Where have all the leaders gone?
I joined the interconnection industry in 1991, and I found myself part of a world that was filled with larger-than-life characters, professionals who had been part of the connector marketplace for decades.
My first in-depth product training was given to me by a formidable gentleman called Jack Gentry, the founder of US connector manufacturer Positronic Industries. Jack had been a pilot in the US Marines and served in the Korean War. He was a no-nonsense engineer with a clear vision of how he wanted his company, and his industry, to grow.
He was not alone. I could fill this page with the names of people who had grown up with the industry at a time when building relationships with customers was the only way to do business. Because success relied on this personal approach, it meant that there was a well-trodden career path that many followed, including myself. I started in an internal sales administration job. Once my knowledge and confidence grew, my next step was a field sales position, which then evolved into more technical responsibilities, known to many as a field applications engineer.
What this kind of progression gave me was the chance to talk to customers, look at their applications, and understand the sort of problems that they faced on a day-to-day basis. I have been lucky enough to meet plenty of interesting engineers and see what they have been designing. I have climbed over nuclear reactors, I have looked at the insides of fighter aircraft and racing cars, and I have helped disassemble surface-to-air missiles, all with the purpose of helping the customer to solve their technical problems.
This all served to make me better at my job. No two customers would face exactly the same situation, but I was able to help many customers with the words “I remember when an engineer had a similar problem. Here’s how we solved it…” That knowledge made me a better salesman, and without it I doubt that I would be able to write as Connector Geek today.
Nearly 30 years have passed, and the connector industry has moved on. Some things have not changed – we are still in the business of making products that join electrical and electronic circuits together. What has changed is how we do business with customers. There is a whole range of factors that have caused this – fewer design engineers, the progress of technology, the rise of the internet and the ability of engineers to become their own experts.
However, the reasons do not really matter. What does matter is that the face-to-face way of business that was vital 30 years ago no longer exists. There are fewer opportunities for FAEs to meet customers, which in turn means that they do not get to see the applications first-hand.
If the key to a good salesman, product manager or designer is to understand how to solve a customer’s problems, how will the next generation of leaders learn their craft if they don’t get to visit the customers themselves?
The connector market continues to grow, with some predictions seeing the industry expanding by more than 30% in the next few years. The drivers of this rise are not hard to spot – electric vehicles, renewable energy, 5G communications and the growth of artificial intelligence. These applications will be making demands on the design of connectors – higher power, greater speed, smaller size – and to develop the next generation of connectors will require in-depth understanding. How can we deliver these developments without experts and leaders?
How can we identify the future leaders of the interconnection industry?
How are you identifying future leaders in your industry?
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I've been turning to distributors, manufacturer's reps and FAEs for many years for help solving connector problems. One of my first such experiences was over the phone with Allied Electronics back when I was in 9th grade, long before email or the internet. For my application, I wanted circular connector that was intentionally _not_ keyed, so it could be plugged in at different rotations to shuffle the answer key to a quiz board. The kind salesperson spent quite a long time on a long-distance phone call with me trying to identify a solution, but we couldn't find one off-the-shelf. So my dad assisted me in constructing such a connector of our own, using brass brads as the pins, and phosphor bronze strip for spring contacts on the female side of the connector. I plan to post a brief article revisiting that problem (and an A-ha! solution) in the near future.
In the work world I found discovered face-to-face meetings with reps and FAEs were fairly common, us keeping them apprised of our needs, and them proposing existing or future solutions. Trade shows also provide some of that opportunity. But as you have pointed out, the amount of face-to-face interaction has declined some with the rise of the internet.
So where can the leaders of the future gain the breadth of experience to make up for the reduced face-to-face experience? Part of the answer is the internet. Online communities like DesignSpark allow customers to share their needs and search for solutions. It has pluses and minuses relative to face-to-face interaction. It obviously isn't suitable in some cases due to intellectual property, proprietary design, or military secret issues. But on the other hand, it allows more engineers and customers to see possible solutions that could be useful for their products, too. And it lets the manufacturer's rep or FAE see the needs of more customers than travel and scheduling of face-to-face meetings would allow. The budding leader should know not only the strengths of their own product line, but also that of competitors. When you can see the whole landscape, you are in a better position to spot areas lacking good solutions. You can turn those into opportunities for your company to deliver better solutions.
@BradLevy Thanks for your reply. You've hit on something that I hadn't considered - the internet does allow future leaders to have a more rounded view of the marketplace than I might have had. Your thoughts have thrown up another question, which is about the customer experience. The positive experience you had with Allied when you were in the 9th grade was the result of someone taking the time and going the extra mile to help you. If customers don't have person-to-person contact like that any more, how can suppliers impress? Good websites will go some way to create loyal customers, but is it the same as someone helping you in person? Thanks for taking the time to let us know your thoughts. What's your view on memorable customer experiences?
@Connector Geek I think engineers may be more likely to be introverted and swayed by information than some other career types. Which makes them a good fit for being reached online. I know I appreciate and remember those people and companies that truly seem interested in helping me solve an engineering/design problem I face. Think about information gaps. Engineering coursework prepares us pretty well for choosing the correct diode or transistor based on voltage and current range expected, gain needed, etc. But many electromechanical components like connectors, fans, switches, and relays have characteristics that are not as well covered in the coursework of the engineer selecting the component. I was impressed by some of the recent postings here by FanManDan with ebm papst. They explain some of the differences between different types of fans, including where one type works better than another. The reasons one fan works better than another may go back to first principles, but distilling that information into easy-to-apply summaries, rules of thumb, and problems to watch out for makes life far easier for non-specialists trying to make a good choice of fan on smaller projects.