Monday, May 19, 2014

Michael Lazich: Melding technical experience with business savvy

Michael Lazich is one of our many graduates working in Silicon Valley.  He has a BS in Applied Physics and an MS in Applied Science, both from UC Davis, and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.  We talked with him about his career and followed it from its beginnings in dreams of space travel, through two trips back to school and a variety of employers, including the US Navy, manufacturing companies, a management consulting company and more than a handful of startups.  Michael describes his transition from more scientific/technical research work to working on an entire manufacturing process at a systems level.  He also addresses work-life balance issues (as a father of 3), gives tips for navigating the risks inherent in working for a startup, and stresses the broader importance of an education, beyond simply preparing one for productive work.

Q: How did you decide to major in Physics?

I came to Physics as an alternative. When I originally applied for college, I was looking for aeronautical engineering programs because, at the time, I envisioned a future career as an astronaut. For whatever reason, I didn’t get into the programs that I wanted, and I had picked UC Davis because they had an aero engineering program. I talked to someone else and explained to them what I wanted to do, and they said, “You should major in Physics if you want to do that.” I was kind of skeptical at the time. I really liked Physics, but I always thought of it as a component of an education as opposed to a degree to get. I started doing the undergraduate Physics programs and declared it as a major.

Q: How long did your dream of being an astronaut last?

It lasted until after graduation. After I graduated, I got a job as a civilian working for the US Navy at a facility in China Lake, California. It was weapons-related, DOD work, and at the same time, I was applying to graduate programs. The program that I really wanted was the Applied Science program at UC Davis, which I did get into. I would say things started to change in terms of my life goals after I got my Masters degree, when I came back to China Lake. It was then that I looked at my career path, where things were going. Do I want to be a Missions Specialist on a space shuttle? At the time, there were some personal things going on and I was reevaluating a lot of things in my life. What is really most important in my life?

Q: How long were you in China Lake before starting the Masters program?

 A year.

Q: Were you still working while you were doing the Masters program?

I was able to take a leave of absence, so I maintained my employment. They basically let me go on leave to get my Masters degree. They were pretty flexible.

Q: How long was the Masters program?

It was a two-year program, and I basically did it in one year. I didn’t do a thesis. They may have changed the rules, but at the time I was able to complete the work in a year.

When I went back to China Lake, most of the people I worked with had Ph.D.s and they said, “Great! You got you Masters degree, now you’ve got to get your Ph.D.” I had a lot of conversations like that. To be honest, it was not an unattractive idea. I remember pretty vividly, there was a two-week period when I was really starting to evaluate what I was doing, where I was going. Don’t get me wrong, the technical work being done by the government and by space agencies and militaries is really amazing stuff. I looked around me and I saw myself. I could see exactly where I would be. In thirty years, this is what I would be doing. The people I was working with, they were happy. They built very strong careers, were very fulfilled, but it gave me the opportunity to ask myself: is this what I want to do? Is this where I want to be? And that was when I started to look at other options. 


Q: What did you see that you wanted to do instead?

At the time, I was very lab-focused. I would deal with a lot of vendors for larger companies, so I was exposed to the business side of science. It started to dawn on me that there’s this whole other side to what a technical education can do for me. This was when Microsoft had just gone public, in ’86, and I would talk with a lot of engineers. They’d say, “This company did that” and “There are a lot of smart people here” and “Look at all the money they’re making.” There are other things you can do. There are ways you can make money and still do really cool stuff.

I started to talk to my division head. We were at a party for someone’s five- or ten-year anniversary at the base, having some cake, and he knew I was interested in doing some other things or going to another graduate school. He said, “You know what you should do? You should think about getting an MBA” This is what he had done. He had a background similar to mine: an undergraduate degree in Physics and a Masters degree in Mathematics, and then he had gone back and gotten an MBA. He chose to come back to work for the Navy, and he had a very long and fulfilling career working in the federal service. He pointed out to me, “If you have an MBA with your technical background, there’re a lot of things that you can do.” I started looking at that combination, and after doing a bit of research, I decided to get my MBA. 

Q: Where did you go?

I went to Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh. That was another program that I chose very specifically because of the association with the computer science department and the history of that particular MBA program. It started in the computer science department, and was very technically focused. Looking at their program and the opportunities for the grads there, I thought it seemed like a pretty good place for my background. I enjoyed it quite a bit; it was a very stimulating environment.     

