Test Engineering and Technical Sales in the Photonics Industry: An Interview with Dr. Andrey Knyazik

Andrey Knyazik, Ph.D.

Dr. Andrey Knyazik just started a new position as a Senior Test Development Engineer at Infinera, a company specializing in photonic integrated circuits. He has previously worked in technical sales at the optics and laser companies Ondax and Newport. Andrey has a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of California, Los Angeles and a B.S. in Physics from the University of California, Santa Cruz. We recently had a great conversation about his transition to working in the optics industry after earning his Ph.D. in particle accelerator physics:

Matt: Hi, Andrey. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. I appreciate it.

Andrey: Sure. No worries, Matt. Of course.

Matt: Your new job is Senior Test Development Engineer at Infinera. Obviously, you just started, but what is that like so far?

Andrey: Well, so far, it’s been a lot of reading manuals, background material, and things like that. One of the reasons why I came here, probably the main reason, is my feeling that I’ve had a lot of somewhat vague coding experience, but not really anything concrete. What I’ll be doing at Infinera is setting up tests for the circuit boards. It’s a combination of circuits, optics, and software. Basically, they wanted someone who could set up the hardware, who also understands optics well enough to interpret their results, and who can write the code to automate the procedure. From my point of view, I thought that would be really good position because it will give me a lot more exposure to commercial coding. Throughout the rest of my career, I worked much more with simulations and stuff like Mathematica and MATLAB, which are not as applicable to industry.

Matt: I see. Well, first of all, what is Infinera’s main product?

Andrey: Sure. Infinera’s claim to fame is something called photonic integrated circuits. Basically, these use lasers, detectors, and optics to actually encode information instead of using electrons. The main applications is to go from digital to optical, then transport that signal over long distances and then decode it. The goal is to maximize both how much bandwidth we can pack into a fiber and how far we can send it without signal degradation.

Matt: So, the main market is telecommunications then? Is that right?

Andrey: Yes, it’s telecommunications, and they subdivide into three markets. You have your mobile customers, people like Verizon and AT&T. They’re kind of clumped together with data centers because both need a lot of data processed really fast at a particular location. There’s another market segment called long-haul. That’s things like transferring data over thousands of miles. That’s more for customers like cable providers such as Comcast, Dish, and the like.

Matt: Interesting. So, you mentioned that one of your motivations was getting more industrial-level coding experience. What kind of languages do they use at Infinera?

Andrey: Right now, they’re using VB.NET, which is basically Microsoft’s version of Visual Basic that they developed past 2000, so it has that .NET framework. It’s popular because it can run on basically any Windows machine. I was a little surprised they’re doing that because, to be honest, the most common .NET language that I’ve seen is C#. I guess when they got started C# was not around yet, and VB.NET was, so it’s something that they have a long legacy with from years before. It is also visual, so it has all the GUIs, which makes it easy for technicians to use the developed programs later. It’s more intuitive on a final user level. So, VB.NET is something that we use to write a lot of the internal applications developed for technicians. For a lot of the other stuff, when you’re doing computation and so on, people here use Python. Now, I’ve used Python before, but just for my own sake, not for anything job-related. I hope I’ll get into that here as well.

Matt: We use Python a lot too: Matplotlib, NumPy, SciPy. All those packages are pretty good for a lot of basic computation work.

Let’s take it back a little bit and talk about why you decided to study physics in the first place. Not only did you do a PhD in physics, but you did your undergrad at Santa Cruz in physics as well, right?

Andrey: Correct. It probably goes back to my childhood. I grew up in Russia. The particular city that I grew up in, before the fall of the Soviet Union, was a city with nine institutes and one factory. Basically, if you weren’t affiliated with one of those, you could not enter the city. It was one of these kind of utopian societies that was built during the Soviet Union so people could do science and focus on that. Because of that, my dad is a physicist and my mom is a chemist. So, I got exposed to the sciences early on, especially from my dad’s side. He would just talk to me about things since I was probably five years old or something like that.

By the time I went to high school, I knew that I wanted to do something technical. I joined a robotics team, which was really useful because, instead of just writing out equations and stuff, I also got to build things, machine parts, and do things with my hands. By the time I was entering college, I thought, “Okay. Maybe I’ll do EE. Maybe I’ll do physics.” Then, I thought, “Well, you know what? I’ll do physics because I don’t know if I want to do EE yet, and maybe I’ll just take some EE classes while I’m there.” So, I did. I went to UC Santa Cruz and I did take some electrical engineering, computer engineering classes, and stuff like that in addition to physics. I thought, “Well, this is pretty cool. I’m doing really well. I think I understand this physics stuff. I think I’m going to make a lot of impact. I’m going to go grad school.”

