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Systems Career Check

His job is to see the future. He's got 115 patents — and counting. He sometimes Rollerblades the 22 miles to and from his lab. Few Bruin engineers are as colorful or as qualified to offer advice as Marc Tremblay, senior vice president, fellow and chief architect at Sun Microsystems, Inc. Tremblay shares his insights on making it as an engineer and the challenges for the next generation of UCLA engineering grads.


Published Apr 1, 2007 8:00 AM

By Marc Tremblay M.S. '85, Ph.D. '91

By Marc Tremblay M.S. ’85, Ph.D. ’91

Climb the technical ladder.

Many companies offer the opportunity to be an individual contributor for your entire career. In other words, it means that you don't have to take the management route to move up in the hierarchy of a company. This starts from an entry level position, for instance as a new engineer, continues through the various "staff levels," to reach the Distinguished Engineer (DE) title or its equivalent. The DE population typically represents only 1 percent of the engineering population at a high-tech company. Beyond that, one can reach the level of fellow, which is equivalent to a vice president. This should be very encouraging for those who have a passion about their field and don't really want to manage just because it was traditionally the only way to move up.

Find out about a company's culture.

More and more companies identify with a certain culture. This covers a broad range of issues, from the freedom to innovate to the dress code (or lack thereof!), or from an emphasis on training to the availability of great food or free sodas. Not everyone fits in a given company's culture, so I would encourage people to find out more about this during the interview process or through some research. One way to do that is by reading the blogs of employees from the target company. In general, companies don't censor these blogs, so they are a true indication of what employees feel or think of their company.

Blueprint for Success

Learn more about Marc Tremblay's remarkable career. And if you want more tips on how to engineer a successful career of your own or to connect with other Bruin engineers, log on to the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Engineering Alumni Association.

Be balanced.

When I interview candidates, I look in particular for a balanced person. I believe that the combination of a strong education, a healthy lifestyle, a variety of interests and good communication skills is of utmost importance. A long and successful career will undoubtedly have ups and downs during which an employee will have to revert to other skills and other aspects of life to make it through. We even encourage employees to take their vacation as opposed to just piling it up, so that they regularly enjoy time off with their family or friends. Speaking of vacation, it is more a state of mind than the pure disconnection from work. In my case, I often bring my laptop on vacation, but only because I enjoy my work and like to maintain a certain connection. This can be only 15 minutes in the entire day and then I am totally off work mentally and physically for the rest of the day.

Be disciplined and focused.

The best way to avoid working 24/7 is to have great discipline and be totally focused at what you do. I was fortunate to be a student-athlete, which meant that we were in the gym every evening from 6–9:30 p.m. Since sleep was part of the training, I had to sleep a good eight hours. That only left the normal 8-to-5 to take all my classes and do all the course work. My colleagues and I (five of the eight gymnasts were in engineering) had to be very disciplined and not waste our time between classes and especially during classes. The other major point is focus. Don't let addiction to e-mail or IM interrupt your concentration. I heard a speaker/author the other day claim that constant e-mail retrieval was cutting production by 20 percent!

"The best way to avoid working 24/7 is to have great discipline and be totally focused at what you do."

Take a broad view of your interest.

Students and young engineers may sometimes feel that their interest is too narrow and could limit their career. I would encourage you to look at your passion as something very broad. For instance, say you like computer graphics. This may lead you to develop a microprocessor for a game console, or you could be a software person writing computer games. No matter what, you can expand the scope of your interest by looking at the financial aspect of the products you would be working on, or you could stage a marketing campaign for it or look into the social behaviors of gamers. Other examples involve product manufacturing, partnering with other companies, localization of manuals and menus in different languages, the outsourcing of some of the engineering, the export-control aspect, and so on. Our hypothetical student or young professional could have taken this career path with several engineering majors, or by majoring in science, business, marketing, law, psychology, etc. And it really doesn't matter what your specialty may be. Basically, almost any college major or professional discipline can be associated with a given field. And once you've begun your career, a broad view will keep you interested in the work and, not coincidentally, can help accelerate your professional advancement.

Love what you do.

My most important advice is to love what you do. If so, you will not see work as a burden. On the contrary, work should be an opportunity for you to pursue your interest, to advance the state-of-the-art, to invent something new, to accomplish something you dream of. The best people in my field truly have a passion about what they do. They could talk about it for hours. They never really "turn it off," in the sense that they keep thinking about their passion while doing other activities. Most of my ideas actually happen when I am Rollerblading, running or just driving. If you love what you do, you will have boundless energy, and it will show through the quality of your work, a major step toward a successful career.