One only needs to attend an SPIE event for verification that the world is indeed "flat." Seasoned veterans of the optics and photonics industry have certainly become accustomed to the complex relationships between North America, Europe, and Asia for decades now. For recent college grads who have grown up with the Internet and the rise of Web 2.0, much can still be learned about the industry only through first-hand international experience.
Living and working in a foreign country can work wonders for both self-improvement purposes and cultural appreciation, but some of the less tangible benefits can have even greater worth. As an applications engineer for Edmund Optics, I was lucky enough to spend a year and a half in Singapore, working closely with sales, engineering, and manufacturing disciplines. Singapore, much like Hong Kong, is an extremely worldly city where both Eastern and Western influences are deeply woven into the societal fabric. This unique mix yields both refreshing and interesting business challenges.
It's difficult enough to "speak optics" to begin with, and many of us in the field are intimately familiar with how hard it is to describe optical principles to a layperson. Although optics and photonics are omnipresent in everyone's lives nowadays, most people simply do not know how a remote control magically turns on their TV, let alone how eyeglasses and contacts correct their vision. Now imagine adding another layer of cultural diversity and language differences on top of that.
In Singapore, for example, most conversations are in Singlish-a very unique version of the Queen's English that incorporates vocabulary and speech patterns from Malay, several different Chinese dialects, Tamil, and others. When you are already getting blank stares from calling a "lift" an "elevator" or mispronouncing your lunch order, you probably won't have much luck referencing such optical concepts as "f-number," "etendue," or "vignetting" to someone on the shop floor. In this respect, "vignetting" probably comes across sounding like some sort of exotic Italian dish (rather than a concern of blocked off-axis light in imaging systems), which only makes your audience wonder when lunch is.
Language barriers and differences from country to country can be both frustrating and comical, but it pays to have experience with such nuances. I remember trading e-mails with colleagues from various parts of Asia and Europe prior to meeting them and working with them and how often there were minor misunderstandings in said e-mails which could potentially have major consequences if left unchecked.
For example, consider an innocuous double negative statement such as "We can't have Part A not have X requirement." In the United States, double negatives are generally understood to resolve as a positive. In this example, I am confident that a U.S. colleague would understand the statement to mean "This part needs to have X requirement". If that same statement was sent to colleagues throughout Asia and Europe, it's a good bet that it would be misunderstood by some. Three months later, you would have a whole lot of Part A's that may not meet spec.
Translation problems, assumptions, and hidden meanings abound in international correspondences, so it's helpful to know what to look for in advance and how to avoid possible pitfalls.
There was once a time when I would draft a single e-mail and send it concurrently to Germany and China. Now that I know better, I specifically draft and tailor a separate e-mail to each, keeping in mind the subtleties that will maximize comprehension on the other end. In this case, the e-mail to a colleague in Germany would likely be much longer. I would make sure to clearly express and explain every detail, whereas the e-mail to a colleague in China may be much pithier, with concise and clear sentences set off line by line.
That being said, these "modifications" are very much a two-way street, as I have noticed foreign colleagues tailoring correspondences to me and other colleagues as well.
Learning to ask the right questions and to read between the lines in correspondences with people of different cultures also takes a considerable amount of first-hand experience. For example, only by living and working in Asia did I learn that a "yes" is not always a "yes." Depending on the context, the person may actually mean "no" and is trying to save face or does not really want to commit to something. Since learning various approaches and possible pitfalls, back and forth e-mail chains and misunderstandings from my correspondences have significantly decreased over time.
Besides learning linguistic nuances, spending time in a different part of the world also helps to give an appreciation for what the optics and photonics markets are truly like in different countries, an appreciation that cannot be gained by simply looking at how many optical components the country imported in the last year, or by solely attending a tradeshow here and there. An international experience also gives an appreciation of application trends and sales-approach differences.
In Singapore, for example, I've learned that more often than not I'm going to be working with a value-added manufacturer. The system in question is likely either semiconductor inspection equipment or a biomedical device. In either case, my customer is probably looking for components that meet performance requirements designed by a parent company in the West, at a price that meets or beats a competitor in the East. Armed with this knowledge (and some lunch or dinner appointments), one would stand a much better chance at establishing a new business relationship.
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, I am probably going to be working with an electronics manufacturer and speaking with someone from the factory floor who needs help setting up a basic imaging system. I may or may not be talking to the head decision maker in these first exchanges, but I have the advantage of already knowing that they probably do not have many places to turn for vision system expertise within their own country.
Similarly, one can learn to be prepared ahead of time to talk to the Australian with the mining application, the German with the automobile inspection application, and the American trying to build a space shuttle in a basement.
Forging personal relationships with new vendors, customers, and colleagues around the world goes a long way for both personal development and corporate worth. Travel, and having a global engineering presence, facilitates more worldly knowledge and tactics.
Whether new to the professional working world or just new to the industry, international experience can often be an invaluable asset to individuals and businesses alike. It is one thing to be told how valuable international experience is, but to truly experience it first-hand is the best way to look beyond one's own culture and better appreciate our exciting global industry.
This article is part of the Leadership Series, a collection of online and print articles about transitioning from student to career professional produced by SPIE Student Services and SPIE Professional magazine.
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