Education breeds confidence…and so much more

An interview with Matthew Posner, PhD

Meet Matt:Matthew Posner of Optonique

Matthew Posner is Workforce & Photonics Education Director with Optonique in Montreal, Canada where he works to advance the application of photonics technologies and grow the photonics industry in Quebec. Prior to Optonique, Matt held the roles of Process Scientist, Product Line Scientist, and Learning and Development Consultant at Excelitas Technologies in Montreal.

Matt has a Master of Engineering (MEng) in Electrical Engineering in Nanotechnology from the University of Southampton, a MEng in Nanotechnology from Grenoble INP – UGA, and a PhD in Optoelectronics from the University of Southampton.

Matt has leveraged his technical background to enter the business world, and quickly began a pivot into education and outreach roles. A consummate networker and connector, Matt possesses a valuable blend of technical and people skills that has allowed him to design a unique career path that fits his broad range of skills and interests.

I first met Matt when he invited me to lecture at the University of Southampton Optoelectronics Research Centre, and we’ve remained friends ever since, connecting regularly at conferences we both attend. Below is an excerpt of my conversation with Matt about his career path so far. (Look for the full interview to appear in my forthcoming book, Shaping the World: The Privilege of Being a Scientist in Industry)

An excerpt from our conversation:

Dave:   You described an amazing range of experiences during your PhD at Southampton. How did you approach your transition into industry?

Matt:    My move to Montreal was guided by a few factors. It wasn’t the best fit for my technical specialization, but it was very international and would allow me to use my French and English. It was also a good option for my wife for a variety of reasons.

I ended up at Excelitas Technologies in Montreal, starting as a process scientist in the photodiode manufacturing center. I found a huge community element in Montreal that I wanted to get involved with. That discovery has led to a conscious effort to design my life and career around a balance of five guiding principles: family, work, community, friends, and self. I’ve found this approach to be very important for managing my health and moods as I transitioned into industry and to a new country. When I'm having hard technical problems at work, I make a point to focus on family and friends, or if things are hard at home, I look for something in the community or myself that will bring a positive shift.

In a world where anxiety is a real thing and worrying is kind of the norm, I try to think about how to worry about things that matter. I think of it as trying to worry constructively.

Dave:   ‘Worry constructively’. That sounds like great advice, but what does it look like?

Matt:    That may mean sending a message to one of my friends asking how they are doing. If I get a response, that's a good thing for both of us. I might need to connect with them to help myself feel better, but they might appreciate that contact also.  It's an important consideration for a balanced life, but one which can easily be forgotten when you are overwhelmed by problems in one area.

Dave:   Your first industry job title was ‘Process Scientist’ and describes work in manufacturing.

Matt: My job was a kind of a manufacturing engineering role because it was in operations and our primary job was supporting production.

Dave:   That must have been a really big shift from what you had done in university.

Matt:    Yes, the transition from research into manufacturing was certainly a challenge. The hardest thing for me was how quickly priorities change in a support role like that. It was all well managed and organized, and it made sense why we had to change priorities, because we had to make sure the manufacturing line stayed running. But satisfying a production customer who needs to get a product out the door on a tight schedule was so different than a development environment.

I realized very quickly that I’m much more of a well-defined project kind of person, and I really wasn’t very happy working in the production environment.  I knew why it was an important role, but at some point, it just became way too much.

Dave:   Are you happy to have had the experience?

Matt:    Yes, I'm happy to have done it. I spent more than half of my time on the manufacturing floor working with the technicians, the operators, and the production supervisors, testing and qualifying process changes to improve reliability and production yields. That’s valuable experience that most R&D scientists, and even new product introduction (NPI) engineers, don’t usually get.

It was very fast-paced and very challenging, and I had to learn how to manage myself much more than I’d experienced with R&D project management. It was also a very technical role, and as I’ve moved on from it, I realize that my technical background is something that I don't want to leave behind.

One beautiful thing about it was that it was a nine-to-five job. The fab was working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but my manager was very good at letting us switch off at the end of the workday. That meant I could be 110% during that nine-to-five interval, knowing it had a well-defined end each day.

That also gave me a lot of time to get involved with other community-based or education-based activities, both with professional societies and in the Montreal community. I gained a lot of transferable skills in my spare time, which ultimately helped me land my next job.

Dave:   You managed to pivot into a very different role while still at Excelitas, right? How did you go about that?

Matt:    One of the things that I'd been working on in my spare time was looking at how the photonics industry might adopt new education and training frameworks. I’d joined the program committee for the SPIE Optics Education and Outreach Conference, which I’d attended regularly, and asked the program chair if we could do a meta review of all the industry education initiatives since that conference started in 2010. He said yes, and that turned into an interesting study of digital libraries and the publication sector that I ended up publishing a paper on. I shared that paper internally at Excelitas and an internal group responsible for technical expert training took notice. That led to a part-time role where I was working for this other organization a half-day each week.

That was a huge breath of fresh air, and a nice distraction from the stress of the production support role. It was a project that needed dedicated attention from a project manager but didn’t require a full-time effort. I enjoyed bringing people together from different groups around the company, and it was a good opportunity to build some development and learning experience that I could leverage to take my next career step.

Dave:   So, the next step was to figure out how to do something similar full-time?

Matt:    Yes, and that’s the role I'm in today as the Director of Workforce & Photonics Education at Optonique, which is the photonics industry cluster for the Quebec province. The opportunity to bring together the community, the pedagogy, and the technical skills in one role that is both internal and external facing has been the most rewarding thing about my career so far.

Dave:   So, you used your time outside of work to assemble a new set of skills, and that gave you a unique specialization that enabled a rewarding career pivot. That’s a valuable use of your spare time.

Matt:    Thank you. I’m really enjoying what I’m doing now. It’s also great to be doing this for a non-profit organization. I’d had experience with academia and industry, and now I get to try something new.

Working at a not-for-profit is interesting because it is strongly driven by mission and values. It does pay less than the for-profit sector, which is something that I had to consider carefully in making this move. But when I look at the broader picture, I see it creates a huge amount of value for me in terms of my happiness and self-esteem. That’s something that should not be neglected when looking at big career moves.

Dave:   Do you have any quotes that you find particularly helpful or relevant?

Matt:    My favorite quote is one that I picked up from a lecture by Eric Mazur, who is a Professor at Harvard and a pioneer in physics education research. It is a quote by Confucius, ‘Education breeds confidence, confidence breeds hope, and hope breeds peace.’

I think that's very powerful. Peace is something which would be a pretty cool to have in this world, and if the first step towards that is education, then that’s a valuable thing to work to improve. I put that quote in my dissertation, because I want that to be an important part of my career.

Dave:   I like that a lot, Matt. Good for you.


Find Matt's LinkedIn profile here.

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