The global pandemic has brought a new level of realization to the nation’s scientists, technology workers and engineers. As the US turns to other countries for the production of vital materials (such as masks from China), Americans are wondering how we are going to go forward if we can’t get the stuff we need – and get it produced here in the United States. Before you can say, “global supply chain” and “lower wages in Asia”, consider the insights of materials management PhD and company co-founder, Brandon Sweeney. He says there’s a new way for engineers, tech workers and the companies they serve to create exceptional value, right here within the borders of the USA.
To be clear, this isn’t an article about the benefits of economic isolation or nationalism. Sweeney says that self-sufficiency is the goal – and finding new career opportunities is something on everyone’s mind these days. A scientist and co-founder of Essentium Technologies (an innovative, Austin-based startup that raised $22 million in series A funding just over a year ago), Sweeney is passionate about driving the production of products that matter.
“It’s about the durable goods, the raw materials and the process for converting those into the product and doing that with the fastest speed, the highest reliability, the lowest cost, the most efficient use of materials with sustainability in mind,” Sweeney explains. “How do we push that next generation of self sufficiency and being able to provide for our own needs when times call for it?” he asks, rhetorically. He goes on, “The role of a material scientist is, at the core, trying to figure out how to take raw materials and do something useful with them.”
What’s most useful for scientists, technology workers and engineers who are looking to make a career impact right now? How can you be more self-sufficient in your approach to your career in a data-driven field? Here are three key skills that are needed, now more than ever:
- Move from Observation to Creation: while a scientist will put a material under a microscope and observe it, Sweeney says we need more than observation. While he doesn’t discount the scientific method, a willingness to turn observation into creation is what’s needed. Don’t misunderstand: it’s important to observe nature, chemicals, materials and processes. What’s vital is to turn observation into something new. “The most obvious career opportunities exist in the healthcare industry,” Sweeney says. Material scientists, he says, are trained to turn observation into application – from superconducting polymers to fuel cells to medical devices and more. What is it that you have seen, or observed, that could turn into tangible results for your employer or your business? How can you move from hypothesis testing to bringing new ideas into the market? That’s where opportunity lies.
- Be Your Own Catalyst: “My 10 year old self would be scolding me now for saying this,” Sweeney says with a chuckle, from his research lab just north of Austin. “I used to hate all things art and music. Because those were subjective disciplines that had nothing to do with science or engineering or mathematics – the pure disciplines that could be measured numerically. As I’ve gotten older the thing that I’ve learned is what’s really super important to any engineer: the power of creativity.” He’s talking about the art behind the science – the spark of innovation that is the real catalyst in scientific endeavors, technology and engineering. What we can observe in the material world becomes valuable when we apply human creativity to pure observations. In other words, the human element is what’s often missing in technological endeavors – and an open mind is the only way to discover what’s missing. Because, when it comes to the ingenuity inside the human mind, there’s still not an app for that.
- Practice A New Kind of Science: “Science is only useful to other people to the extent that you can communicate what your talent is, or what you understand about the world,” Sweeney shares, the passion rising in his voice. Indeed, the way that he launched his business was on two foundations: innovative science, and expert communication skills. “You have to be able to get ideas out of your head and onto paper, into a video or inside a conference room.” Sweeney echoes the sentiments of Stella Adler, who famously said, “You’ve got to have a talent for your talent.” For scientists, technology workers and engineers, job number one is combining hard data with soft skills – otherwise, the science isn’t delivered. What happens to someone’s technical career without a healthy combination of both data and communication skills? “You’re going to have a bunch of great ideas that get stuck in a lot of really smart heads and never make it out into the world,” Sweeney shares. He continues to say that getting in front of VCs (venture capitalists) and angel investors is great. “But if investors don’t understand your idea, if you can’t make it into a format that is understandable – a format that can get an investor excited – then what’s the point? You’re never going to get your idea off the ground.” The greatest skill that any technologist, scientist or engineer needs to cultivate? The ability to get others enrolled in new ideas.
The good news is, there’s a science behind effective communication – and just like the law of gravity or the way a fulcrum works, we all have the capacity to understand it. And leverage that understanding to new results. A compelling vision – for your innovation, for your ideas and for your career – is accessible. Art and science isn’t an either/or proposition, for those who can see the connection. Establishing a deeper understanding of skills like relatability, emotional intelligence and effective communication might just be the best first step in bringing new career ideas to life.