The Innovative Interview #3: Technical Community

by Steve Todd | December 01, 2009

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My previous two posts proposed a set of interview questions that assist an intrapreneur in evaluating the innovation culture of a potential employer. Keep in mind that an intrapreneur is an inventor that delivers high-tech ideas in the context of a large corporation.

One of the key aspects of a truly innovative corporation is a willingness to recognize employees that have consistently made outstanding technical contributions to their company. Equally important is the frequent gathering of these leaders for face-to-face networking, direction setting, and corporate pulse-taking.

Corporations such as EMC, IBM, and Microsoft, for example, all have “Fellows” programs that provide industry-wide recognition for intrapreneurs reaching the top rung of technical advancement. Many of these companies also have well defined career steps such as “Distinguished Engineer” (which ultimately leads them to Fellow). EMC recently announced its latest list of Distinguished Engineers and Fellows.

Why is a Fellows program (or an equivalent) important to an intrapreneur? Simply put, it gives them the flexibility to pursue a challenging career as an individual contributor. Too often large corporations require their top technical talent to make a lateral move into management in order to progress their careers. Having the option to stay purely technical is a key question to ask of a potential employer.

Does your corporation have a Fellows program?

Find out the specific details of a purely technical career path. Ask about the options for progressing as an individual contributor. Ask for the specific names of employees that have risen through the ranks without crossing over into management. Ask to see a slide or document which describes the steps on this path and the behaviors that move an intrapreneur from one step to the next. If your potential employer can’t produce this information, it’s a strike against their innovative culture.

What is the responsibility of each individual Fellow and DE?

There is much to be gained by a commonly-understood charter for members of the technical community. Are they responsible for mentoring junior employees? Do they serve as a focal point for innovation within their own business units? Do they track university research in their own geography? Are they required to present new directions and efforts to the corporation at large? Are they expected to publish papers, file patents, and speak at conferences? Do they have the freedom to pursue projects based on their own instincts? And most importantly, do they meet frequently with customers?

How do Fellows and DEs interact with each other as a team?

When it comes to innovation, gauging the team interaction of technical experts within a corporation is critical. If technical experts frequently collaborate with each other, the combinations and permutations of technology will most definitely result in a set of ideas that are breakthrough. Does the corporation encourage and sponsor this type of collaboration? Does the corporation ask for feedback as to the “morale” of the employees that actually build, market, sell, and support the products? Do groups of Fellows and DEs visit and/or present to customers as a team? Do these teams present requests and visions to the CEO of the corporation?

Find out whether or not the top management leans on the technical community for guidance. Also find out specific details regarding how top management rewards these leaders (e.g. dinners, patent bonuses, travel budgets, interns, etc).

Ask to meet with a Fellow!

If a company has a recognized technical community with truly strong ties to one another, then all of the Fellows and Distinguished Engineers should be committed to growing their technical “bench strength”. They should participate in the recruitment of the best technical talent available. When a strong candidate starts to shine during an interview, the technical community should be willing to take time out of their schedules to meet with (and recruit) a potential new co-worker.

If you are a strong technical candidate, you are well within your rights to ask for an audience! Simply be flexible enough to know that it might not happen on the spot. Follow-up phone calls, emails, and scheduled lunches are a great way to seal the deal when it comes to evaluating the togetherness of a corporate technical community.

Steve
http://stevetodd.typepad.com
Twitter: @SteveTodd
EMC Intrapreneur

Filed Under: Technology

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