R&D is War [Book Review]

This book review isn’t going to take long for a few reasons.

  • This book is almost an autobiography of Clifford Spiro’s career experiences in research and development (R&D), so there’s not much technological review that I can write about
  • While I like to reduce the amount of content in the book to a few basic ideas and expectations, this book already has a “Lessons Learned” at the end of every chapter. I’ve marked each page in the book, so I can just find my favorites and rephrase them here.
  • Finally, this book is a rather smooth read, and it’s sprinkled with sarcasm. This is especially true when he references the sales (order takers) and finance (bean counters) personnel in the workforce. This is even more hilarious when it makes you realize that YOU are doing the exact same comparisons at your work.


I picked up the book R&D is War mostly to see how excited I would get over the idea of re-pursuing a technological-based career path again. I’m currently an applications engineer (which is just a sales person that at least knows that I = V / R ….. along with a few other things). Now I’m at the point where I will not be valued based on improving my technical knowledge for the company, but more on “which customers do I know” and “how many profitable accounts have I’ve been connected with.” It wouldn’t be my preference, but that’s the life in a satellite sales office.

These personnel review meetings, which we discuss these question, make me realize that …………………. I belong somewhere else. Yeah…. that’s a nice euphemism for my internal response.

I got my PhD in microfabrication and phonics, so let’s put it to good use. I was initially scared away from R&D due the stress levels I experienced during my 5 years at MTU. However, I believe graduate school has it’s own deep pit of stress and misery that you wouldn’t find anywhere else.

Note: I will never get back into academia for personal (low levels of collaboration) and professional (academically inbred) reasons. So most of these topics will be mostly industry and slightly government lab based.

The one thing about R&D in industry, in comparison to all other business units, is that it works on the longest time scale. You can’t discern quarterly outcomes of your research like a CFO can look at sales charts. While some incremental development projects can be completed in a year, most work requires 2-5 years before they bear fruition. Thus, R&D employees tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to company recognition [even look at Nobel peace prize winner Shuji Nakamura from Nichia in my previous book review Brilliant!]. When you invent the perfect material or product, the person that “completes the sale” tends to get the largest monetary compensation.

Another aspect in R&D is how poorly undervalued previously discovered knowledge is. While working on a project that did not turn into a success, it tends to prove useful for additional assignments. This is regardless of if any useful outcome is obtained or if “upper management decided to go in a different direction” [That was the response I got after an on-site interview after graduate school. I still like to question what that actually means ………….].

Based on Spiro’s experiences, the latter happens…… a lot. This personally makes sense, as most of the cost in developing a product or method is within the last 6-12 months getting the mass manufacturing production line up an running. Compared to the tens of millions of dollars to get a large-scale clean room line up and running that only does ONE thing, the lab time and costs are nothing in comparison. Knowledge is discovered and stored for another time.

A typical career in R&D is also not localized to only one field, where being a jack-of-all-trades can significantly help in additional positions. Spiro’s main example is using his rubber experience for light bulb coatings (after coming from coal ‘liquidizing’ and diamond ‘enhancement’).

R&D can also be volatile not just in specialties, but also in different positions at different companies. Industry will pay you well, but it will also let you go (sometimes with “nice parting gifts”). And advancement in each company will be environment dependent, so taking the effort to switch jobs (internally or externally) is sometimes ideal. This is especially true in the current world of globalization, where companies can only survive if they have an outsourced product where cheap manufacturing is the only way to create a cost-competitive product.

Let’s take light bulbs for example. Unless you are a lighting enthusiast, do you really buy lighting fixtures based on the color rendering capabilities of the source. I’m an engineer at a LED company, I still buy the cheapest $1-2 bulbs from Home Depot or Lowes (as long as they are LEDs, I’m fine with that).

At the end of the book, there are also some overall thoughts on intellectual property. The first is due to the risks for a company going global. Employees don’t just “pick up and fly to China,” so you have to employ local candidates in the area and train them, sometimes to replace your job before the company lays you off. These new employees need to know how to exactly develop and design the competitive product that you made at corporate R&D.

However, when you build sites in additional countries where IP laws are not as strict, there’s a chance that employees will just leave for other companies and utilize your “secret recipes” for their new company’s behalf. Spend millions on development, or pay someone $100,000/yr salary for the same knowledge at instant speed? Who wouldn’t do that? That’s why all job applications ask for candidates with “5+ years of experience”…………

[Ironically, all the Intel positions I’ve recently looked at were asking for 3 months. I like this approach. It basically asks a “Can we have an intelligent conversation on this topic? Yes or No?”]

Additionally, IP in the form of patents are typically a negative investment for most companies. Patents are an easy way to disclose your product research to everyone. And since they are so detailed, it’s easy for competitors to utilize and just “build off of that work” into something that is “unique” enough to sell in the market. Legal IP fights are too expensive for individual or small companies to compete in. The patent filing process also takes 2-5 years to complete as well [my patent is on year 3 right now in the filing process….], so the company should already be working on the next best thing by the time the patent is out in the public.

Bottom line: There’s a time and place for everything…….but a patent may not always be a the best option.

And that’s R&D in a nutshell….. in another nutshell.

I personally felt invigorated reading the book, and it only took a few leisure hours to finish the 160 pages of larger-than-normal text. Some people need the feedback of seeing their work go into a final product, and R&D would drive these individuals somewhat crazy. That’s one of the reasons why my manager left Yazaki to work for OSRAM OS as a sales engineer. I find myself to be the opposite. I personally wouldn’t mind working with projects that kept being ‘canned,’ as long as my diligence and hard work is appreciated.

I don’t expect raises or external gratification to be happy. I already get paid enough to feel comfortable living life [I’m a true believer that happiness scales with pay until you reach $75,000. From there on, personal happiness is all about expectations in luxury and tastes]. I find an inner happiness when I can play with expensive ‘toys’ and feel like I own a part of the company’s knowledge. The one thing I won’t stand for is negative feedback for a ‘lack on a return on investments.’ If the company’s management understands these risks and timeline associated with R&D,  I will gladly work with them.






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