Advice from a distinguished alumnus: Get out of your silo
Sept. 1, 2015 -- “Engineering is really about making the best technical and business decisions possible in the face of incomplete data,” says Stuart Elby ’82 Optics, this year’s recipient of the Hajim School Distinguished Alumnus Award.
In other words, engineers cannot afford to practice their craft in a silo; their solutions must not only be technically feasible, but economical; their solutions must not only work, but do so as simply and inexpensively as possible.
That is why Elby urges engineering students to start stepping outside of their silos while they’re still in college.
“Of course, students are going to want to develop technical expertise in their particular major,” Elby acknowledges. “But to really grow in their careers, they need to take the time to learn adjacent technologies and business skills. Most advancements involve complex problems that require you to borrow from areas outside of where the problem lies.”
Elby is well qualified to make these observations.
He is the senior vice president of cloud network strategy and technology for Infinera, the Sunnyvale, Calif., provider of Intelligent Transport Networks. The company uses Photonic Integrated Circuits about the size of a fingertip to enable carriers to exploit the increasing demand for cloud-based services and datacenter connectivity.
Prior to Infinera, Elby worked more than 20 years for Verizon Labs as a vice president and chief technologist. He was responsible for developing the company’s technology vision and target network architecture, in support of emerging products and services. For example, he led the design, development and launch of cloud services platforms for Verizon Digital Media Services; he also managed the specification and design of multiple core services platforms, including cloud and API secure gateway.
Elby, who later received MSEE and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University, is grateful for the undergraduate education he received here at The Institute of Optics – but not for the reasons he thought were important at the time.
“What I thought was most important was learning skills in optics. But looking back now, what was most valuable was the underlying discipline and approach to problem solving. That was more important to the career growth I’ve had, even more than the technical knowledge I gained.”
His advice to Hajim School students:
- Don't be so consumed with engineering that you fail to take advantage of the University’s wealth of opportunities to explore business, the arts, and literature. “Being well rounded is just as important as you move through the business world as being technically skilled,” Elby said.
- Value the relationships you establish with fellow students. “They’ve helped me the most in my career,” Elby said. “The jobs I’ve gotten were either tied to the advice of fellow students or resulted directly from their help.”
Elby is a member of the Hajim School Dean’s Advisory Committee. “Dean (Rob) Clark has come in with a vision to take the Hajim School from being good to being great,” Elby said. Clark established the DAC, in addition to the existing Visiting Committee, to get the best possible advice from successful engineering alumni on educating Hajim students and preparing them for the workplace.
“This isn’t just perfunctory,” Elby said. “He’s listening.”
But building a great engineering school takes resources. Hence Elby’s membership as well in the University’s George Eastman Circle.
The two roles are “intertwined,” Elby said – two ways of expressing gratitude for an education that has “played a substantial role in my success over the years.”