I ended up getting into UCLA for graduate school. When I got to UCLA, that was definitely kind of a shock because I got there and I used to be really good, but the material got so much harder that I was average at most. I think what happened is that everyone was really good, so all of a sudden, it was a lot harder to stand out. So, my plans for when I’m going to graduate, what I’m going to do, and so on changed. I thought I was going to be a professor. Given my observations, those plans relatively quickly went out the window. I think that’s probably common with a lot of other people as well.

Matt: You did your PhD work in advanced accelerators.

Andrey: Yes.

Matt: As you say, you had one idea about your career going in which changed as you continued your PhD work. How did your thinking about your future career evolve?

Andrey: Until I found the lab that I graduated with, the same lab as you, I did work elsewhere. That is when I quickly understood that it was important to find an advisor that gives you a project that is interesting and that you can actually write papers on and actually do work on.

I originally wanted to do plasma physics work at UCLA. The first year I was there, I was in a plasma group where basically I kept on getting projects that were to fix certain DAQs [data acquisition equipment] and fix this and that. It was good. It was good to get that type of exposure, but eventually, I started saying, “Okay, I want to actually start taking data or start going toward that.” When I saw that that was not something I was going to get to do for years, I decided to go elsewhere.

My advice when choosing your advisor is to make sure that they have good ideas and good projects and they’re willing to let you work on them. If you have your own ideas, then make sure they are willing to let you work on those. Either way, be sure they have the funding to support you and the project. That’s very important. I can name a couple of examples, that fortunately didn’t happen to me, where people had to switch projects in their fourth or fifth year just because they couldn’t do their experiment, which is really hard.

During my PhD, I would say that my motivation was kind of a sinusoid which would go up and go down depending on how well things were going. There were certain times when I did contemplate quitting, but I decided not to. At the end, I knew that I needed to tough it out to graduate. With that type of outlook, I also knew that I was not going to stay in academia after graduating. That was something that I figured out based on how things were, and based on the things that I saw. I knew that I wanted to go somewhere where goals are much more tangible and you can see progress. You can see that you’re going toward something, or if you fail, you would see that you failed as well. This will probably only speak to people who did go to grad school, but I think it is something that is important, at least for me. Some people are a lot better at self-motivation, but I find for me to be motivated, I need to see some sort of movement, some sort of progress. That is why when I finished, I did not want to go back to academia.

Matt: I can certainly understand that, and learning these things about yourself is all part of the process, right?

Andrey: Right, right.

Matt: When you did finish your PhD project on free electron lasers, you went to your first job in technical sales at Newport Optics, correct?

Andrey: Correct.

Matt: What led you there?

Andrey: It was a couple of things. I got married right beforehand and my wife wanted to move to Orange County where her family is. So, that was kind of a non-negotiable and I looked into what the best things in the area were. I used a lot of Newport equipment and I was somewhat familiar with certain things, so I thought, “Okay. Well, it will be interesting to see what they’re like.” I ended up talking to them and getting the job relatively fast.

In terms of technical sales, the reason why I went into that is I wanted to do something where I would still use the skills that I had but that would be something different. I was kind of burnt out on a lot of lab work, to be honest, towards the end of grad school. Also, I never even sold lemonade as a kid. I never did anything related to sales, so I thought, “Well, this will be an interesting challenge to see how well I can do and what I can learn here.” So, that’s the route that I ended up going.

Matt: How did you find it? What was working in technical sales like?

Andrey: To begin with, I would say the first half a year was very interesting. In some ways, it was the opposite of grad school because what you would do is get a whole bunch of inquiries where you initially didn’t know any of the answers and had to go find them. First, you could try looking through catalogs and so on. Suppose it’s not there. Then, the way that you would figure it out is by doing a simple measurement and test. It was basically, instead of having one huge project that lasts for years, you have a whole bunch of small projects that are an hour long or a half an hour long.

Basically, it was a lot more fast-paced than graduate school. Early on, I still got to go to the lab to test certain things. That was really fun. I thought that this technical sales job would be an interesting challenge to have, but then it would be relatively easy to transition out of that track to something else at Newport. That was not the case. So, I guess another thing that I should’ve known or I would’ve done differently is I would’ve looked closely into which track I’m joining and what happens a couple of years in, to figure out if that’s really where I want to go long-term.

About two years in at Newport, I was transitioning to be more on the application side. The way that it was structured is that the technical sales guys are, basically, the first line of defense. They answer whatever immediate questions need to be answered. The application engineers would work on designing complete systems for customers. I was concentrating on motion and becoming a motion-application engineer, which would be a lot more involved with complete motion systems and design. I got to do that sort of work very slightly as a technical sales engineer, but I always had to give those projects up and pass them upstream. Basically, I wanted to get upstream, so I could actually work on that more. All the interesting things.

I was getting trained to go for that position, but once Newport got acquired by another company, the decision-makers changed, and they ended up not moving anyone into application engineering.

