In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Steve Buckley, the general manager of the Applied Systems business at Ocean Insight and an affiliate associate professor at the University of Washington. Buckley has also started and advised numerous companies in spectroscopy and applications of machine learning. As an academician at the University of California San Diego and the University of Maryland, he advised 12 Ph.D. students, 20 M.S. students, and many undergraduates.
Buckley’s work has focused on practical optical spectroscopy, such as laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS), Raman spectroscopy, and tunable diode laser (TDL) spectroscopy applied to energy, environmental and industrial problems.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
I enjoyed all aspects of school but really found math and science fun. I took accelerated math and science (chemistry) programs over the summer in middle school, and I was hooked. My parents also encouraged hands-on projects, as we did almost all home and car maintenance ourselves.
This led to a science-focused career in engineering. My Ph.D. is in mechanical engineering, but my direct thesis supervisor (Don Lucas from LBNL) was a physical chemist—and my entire professional life, I’ve been working in spectroscopy, straddling engineering and science.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
The Applied Systems division that I lead at Ocean Insight solves industry problems by building applied spectroscopy hardware and software that yields actionable answers for our customers. We measure color for quality control, use Raman spectroscopy for pathogen detection, LIBS for aluminum scrap sorting, and NIR spectroscopy to make food measurements, to name a few of our efforts.
The variety of customer challenges that we see is astounding. The most exciting thing is working with our teams. Building new systems with a dynamic and diverse group of people is the joy of my professional life.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
Networking should not be conceived of as a separate effort in your work life. Networking is the natural product of meeting people, working together, solving problems, and connecting along the way. You can grow your network with a genuine interest in people and a little bit of follow-up downstream of a connection.
Don’t be afraid to ask people that you have met for help or advice along the way. Everyone who is “senior” now was an early-career professional at one time, and many of us can name key mentors or key conversations which really influenced our growth. Most people enjoy helping others, and those whom you ask for advice often become your champions.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
A year after I was tenured in mechanical and aerospace engineering at U.C. San Diego, my wife was offered her dream job in Washington State. We decided to make the move (life is an adventure, right?). I left the University and put full-time into Photon Machines—the company I founded with John Roy in 2006. Building Photon Machines was a rollercoaster and took an incredible amount of effort. Eventually, we earned “Inc. 500” status as one of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. Soon after, we sold one part to TSI Inc. and Teledyne. I’ve been hooked on growing businesses ever since!
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
Technical skills are key, and the requisite menu of skills is always changing. I always advise people still in school to take as much math and coding (Python/Matlab) as they can, along with their technical degree. But assuming that technical skills are “table stakes”—that is, they are necessary but not sufficient initial conditions—there are other skills to cultivate.
While “openness” and “stubbornness” may seem like opposites, they are both key qualities to work on. An “open” person cultivates ideas and friends from a wide variety of sources, keeps an open mind and is essentially in love with learning. An “open” person keeps gathering new information all of the time to course-correct on the journey to their destination (their goals).
How does stubbornness add to the equation? There are always setbacks on the way to accomplishing worthy (hard) goals. Thus, any goal worth pursuing will require a sufficient measure of stubbornness, or inner drive, to get you over the setbacks. I look for both openness and inner drive when hiring new employees.
Describe a major turning point in your career. Was there a specific action/accomplishment that got you there?
One major turning point came before I even had a career. I was lining up for a first job in consulting after college while simultaneously working hard on my undergraduate thesis research. We were using liquid-phase chemical reaction fronts, which are slow-moving and easily visualized, as a surrogate for combustion reactions (fast and hard to visualize) without the heat release.
With great guidance from my advisor Paul Ronney, we found some interesting experimental results that allowed us to show the impact of turbulent transport on reaction rates without the confounding addition of heat release and corresponding volumetric expansion accompanying combustion. This was important in establishing particular terms in the prevailing turbulent combustion models. Professor Ronney insisted that I give the paper at a national conference, which propelled me to graduate school instead of the world of consulting. I would never have had an academic career or started Photon Machines had Paul not been my mentor. (Thank you, Paul!)
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
I have almost always had multiple things going. It’s easy to confuse a lot of action with “progress” when you have multiple focus points. Progress on key goals is most easily made when you have a singular focus. Whenever I have made major progress on some project or towards some goal, it was because I cleared my plate and brought singular focus to the table. Now, when I want to make progress, I clear my schedule and make time to focus.
The second piece of advice for students and early-stage professionals: get a series of jobs that interest you and where you can learn and work hard. Don’t worry out of the gate about “career.” Your career will start to make sense when you are in your 30s, and you can start to tell a story from the pattern of your jobs.
Few people start in their 20s in what turns out to be their “career”—and it’s a lot of pressure on you to think that you have to do that immediately out of school. Your interesting jobs will add to your developed skills, which will ultimately lead to a career. There isn’t a set path that you need to be on in your 20s to be “successful.” If you are motivated and accomplishing things, you will be automatically building a career.
What have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?
One of the most memorable pieces of advice given to me was from my mentor and graduate co-advisor Robert Sawyer. He said that whenever he had a tough choice to make, he tried to choose the path that would leave the most doors open to him in the future. I think that this is quite useful.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
I’ve lately been putting a lot of energy into the leadership of technical businesses while remaining connected to the technology. I hope that some of the technologies we develop and problems our teams tackle can be applied to key problems—health, safety, environment—and make a big difference over time.