Job Transitions that Work: From Stock-Picker to Chip Maker

Linda Strunk Miller

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I caught up with Linda Miller en route to Israel. We met years ago in product management roles at Applied Materials. Linda has spent the majority of her career in the semiconductor industry; several years in Silicon Valley, and several on Wall Street. Linda took time off in between to raise her kids and launch a Japanese garden design business.

Linda faced three major challenges in switching from a product management position in a semiconductor capital equipment manufacturer, to a stock analyst role with an investment firm. Through her job experiences, Linda realized "it is more important to be an active participant than an observer....The greatest lesson I've learned is to be confident, to engage and to speak up."

In Linda's Words...

I joined Applied Materials just after graduate school as a Global Product Manager for metal deposition equipment. The role was a perfect fit for my educational background in engineering, business and East Asia Studies. I thoroughly enjoyed managing a product from market specs through volume production. I had opportunities to interact with customers all over the world and travel to exotic places. It was like running a small business in the mid-90's, and entrepreneurial spirits were high in the company and throughout the industry.

Three years pass, and I had an opportunity to pursue a position as a research associate for a senior analyst covering the semiconductor capital equipment industry at UBS securities. I hadn't owned a stock before, and now I'd be analyzing stocks for a senior sell-side analyst to make stock recommendations for institutional investors.

My degree in engineering gave me the tools and confidence to do any type of analysis, and convinced my future boss to hire me. I went into this job unafraid and excited. I would be looking at the semiconductor capital-equipment industry from a new and broad perspective.

I faced three major challenges in switching from a high-tech manufacturing industry role to a role on Wall Street.

First: I went from working "normal engineering hours" of 9 AM to "whenever," to working "stock market hours" from 4:30 AM to "whenever." This required significant life style adjustments, including moving from the Peninsula to San Francisco, to reduce my commute, and no longer going out late during the week. By Friday, I was a deadbeat. I could easily understand why most of my female colleagues were either single or married without children; no time to date, and no time to have kids. Nevertheless, I thrived in the chaotic world of Wall Street where every day was "brand new."

Second: In an engineering job one must support one's conclusions with in-depth analyses and a complete set of data. Confidence in a decision is not enough. One must have rock-solid proof that choices are the right ones, with dire consequences for mistakes. In contrast, for picking stocks, the emphasis is on being first with an idea. This is critical to one's success as an analyst. In most cases, a person cannot spend the time collecting all the data to support one's conclusion - because the market will have already realized it. Instead, one must be comfortable and able to make rational decisions and conclusions on incomplete and possibly incorrect data.

I recall being asked about this in my initial job interviews: would I be able to switch from an engineering, risk-averse mindset to a risk-taking stock picker? As it turned out, the transition was easier than expected, and this skill has helped me progress in my career.

A leader must be able to differentiate between, and succeed in making decisions requiring deep and thoughtful analyses and decisions where time is of the essence, and information is limited.

Third:Both roles required that I market my ideas. While one can say this is the case for any type of job, different jobs require this skill in varying degrees.

My ability to market my ideas was a top requirement in my role as a sell-side analyst. Every morning at 4:30AM all US-based sell-side analysts conducted a research call with the firm's institutional sales team. We had 3-minutes each to pitch our idea "du jour." The idea could be about news associated with the stock we were covering, new industry insights, or details on a stock we were covering. Everything centered on our delivering "actionable insights."

For example: If a particular company had a great quarter, we had to make a recommendation to buy, sell or hold the stock and support it, with succinct and logical analysis. The institutional sales team would then use this information to gain client mindshare. Since any number of analysts were pitching their ideas on a given morning, a sales person would only be able to focus on the most actionable ideas. This was probably the biggest challenge for me since I was accustomed to an engineering role, in which the analyses and supporting data could almost speak for themselves.

While I had nailed the logical part, and was a fairly decent stock picker, I did not possess the bravado of some of my more successful sell-side analyst colleagues, most of whom were men. Was this due to a difference in style between men and women? Or was this due to my inexperience and lack of confidence, though some of my male colleagues were less experienced than me, yet highly confident? I asked myself whether I should have played more team sports as a child...While I'd like to say that I overcame this challenge quickly, I did not. I still work on speaking with confidence every day. Fortunately, my marketing shortcoming did not stop me from being promoted to senior sell-side analyst.

Four years ago, I returned to Applied Materials where I am now Director of Strategy and Planning for Worldwide Operations. My boss recently told me that I need to be more confident and ask questions, even if I think they may be stupid or redundant.

I have observed that my male colleagues seem unfazed by negative responses to their questions or comments. They readily take risks and move on. Through my career experiences, I've realized that in whatever you do in life, it is more important to be an active participant than an observer. In meetings, I now ask more questions and readily contribute to discussions. The greatest lesson I've learned is to be confident, to engage and to speak up.

Author Bio: Linda Strunk Miller is Director of Strategy and Planning for the Worldwide Operations organization at Applied Materials. She is responsible for leading the annual strategic planning process and performance management cadence for the functions within Worldwide Operations (Semiconductor Volume and NPI Manufacturing, Global Supply Chain, Manufacturing Quality and Supplier Engineering, Global Logistics and Facilities & Safety). Prior to Applied Materials, Linda worked as a stock analyst for major Wall Street firms. She also spent three years in Japan working as a robotics researcher in a Japanese conglomerate. Linda holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an MA in Regional Studies from Harvard University.

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