gallon drum of acid into the bath.  Hmm, I was on to something.

“How do you stir that all up?” I quipped.

Looking around, I noticed they was no sign of a large industrial stirrer. I was informed that the larger version had broken two weeks prior. Therein lies the problem, I noted, but was met with blank stares. My confidence wasn’t broken that day, but it sure took a hit, as  I drove back to HQ without even a single “thank you.”  Lots of lessons learned on that field trip.

The Department Manager From the Group Next Door Needs Solutions Not Problems

A few years into my career, I made a shift and had moved on to HP.  Working in the chip-making R&D lab, I was really enjoying the part of my job where I correlated parametric test data from the transistors we were fabricating with planned observations in the lots of 24 wafers, experiments we were performing to optimize the chip-making process.

I ended up coding a type of multi-variable correlation across the 400 or so measurements on each die or chip.  Lots of interesting patterns were revealed across the planned experiments and the positional variation on the wafer. Having automated all of this through software, I was able to visualize some very important but hidden correlations in my technical area and in the areas of other people who worked across the front end (transistors) and backend (wires and insulation).

I was so effective (and I had so much fun) at highlighting issues that I lost track of my sense of balance.  As I stumbled along unaware, I was eventually taken by surprise when the 2nd level manager in the department (outside of my own department) gave me very frank and direct feedback.

“Wayne, we love your work. It’s great to uncover the really hard-to-find problems in our manufacturing processes, but we need you to identify solutions to those problems, not just the issues.” My smiled disappeared as those words trickled from his mouth. “I need you to focus on the solutions as well,” he finished, leaving me without a response.

I couldn’t believe all of my tooling to find problems quickly was creating a problem for me at work. I was crestfallen, but within a week I realized that I could rectify the situation by generating conversation with the owners of those areas and helping them understand the data to assist in their root cause analysis.

I found myself issuing fewer memos (back in those days you printed out the report and graphics by the dozens and put them on colleagues desks) and spending more time getting to know other people, their approaches and their technical areas.  It gave me a whole new appreciation for how complex issues really were. It also opened up my eyes and made me realize that to effectively solve a problem you needed to collaborate across multiple areas.

Stop Shipment Caused a One Way Ticket to a Rocky Mountain High 

A few years later, I found myself still with HP and dealing with a problem being faced by one of our facilities in Colorado. In the semiconductor business, manufacturing yields are king and when a fabrication facility looses yield everyone notices. One day, early in my career at HP, our Colorado facility responsible for manufacturing chipsets for the early PA-RISC based UNIX computers experienced a major yield problem.

Many of the transistors in key areas of the chip were blown on arrival.  The established process line, (one generation older than the one that I was developing in the Bay Area) parametric test and analysis could not uncover the exact problem in the process sequence.  While I was minimally aware of some of the news of what was happening in Colorado, it was not top of mind for me back in the halls of R&D. That is, until one day an office mate asked me if I’d heard the news that I was flying out to Colorado later that day.

You can imagine my surprise. It seemed that the GM and my management chain had some inclination that the work I was doing on Plasma etching damage was somehow related to this problem in the Rockies.  In fact, unbeknownst to me, they’d called home and had my wife pack a bag for me, as I was needed ASAP.  The ticket was one way until the problem was resolved. The length of time I would be in Colorado away from my wife depended solely upon how quickly I could develop a solution.

The next morning, I met with a cross-functional team comprised of the key chip developers and a single guy from manufacturing.  The introduction to the  chip architect and the guy from manufacturing would prove to be a great long-term alliance (and friendship) for me in the business division over the new few years.

When I arrived, they were gathered around a large conference table with the integrated circuit layout layout printed with multiple colors for all the layers of the chip (transitions and each level of metal).  The parametric test results were completely inconclusive.  Two weeks prior, this particular chip had a zero yield, and even though other chips had much lower yields, this chip design was the worst and should have proven to be the easiest to figure out.

It was a pin limited design, which means the number of pins for interconnect wiring was so large that the actual transistor circuitry was much smaller in surface area, and the chip size was determined by the number of pins.  Having worked on plasma damage both in college and at HP, I noticed right away that there was a large amount of empty space on the chip.  I asked what that empty space was, and the team noted that they used it to create capacitors to reduce the noise of the chip.

Suddenly, a light went off in my head. It hit me that plasma damage affects transistors differently at different levels in the manufacturing process.  I mentioned to the team that these big capacitors could be acting as lightning rods for the transistors to blow them up. The developers informed me that they were all grounded.  I dug deeper, asking whether the case was the same in the middle of the manufacturing process, say after metal 1 but before metal 3.

The whole room got quiet for a second, and the manufacturing jockey immediately made the connection and suggested we were on to something.  We soon came to the conclusion that we could output a new mask in the process and ground the capacitors out mid-process through a small change, and we could prototype it and have the result in 2 days. Meeting adjourned.

Using the multi-variate analysis routines I cooked up in Palo Alto, I discovered some small smoking guns in the data that were not readily visible.  During the next two days, I spent the time getting to know the team out in Colorado, forging many new friends and alliances that would serve me well over time, both in my area and in the chip design area.  I even got to hold a box of wafers from the last yield lot.  The 24 wafers were to be used to ship computers worth $30 million.

Not surprisingly, I was asked to “put that box down now”.

Two days later we got the test results, and I was allowed to buy that ticket home.

The next Monday at the office was quite a victory lap, as everyone had heard on Friday about the problem being root caused, and I earned significant credibility on the manufacturing floor and in the corner office.  Who would have known that week would have been so incremental to both me and the business?

Where do YOU start?

In the early stages of your career?  Trying to figure out the value of those early assignments?  One approach is to use these early years to build that story, your early personal brand, to show that you get stuff done and you work well across different areas. Focus on that and the rest of your career will build itself.

If you enjoyed this article, stop back and visit the site for more insight from my journey from chemistry to clouds.

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