Q: Do you still see that as a combination that would bring a lot of opportunities?

Absolutely, I do. It’s very valuable from a business standpoint. One thing I do notice: it’s not just a generic MBA. I’m not someone who would say, “You’ve got to go get an MBA, it’s absolutely an essential thing to be involved in business.” Frankly, the benefits of an MBA probably accrue more to those from recognized programs, as opposed to through general programs that are available at most universities. There’s definitely a cachet based on the name of the school. 

Q: How did you land your first job after getting your MBA?

Most MBA programs have a placement office and they help students during the recruiting process. One of the things that I developed an interest in was manufacturing. I’ve always been a hands-on type of person, engineering bent. The program at Carnegie Mellon is very analytical, particularly applied to business processes in general. A lot of folks go into consulting or manufacturing. I was very interested in learning the business of manufacturing. Probably one of the main reasons was I spent so much of my careers in a lab, doing my own little thing. I wanted to be in charge of something that was a big, complex environment. You definitely get that.

I did a summer internship at a chemical plant, and I learned a great deal about logistics and planning, and a lot of the operations research type issues encountered in a chemical plant.

Q: So, it wasn’t so much the nature of what is being produced, but the scale of the operation? It sounds like you were in more of a research capacity, and then you transitioned to something that’s really more focused on getting a product out the door. 

I would say that’s the case.

Q: Are both of those are important, the switch of the focus and the attraction of participating in something that’s operating on a bigger scale?

I like doing a lot of different things. Like you said, I had been very much a research type of person. Heads down, writing papers, and running experiments, which I really enjoyed doing. When I got to business school, I saw an entire other aspect to manufacturing organizations that if you were heads down, doing research, you wouldn’t learn about. I was fascinated by it, because the level of detail and intricate processing that goes into a lot of modern-day manufacturing environments was a revelation to me. The company I worked for made chemicals for the semiconductor manufacturing industry, so I learned quite a bit about the nuts and bolts of semiconductor manufacturing. The physicist in me was absolutely intrigued. Since that time, I’ve done consulting work for companies like Applied Materials, which is the biggest manufacturer of semiconductor equipment in the world. I had this epiphany when I was reading some details about a single machine that does wafer processing and walks through how these machines work. It was stunning to realize this was like a productionalized science experiment that originated somewhere in a physics laboratory when they were figuring out the process. All this engineering work went into making this process production-ready so it could spit out a thousand wafers an hour. When you put your physics cap on and you think about the intricacies of the chemical and physical processes associated with doping a wafer and putting the electron channels into a given dive for a given chip, it’s awe-inspiring to realize that this machine has been specifically designed to crank these things out with a yield rate above 90%. There was also a book called “The Reckoning” about the evolution of the auto manufacturing industry in Japan and how it came to be. I was intrigued to find out that most of them were engineers and scientists who had started in one area, and then applied their technical knowledge to a different endeavor, which grew into businesses which are now global names. That kind of evolution I also found very interesting and attractive.

The kind of problems that you solve in that arena, are technical problems, certainly, but there are other types of logistical and process problems to actually make something work.

Q: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in school?

I would have expanded the courses that I took into some other areas. For instance, I probably would have studied economics as an undergrad, maybe even minored or double-majored in it. I say this from a couple perspectives. Number one: it’s beneficial at anybody’s personal level to understand the basics of economics. Number two: irrespective of the organization you end up in, whether it’s a business or an academic institution, economics defines the rules by which the human world functions as opposed to the physical world. There’s also a political component to my reasoning as well. I think knowledge of economics and how that relates to government and the overall global economy, national economy, and political economy of the country are important in order to have an informed electorate. If we’re going to have a robust democracy, we need to have people educated in how things really work.


A friend I graduated with had a slightly different perspective. He got his Ph.D. from Georgia Tech. He’s a radar guy, and he said if he had it to do over again, he probably wouldn’t get a Ph.D., but he would get three Masters degrees in Electrical Engineering, Operations Research, and Applied Physics. This, he said, would have given him a particular path in the career he took, which was very technical. From his perspective, this would give him a solid background for all the hard-core, DOD, military contract work that he’s been doing. He’s pretty well embedded in the Pentagon and such, and it’s a different kind of perspective. He’s very technically bent.

