[Interview] – From Chemical degree to Design Centre Manager – Una Marvet
Ben – Would you tell me about your background and a little bit about what you do?
Una – I’ve spent a lot of time living in North America but I’m from the UK originally. I grew up here, took my undergraduate degree at the University of Salford, then went to the States and did a PhD at Michigan State University before moving to Canada, where I stayed for sixteen years or so before moving back.
My background is chemistry; my bachelor’s was a pure chemistry degree but I’ve always been inclined to physics so the PhD was in physical chemistry – the distinction between physical chemistry, chemical physics and physics is quite grey, although physicists may tell you otherwise. After that I went to the University of Toronto to be a postdoc in Dwayne Miller’s group. He does some really cool work looking into the physics of biological processes. I worked with him briefly as a postdoc studying protein reaction dynamics, examining the mechanism of the conformational changes that happen in myoglobin when it takes up or releases oxygen. From there, I was recruited by JDS Uniphase in Ottawa as an application engineer – that was in the late 90’s when telecom was booming and they couldn’t hire fast enough. For anyone who doesn’t know JDSU, they were a huge component supplier in the telecom industry, originally a spin-out from Nortel. A few years ago they split to become Lumentum and Viavi. I worked for them for 14 years, first as an application engineer and then as a product manager. I get bored after a year or two of doing the same thing but they kept changing the products that I was working on, so it stayed interesting – every six months or a year they’d give me something new. Which was great because I got to work on a wide range of different telecom related components, beginning with DWDM filters and going all the way up to complex circuit packs. Then from JDSU I came back to the UK again and worked at Gooch and Housego for a little while, first as a product manager and then a program manager. A bit different from what I was doing at JDSU, similar products but more aerospace and defence and less telecom.
After that I joined Alter, as you know, as business development manager in photonics and I loved that because it was such a challenge. There were all sorts of things I’d been frustrated about not being allowed to do in previous jobs, stuff related to roadmaps and market development, then when I got to Alter I was not only allowed but expected to do those things and that was great. And they were so welcoming –the CEO and other senior managers at Alter Group sent emails welcoming me to the company; that would never have happened at the other places I’ve worked.
I hadn’t been in that job very long when the Design Centre position came up. In fact, I think the very first email that I got from Stephen (Alter UK’s CEO) after I joined was to tell me about launching this new design centre and explaining what it was all about. And I thought oh that’s great, good idea, but didn’t really connect it with myself. It wasn’t until a few months later when he was describing the person that he wanted to head up the design centre, saying he wanted somebody who would like to run their own startup, who’s got marketing and sales type experience, can work with customers but also understands the technical side. As he went through this list of qualities and experience I was thinking that’s me, you’re talking about me. I really hadn’t considered the possibility before then, it hadn’t even crossed my mind. It was just, sure, the design centre’s cool. Great idea but not that much to do with me. But that conversation got me thinking about it. So I considered it for a week or so, talked it over with a couple of people I’d worked with and decided to go for it because if I didn’t at least try I’d never know and I’d never forgive myself.
So I sent Stephen an email to say I was interested and I think it surprised him – I’d only been at Alter a few months at that point and taking the job meant relocating to Scotland from Devon, where I was living at the time. We had a chat and he invited me to formally apply, update my CV and send it in. So I did that, there was an interview with him and the engineering manager and then he said, oh, Luis wants to have a chat with you – Luis is the CEO of Alter group. After I talked to Luis there was an interval of a few days, then I got an email from Stephen saying thank you for your interest in the Design Centre Manager role – we’d like to offer you the job. All the way through the process, each email from Stephen would open that way and I was always expecting the next word to be unfortunately, and it never was.
Ben – Brilliant. So, you’ve been in that job for a year now, how’s it going?
Una – Depends when you ask me – this week has been a bit frustrating for various reasons but next week, I’d probably say fabulous. It’s a demanding job so there will inevitably be times when everything doesn’t run as smoothly as I’d like. But I’m really glad that I did it, that I went for it. I’m enjoying the challenges and the process of setting up something new and it’s stretched me in ways that I wouldn’t have experienced if I’d stayed where I was. I feel like I’ve developed in that year and I think I’ve learned a lot.
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