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The best R&D team members know how to serve their internal customers

New Contributor II
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My last post discussed some of the opportunities that exist for scientists in industry outside of the traditional R&D function: Business Development, Program Management, Product Management, and Sales.  Because most scientists will first enter industry in a R&D role, this post will examine what each of these functions look for most in an R&D scientist.  Understanding what each function expects most from R&D will help when interviewing, when managing these internal stakeholders as a member of the R&D staff, and when positioning for your next career move.

Because Program Managers are held accountable by business leaders for program/project execution, they look for scientists and engineers who can give accurate estimates of the time they will spend on project tasks, execute on those tasks, assess and communicate risks, and stick to a defined statement of work without veering off course.  Program Managers don’t have time for perfection – once a design aspect is good enough to meet a specified requirement, they want R&D to move on to the next task.

Business Developers value R&D personnel who are creative, can innovate rapidly, and prototype ideas at a high throughput rate.  They want R&D personnel who are open-minded and not bound by current paradigms.  The quicker the R&D team can prove the feasibility of a new idea, the quicker the Business Developer can hand the opportunity off to a Program Manager for execution, and being searching for the next big business opportunity.

In contrast to the Business Developer, who emphasizes breakthrough innovations, Salespeople emphasize incremental innovations that will make them money today.  Salespeople need R&D teams who can make quick improvements to existing products so that they become easier to sell.  Fixing a defect, adding a feature, or repurposing an existing product for a new application can mean the difference between steak dinners and a hamburger dinners for the hungry Salesperson.

When comparing Business Development and Sales, think Einstein for the former, and Edison for the latter.

Because Product Managers are responsible for enabling the Sales team with product marketing materials, training programs, and other support tools, they value R&D personnel who can help them translate the technical features of products into simple language.  The most technically advanced product will be difficult to sell if nobody can communicate its benefits to customers, so R&D personnel who can communicate technical information clearly and concisely are essential to Product Managers.

So, here’s some quick advice should you find yourself with a person who has one of the titles above, either during an interview for an R&D position or early in your R&D career:

With the Program Manager, use your creativity and intelligence to keep things on schedule, meet tight deadlines, and solve day-to-day problems.

With the Business Developer, use your creativity and intelligence to break new ground, challenge conventional thinking, and pursue what others think is impossible.

With the Salesperson, use your creativity and intelligence to make existing things better and find new ways to use existing things.

With the Product Manager, use your creativity and intelligence to find new ways to communicate what you do and how you do it so that your technical work can be applied to real-world problems.

Finally, notice that a key individual has been missing from this post and my previous one – the R&D Manager.  Next, we’ll discuss where this role fits in for those individuals who choose to grow their career within the traditional technical path.

​Dustin Levy, Ph.D., MBA