This article was first published as part of my "Voices of Scientists in Industry" series on LinkedIn
Scott Sternberg has a BS in Physics from SUNY College at Cortland and an MS in Physics from Colorado State University. When I interviewed him in 2010, he was Executive VP of Services at Vaisala, a global environmental and industrial monitoring device company headquartered in Finland. He was also President of Vaisala Inc., the company’s US subsidiary headquartered in Louisville, CO. Prior to Vaisala, Scott held many roles for Roper Industries/Photometrics in Tucson, AZ.
Scott and I overlapped for about a year in graduate school at Colorado State University where he brought me up to speed when I first started working in the laser spectroscopy lab. After a 25-year career, Scott recently stepped out of the corporate workforce. He volunteers his time on not-for-profit and academic boards and enjoys being outside in Colorado.
Q. Tell me about the science phase of your career.
A. When I recently moved to Colorado I stumbled across a box with a picture of me at my elementary school science fair, pointing to my little science experiment. I realized that this lifelong science path I’ve been on began at an early age. I was always trying to figure out the fundamental forces of the universe as a child, whether it was building go-carts or doing science experiments.
When I went to college I went intending to get a degree in mechanical engineering, not in science. I chose a “3 plus 2” program where I intended to spend three years at one school taking core science classes and the next two years at a different school specializing in either mechanical, engineering, or civil engineering. The idea was to build a strong foundation in science that would better support the traditional engineering classes. When I finished the third year, however, I decided to continue on with physics rather than switch to mechanical engineering. That was a defining moment where I chose science over engineering, and it was primarily due to my interest in the fundamental principles of the universe.
After graduating with my Bachelor’s degree, I decided to go to graduate school in the physics department at Colorado State University. That’s where I would say my professional science career really started. As I neared my defense date, I started to think about what I wanted to do with my life. There is a very traditional academic track for scientists: you go to college, then graduate school, then do a post-doc where you work for a professor for several years, and ultimately you become a professor, if you’re lucky! While in graduate school, however, I looked at the professors and thought, ‘Is this where I want to be in ten years?’
I decided that I wanted to take my skills, and everything I’d learned, and move into a new application area. After I completed my Masters I took a research position in the Anatomy and Neurobiology department at Colorado State University. There was a large focus on spinal cord research at the time. Spinal cord neurons typically don’t regenerate when damaged, meaning that if you break your back you can’t walk again. We did an experiment where we were able to block certain chemical processes that inhibit regeneration and demonstrated millimeters of nerve cell growth. It was a small step, but orders of magnitude improvement over the microns of growth that had been demonstrated previously. The experiment was heavily reliant on optical technology and software digital image processing that I helped develop using my physics and optics background. To bring a skill set I had developed in physics research and make a significant contribution in a new environment was very rewarding. It was also an affirmation that my career did not need to be confined to one particular path or application area.
Q. How did you make the transition into industry?
A. One of the companies I was working with on the nerve re-growth project was Photometrics in Tucson, Arizona. They were making digital imaging systems for telescopes. We were taking these CCD cameras and putting them on microscopes. Instead of pointing the cameras at outer space, we were pointing them at inner space - the physics was almost identical. After buying my third camera and “actively persuading” them to rewire and reprogram them, they finally said, ‘You know, you are the kind of person we want in our company.’ It was a wonderful transition to do something completely different and move into a business environment.
My transition was into an application specialist role where I was dealing with scientists. Our customers were scientists, so for me it was a good impedance match between the business and the academic environments. Academic customers don’t necessarily like talking to traditional sales or business people. They prefer to talk to someone who understands the research world they are working in. If you have a science research background then you have the ‘street cred’ they are looking for. I used to call myself a translator because I would translate academic speak into business speak, and vice versa, and help information flow as efficiently as possible.
I consider making this transition to be my biggest accomplishment. At that point I recognized that my ability to understand the interests of both the business and science communities was a unique skill that I could bring as an employee. From that point on I have worked in business environments that are heavily entrenched in scientific innovations or scientific research.
Q. What was most challenging about making that transition?
A. The biggest challenge for me was the change in culture. In science research I was working in a very structured and ultra-precise environment where everything is calculable from first principles, expect perhaps working hours. The business community culture is very different. This is even true in business finance where you might think things would be well defined. Instead there is a whole culture that exists around interpreting the numbers, even with GAAP, a standard that you might think is an iron-clad framework.
It has taken me years to just frame the question of how business evolves and what rules it follows. Just go to the business section of any bookstore and you’ll see many different opinions on how this business organism works.