I suppose in addition to having a background in economics, I might have gotten my Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, in either optical science or maybe signals. That was something I had a personal technical interest in. As an undergrad I probably would have taken more classes in History or English. I say that more in hindsight, looking back at some of the areas I wish I had learned at a younger age. I think you shortchange yourself as an undergrad if you don’t make time and space in your schedule to take some of these types of classes, because it has an impact on how well-rounded of a person you become.  

Q: How do you balance work with everyday life?

One of the things being a Physics undergrad teaches you is how to put your nose to the grindstone and really work hard. When I first graduated and started working, I spent lots and lots of time in the lab. Later on, after I got my MBA. I spent lots of time in the office, working on things, getting ahead of work, thinking, “This is great, I’m really advancing my career.” It’s probably a cliché, but looking at it from twenty, thirty years later, you realize that you need a better work-life balance. It’s better to have that balance when you’re young enough to most appreciate it. I talked to my wife about this. She was working as an attorney, and you can imagine a lot of hours involved there. We both look back and think, “If only you had taken time off you could have gone on some really cool trips.” I think you need keep that in mind, and take advantage of the greater freedom that you have when you’re younger to explore different things about your life. That doesn’t mean not working hard, but to always keep in mind that you work to live, not live to work. Don’t wait until you’re forty or fifty to come to that conclusion. You need to have a sense of what you want out of life.  


Q: Do you feel like you’re achieving a better balance now?
Definitely. That really happened when I had kids. I’ve got one who’s 17, and he’s applying to college, which is shocking to think of. I’ve got a daughter, who is 14, in her first year of high school, and I’ve got another son who just turned 12. He’s in middle school. Next year they’ll be three teenagers. It’s pretty hard to believe.

When we had the kids, we started to realize there are other aspects of life that are only going to grow in importance for the next twenty years, and that’s something you don’t want to miss out on. In the last five or ten years, I’ve really made conscious decisions about how I’m going to structure my life and career so I can make time for these important things in my life.   

Q: How many different jobs have you had? What is the typical length of time you’ve been employed at one company?

My first job out of undergrad was working for the government. Then, after that, I worked for a couple large multibillion-dollar chemical companies, then for a large consulting firm, then a large software company. The longest I’ve worked at a company was seven years. That was a software company called i2. After leaving i2, I specifically said I wanted to get more involved in smaller companies, startups, because I had a lot of friends who had been successful in them. Since then, I’ve worked at seven or eight companies. That’s sort of the nature of the beast. The small companies, they come and they go. This is Silicon Valley; there is opportunity, but there’s also risk. It’s a risk versus reward type of calculation that you need to make. 

Q: You entered the startups while you’ve also decided to make a better balance in your life. That can be challenging.
It depends on the startup you go to. If it’s your own company, and my wife and I have a company of our own, you have a lot more control over what you can do. If it’s a really small company, just starting out with two, three different people, you have a fair amount of flexibility depending on what you’re trying to get done. Startups have a life cycle. There’s a ramp up, and there’s a peak, and there’s a plateau, and then things can ramp down or ramp up some more. A lot of the culture nowadays has changed a bit from the stereotype. I know fifteen years ago or so there was the idea that these startups are camping out at the desk and spending time, and that’s true for some weeks, but a lot of the folks entering the workforce now are new graduates. It’s a different attitude. In a lot of ways it’s healthier.

In fact, it can be a little frustrating because you have these younger people coming in with expectations about how valuable they are and the amount of free time they’re going to have. It may be something that can be accommodated, but sometimes it’s a little funny to hear someone who’s twenty-five years old talking about how much time they need to walk their dog.

Q: How important is it to love your work?
It’s pretty critical. If you don’t like what you do when you get up in the morning, if it’s a pain in the ass to get to work and you want to be doing something else, then you need to find something else to do. I entered the manufacturing industry, the chemical industry specifically, after I got my MBA, and I did that for a few years. This was in the mid to late 90s, and I was advancing in the manufacturing industry. This was right around the time that the internet boom was occurring and I was looking around and reading about all these companies and people with technical backgrounds starting their own companies or getting cool jobs at other companies and I was working at a chemical plant. I wanted to go do some of these other things. That’s when I started looking to get into an environment where I could build that bridge between a technical and business background, and that was when I started looking at technical management consulting.

