Career Transitions

Are careers like adjectives, and have to move along a certain path?


Many people change their career path, sometimes to take on new challenges, sometimes following opportunity or money. As we learn, we develop both expertise and skill sets and in many cases expertise in one area has diminished value in another, meaning that it becomes more difficult to switch as we get older. But there are times when both knowledge and skills can be fully transferred, making the switch a lot easier.

One of the great ironies of my career is that I almost didn’t get to university because I could not pass my English language O level exam. That was a prerequisite, and it took me three attempts before I scraped through. I did graduate with my bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronic engineering.

Approximately 40 years later, I transitioned from being an EDA technologist into a consultant and writer. I have seven books to my name as either writer or editor, and have written thousands of articles for many publications, about 500 at this point just for Semiconductor Engineering. Even to this day, the royalties on my books pay for a lavish, sit-down meal at McDonalds each year.

I started off in hardware engineering, then transitioned fairly quickly into firmware when the company I was working for needed someone to write test code for an avionics computer. I was aghast that such hardware was being verified without any form of simulation, or formalized notions of coverage. I lucked out on the emergence of a new industry, which would later be called EDA. It quite naturally combined the two fields of hardware and software, and I spent most of my working life writing software for simulation and verification. During that time, I progressed from writing the software into defining tool architecture and verification methodologies, spent some time at the corporate level doing M&A, before starting my slide into retirement as a writer.

Most people would transition into management at some point, which also adds a new skill set. That can become a pivot point for many where those management skills become more important than the original skills as an engineer. I never went in that direction, but that’s another story.

Along my path I got a glimpse of the legal industry, where I was centrally involved in a large company patent battle, went through countless hours of depositions, being an expert witness, helping in patent lawsuits, and a whole lot more. At one point, the head of the legal department joked that I deserved an honorary legal degree. I also delved into the finance area in two ways. One was doing analysis of company value as part of M&A activities, doing technical and market due diligence for VCs, and more recently helping financial firms understand many of the intricacies of the semiconductor and EDA industries. Sometimes I have to shake my head with both groups of people when they cannot grasp the basics. I know they are intelligent people, but not when it comes to technology. People have blind spots.

Something that struck me is a natural order in which knowledge tends to be picked up. For example, I met several lawyers who started in a high-tech field and then went back to school to get a law degree. I have never heard of a lawyer going back to school to get a high-tech education. The same is true with hardware and software, where I have never heard of a software engineer suddenly deciding they need to design a better processor, or with technology and finance.

Is this similar in some respects to the arbitrary rule of adjectives? Maybe you are not aware of this until it is broken, but adjectives must appear in a defined order: opinion, size, quality, shape, age, color, origin, material, type, and purpose, according to the Cambridge Dictionary. When the order is broken, a sentence just sounds odd. Consider the tall thin engineer, but not the thin tall engineer; or the new red car and not the red new car. How did something like this come into being? Perhaps I should pursue a retirement career in language anthropology.

But the one area in career terms that appears to be bi-directional is high-tech and writing. I started as an engineer and added writing skills to that. There are several such writers working within Semiconductor Engineering, and many others that I know. There are an equal number of people that started off with journalism majors and have managed to pick up enough understanding about the field to be able to write in an intelligent manner. While we may write different types of stories, which possibly appeal to a different audience, I would not want to say one was better than the other.

I do sometimes have a niggle with editors who want my grammar to be perfect and finish up making me sound like a stuffed-up manager when I really wanted to appeal to engineers, but there are some things that are just not worth fighting over. The important thing is that I enjoy sharing what I have learned over the years and helping others accomplish that, when they may not have the desire or skills to do it themselves.

I would love to hear about your career migrations and what you have found either hard or difficult about them. Are there cases that defy the skill set development order, and how have people fared with those transitions?

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