Jason Ensher is a Senior Optical Engineer at InPhase Technologies. He earned a B.S. in physics from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he worked with Dr. Eric Cornell, who won the 2001 Nobel Prize for demonstrating Bose-Einstein Condensation. After completing his Ph.D., Jason went on to a postdoc at the University of Connecticut with Dr. Edward Eyler, and then began his career in industry. Since then he has worked at ILX Lightwave, Precision Photonics Corporation, Ball Aerospace, and InPhase Technologies, all in the Boulder, Colorado area. In his spare time, Jason and his wife enjoy skiing, hiking and swing dancing.
I met Jason when I came to work at Ball Aerospace in Boulder in 2003. Despite the fact that we worked in different areas during our time at Ball, our similar educational backgrounds provided us with good conversations. We’ve stayed in touch long after moving on from Ball, and frequently discuss our career experiences and plans.
Here is an excerpt from his interview:
How did you find industry to be different than your experience in academia?
One difference is the pool of engineers you have to learn from. In industry there are mechanical, electrical, and possibly optical engineers who are well trained in their disciplines. You can work closely with them and ask them questions. At a university there may be a machine shop and, if you are lucky, an electronics lab. Other than that you are on your own.
I’ve also seen the difference between academic research and product development. In academia, the product is the science itself and the hardware doesn’t have to be so robust. It is important that it give accurate data, and precision measurements may require stability over a matter of hours or days, but it doesn’t need to operate longer than that without adjustment.
One of my favorite comments from Carl is that the perfect experiment set-up gives you your last measurement and then falls apart, indicating that you put just enough effort into it to get your measurements and didn’t waste time making it too perfect. This is very different from developing a product that needs to work for a long time without continuous adjustment by a graduate student.
What did you learn in school that helped you make this transition?
Above all I learned the value of working quickly. My advisor used to say “Any job worth doing well is worth doing fast.” I have had people debate that with me, but if you get the result you want, any more time spent on it is wasted. This also pushes you to explore the parameter space of failure, because no matter how smart you are, you are more likely to fail than you are to succeed. Work quickly and figure out what doesn’t work, so you can find out what does.
I came to industry with a questioning attitude, more so than the other engineers who had been working there for a long time. I questioned what the product had to do and what the development effort had to achieve. I asked the marketing people about what the customers wanted. If one of the engineers indicated that we needed to build a circuit to do something, I would ask why. I wanted to know that we were being efficient and working as quickly as we could.
Second, being able to demonstrate working hardware is so important, even if it is not working perfectly. It is often necessary to demonstrate some basic level of functionality in order to get management to fund the next stage of a project, or to demonstrate capability to a customer. In graduate school I learned how to interpret ‘bad’ data, to be able to explain the effect of a certain piece of test hardware that wasn’t working properly that day. This is exactly the kind of approach to take when demonstrating a prototype product. Having the ability to explain to your boss or a customer why it is not working to specification and what you can do to fix it is so much better than saying, “I don’t have something that works for you now.”
What has always gotten me the most traction in industry is being able to show data – hard facts, not just analysis. Theoretical analysis can be very important, but you can spend a lot of time on it. If you have the skill to perform an experiment in one day that demonstrates what you are talking about, you can save weeks of time. I have found that evidence almost always settles a dispute, even if the disagreement is political. Data-driven conclusions are very important.
Finally, I think it is very important to be able to talk intelligently about the work you are doing. My father was a technical salesman, and he emphasized to me that you need to be able to talk about what you are doing or you won’t convince people how good your product is. I had great coaching on this in graduate school. The students would give talks in front of a big group and Eric and Carl would critique us, often on the language we used to describe our work. As a scientist and graduate student you tend to become comfortable talking about your ideas and having them challenged, and this skill is very useful in industry. I’ve seen many scientists who were successful in business development and marketing because they had these skills.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, read more in my book “Turning Science into Things People Need,” available in paperback and Kindle.