Q: Did you get hired by a consulting company?

Yes, I went to Deloitte Consulting. They had an office in San Francisco, and they were building a high tech manufacturing practice based on a supply chain software consulting practice. I was the first person they hired in the San Francisco office, and that was really where my current career path started. I got that job specifically because of the combination of my technical background and the years that I had spent working in plants and understanding manufacturing. It’s eclectic, but my background happened to be ideal for that kind of position.

Q: With this number of different companies you’ve worked with, and the uncertain environment that comes with startups, have you experienced anxiety about how things will play out? 
That’s the biggest challenge, frankly, because you never know when you take that job what things will be like in six months or a year. You’re hearing all the happy news about growth and how we just closed our C round of funding, and how things are wonderful today. But, next week, you could hear about how the VP of sales just quit. And some of these things have happened. Our largest client has just decided to dump our software, so we’re losing that revenue. These are real. This is the nature of the business world. This is how things operate, and if you’re at a small startup, there’s always a certain amount of anxiety. I would say one of the biggest areas of anxiety I’ve personally experienced is health care. Look at a company like Apple. One of the reasons that you have a company like Apple or Google is you have people that can focus on innovation, doing things they like to do, and working on interesting problems. They don’t have to worry about their health care being cancelled, or things of that nature. It’s people dealing with that calculus of how much risk they’re willing to bear to leave a big established company. This is a real issue, and I don’t think people internalize that.

Q: How do you personally approach the anxiety from the uncertainty of the startup environment?  

The thing that you need to focus on is staying relevant, in terms of your education and knowledge and what you can do. The first thing I do to help that is to stay healthy. I work out, engage in personal activities, stay close with the family, so that I can keep an upbeat attitude, because I never know what’s going to happen. Above and beyond even that is keeping relevant in your own chosen area of expertise. I think back to when I was an undergrad, I remember learning some of these basic things, but now they are completely irrelevant, and programming skills are probably more relevant than ever. I know Python, focusing on Android and iPhone programming. I keep current with supply chain information. I’m a member of APIX to stay on top of the manufacturing side of things. What it really boils down to is staying current and knowledgeable about your profession. If that means taking classes, you can get certifications from Stanford or University of California. There are online classes, like Coursera and Udacity. Those are absolutely awesome and it will be interesting to see how the market actually matures and values these types of credentials and this type of education. 

Q: Have you taken a course from Coursera or Udacity?
I have. I took a Python class from Udacity, and it was great. One of the things I liked about it was if I got stuck I could go back and do it again. You repeat that part of the lesson until you get it. I think it’s particularly relevant for purely technical classes, like computer programming, and that’s the sort of that repetitive, boot camp type of approach that probably is most effective in building some level of skill. I don’t know about the value on some of the humanities, and maybe that is going to help define sort of the evolution of a university education. Maybe the role of universities in society will become more of a place for educating the populace about culture and things of that nature. It’s going to be an interesting couple decades.

Q: Thinking back to school when you were at UC Davis, and contrasting with your online experience, what value do you see in people being in the same place? Do you worry anything will get lost?

Absolutely, because that’s what makes a university education so valuable and so unique, where you actually go and spend time at the university. I, for one, would never consider a different path than the kind of college experience that I had, and that’s the lesson that we’re imparting to our kids. My wife and I talk about this all the time, because we both spent a lot of time in school. What becomes the objective? What is the true value of an education at Harvard versus San Diego State? What are you missing, what are you getting versus a purely online education? As you said, it is the environment, it’s the people, it’s the interaction that there is no other format for in American society. There’s a venture capitalist, Peter Thiel, who is completely dismissive of traditional university environments, and he pays people to forgo going to universities. He says, “I’ll pay you to come to my program and we’re going to teach you coding. Don’t go to college, and we’ll give you a life skill.” I look at this guy, and I’m sure he thinks he’s doing society a real service, and I just see a very parochial, selfish way for him to get cheap coding labor. I’m sure he doesn’t look at it that way, but from society’s standpoint, if that’s truly the direction that capitalist and corporatist America really wants to go, then I think that’s a terrible thing for American society in general. That goes all the way back to what I was saying about an informed electorate.