We talk a lot about fact-based decision-making in business. People often think if they have an infinite number of facts they can make the correct decision. I don’t see that in business ever. The more facts you learn, the less you really know what the right decision is. It’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to business. There is never a complete set of facts, so decisions in business are often driven by intuition. It was this dilemma that drove me to my definition of brilliance: a unique mix of intelligence, creativity and intuition. Apply that definition to “brilliant” people in history and you get a pretty good working model.
When you look at the iconic CEOs, the people who have really figured out the business community, they have this brilliance. They are smart, well-read, and well-educated, but also highly creative. They try new business models and new ways to drive their employees. At their core, though, they have this intuitive feel of what their customers want – not necessarily what they need, but what they really want. They have a feel for how their employees can actually be adding value to the company every day. Think about what Steve Jobs has done at Apple. He embodies all three of those abilities.
Q. What are some of the skills that have helped you succeed in industry?
A. Patience and flexibility. Not every decision, endeavor, or product is going to be an outright success and it takes patience to keep looking for the right one. They also don’t work out the way you expect most of the time. You create a business plan, develop a product and market it, and often the first sale is for an application you never imagined. You also have to have the flexibility to switch paths and chase the opportunity that you didn’t plan for.
Science teaches you these skills because for every experiment that works there were many that didn’t and the biggest breakthroughs often occur in areas where you least expect it. Nobel Prize projects are not usually designed to be Nobel Prizes, they often just happen. Many grants have been written to promise a specific output, when the paper comes out it has nothing to do with the original grant. That’s just the way it works.
People skills are too often underestimated. I acquired the gift of gab from my mom. She was raised in Louisville, Kentucky and had that ability to walk into a room and find common ground with just about anyone. An important element of success in business is this ability to engage quickly. This skill helped with the ‘translator’ role I described earlier, and as you rise to higher levels of management, success is entirely based on people skills. This is most relevant in companies that are moving to matrix organizational designs.
Q. How has your perspective changed throughout your career? Is there anything you would do differently if you had the chance to do it over?
A. I think it is a waste of time to ask myself ‘Would I have done anything differently?’ Time is unidirectional so I make sure I’m always looking forward.
Do I have a different perspective today? Definitely. When you first start graduate school, everyone wants to be like Madame Curie or Einstein or some other iconic researcher that has changed the world. Then you get to the harsh reality that you aren’t that smart or intuitive or creative. Early on I had a number of confidence issues running around my head. When I moved from physics to the neurobiology labs, I often thought ‘What am I doing here?’ In time I learned that I had a good foundation of skills and could drag and drop them in a different environment and be successful.
Q. Where do you see yourself in ten years?
A. I want to be working in an environment where I can make a contribution to society. I’ve always wanted to feel that I’m contributing to the advancement of mankind. In my previous life I was pushing optical technology into biological research to help develop a better understanding of the human genome. That was a justifiable benefit to mankind. My current work involves facing the global climate issue. The sustainability efforts we put forth are arguably the most relevant thing that we could be doing in business today.
Q. Any great books or other resources that you recommend?
A. Lately I have been gravitating towards explorer shelves. I love Kon-Tiki, a book about a team who set out to cross the Pacific Ocean on a raft of bamboo and balsa wood just like the first inhabitants of the Southern Pacific islands. I also like South by Ernest Shackleton and Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. They’re not science books at all, but they describe people who stood at the edge of a new frontier and took the next step knowing, ‘There is no one I can go and ask for help. I’m on my own here.’ In science where you go from the edge is up to you.
I think this comes back to intuition. Innovation in science is driven by intuition. I would argue that you couldn’t be a great scientist without intuition. You can read as many books as you want, but without that that intuitive spark, how are you ever going to take that step into the new frontier?
Q. Do you have any quotes or sayings that you like?
A. Every year the graduate school sponsored an Engineering Fair. One year the theme was, “To Engineer is Human.” On all of the posters in the physics wing I hand-wrote, “To Physics, Divine.”
I think that illustrates a bit of the difference between science and engineering. There is certainly a very human aspect to engineering, but there is almost a divine quality to doing fundamental science; that you are somehow trying to unlock the secrets of the universe.
Q. Is there anything else that you would like to add?
A. Despite the fact that I’m now working in a business environment, I don’t feel that my science career has ever ended. As scientists we are trained to look at a problem, hypothesize about the fundamental issue, and draw conclusions. This is baked into our existence. Yet business is far from an exact science. Try dragging and dropping a little scientific intelligence, creativity and intuition into business and I’m sure you’ll be pleased with the results.