Matt: Yeah. That has a way of happening in private industry. New management comes in and things change.

Andrey: Exactly. That was also a good lesson to learn. I feel like at my first job, I also got to go through an acquisition of a major corporation and to see what happens. It was a really good learning experience. Originally, even going to the lab and testing certain things was completely fine. After we went through the acquisition process, a lot of people ended up leaving, so we went from a technical sales group of nine to a group of four. So, basically, all the fun parts of the job that were time-consuming were completely taken out. It became more about how can you go really fast and get as many things done as possible, not really focused on anything that you wanted to explore and learn about. That was a major issue, which is why I ended up leaving Newport eventually.

Matt: I see. You took one more technical sales job in between Newport and where you are now. Is that right?

Andrey: Right, right. After Newport, I ended up going to a small company called Ondax. Their claim to fame is volume holographic gradings. Basically, the technology was a PhD thesis from, I think the guy’s name was Chris Moser from CalTech. Around 2002, they ended up spinning it into a company. Originally, they were just making those gradings, but then they looked at what the gradings are used for. Well, it turned out the most common application is stabilizing laser diodes. So, then they started making stabilized laser diodes. Then, after that, they were like, “Okay, what’s the most common application for the stabilized laser diode?” and found that it’s Raman spectroscopy. Then, they started making Raman spectrometers.

I joined as a laser specialist that would be a laser application guy. Basically, it was a sales job, but, because the company is a lot smaller, it was a lot easier to wear many hats. I got to do both sales and a lot of application stuff with more lab work, even some marketing. It was pretty much a combination of everything because in such a small company, you do what needs to be done at the moment. You figure out if there is something that is lacking and you try to get it done.

Matt: How big were they?

Andrey: About 15 people.

Matt: Okay, so a really small company then?

Andrey: Yeah, well, maybe 20 if you include manufacturing guys. Still, really small so you do end up doing a lot of things. I thought it was also really good for me to get exposure to different aspects of business as well. My boss wanted me to do a lot of marketing exercises. I ended up doing that in terms of competitive marketing. That was interesting as well.

What I figured out is that right now, I have the PhD and I have a lot of experience on the sales side. If I can get solid experience on the coding side, then, at that point, there’s a lot more positions that I can be good to apply to in like three or five years. That’s kind of my plan for the time being. Hopefully, it will pan out.

Matt: I see. So, you’re concentrating on building skills and you have a particular goal in mind for a position or a role that you’re aiming for down the road?

Andrey: Right, so I think down the road I would like to have a couple of people under me, a team of engineers, and be in charge of a lab. Since I am aiming for a managerial position, I figure that being exposed to sales and marketing is very necessary. I have that under my belt and I’m going to get some practical coding experience at my new job. That is something that is required in a lot of positions, so I figure if I have that, it will be easier for me to understand and relate to people who are reporting to me.

That’s at least the idea. To be honest, I’m not really good at planning life multiple years ahead. What I also learned is that a PhD in physics is not the typical preparation for the path I’ve decided to take. So again, I’ll have to play it by ear, and I’ll have to figure things out as they come, but It’s good to have some idea of my direction.

Matt: Sure, it’s good to have a direction, but can you elaborate on what you’ve learned applying you PhD training in industry?

Andrey: I guess what I’m saying is that it’s different being a physics PhD instead of a specialist in something much more industry-applicable like software or electrical engineering, or even optics. At the end of the day, I’ve done a little bit of everything, which is good, but also make some things harder. Whenever they draw these organizational diagrams, if you are here, then you can become this, and you can become that. For me, those diagrams are true, but there’s also other avenues that I can jump to, and there’s avenues that I can’t jump to. That something that I think as physics PhDs, we kind of have to figure out as we go.

Matt: Absolutely. There’s always a trade-off between specialization and being more of a generalist.

Andrey: Right. Right.

Matt: All that said, my last question is always this: If you had one key piece of career advice that you could give the younger folks still in school getting their masters, getting their PhDs in physics, what would it be?

Andrey: Okay. I think my one key piece of advice is try to learn as much as you can about the boarder application of your work and skills. You’re going to be highly specialized in something that you’re doing, but try to learn as much as you can about what else is out there. Let’s say, like me, you were doing accelerators. You might want to learn about some industry applications of accelerators or you might want to learn how any skills that you’re developing might be applicable to an industry job later on.

If there’s a way that you can do an internship or partially work for a company while still in grad school, that would be ideal. That way, you would know some of the pros and cons. I would say that’s the best advice I can give. I would also say, during the whole process of graduate school, to keep at it and don’t be discouraged. Eventually, if you work hard at solving the problems that you have, it will all come together in a finished dissertation. It’s hard to keep that in mind, but it’s also very important.

Matt: Well, I think that’s great advice. I really appreciate your time, Andrey. Thanks for talking to me.

Andrey: Of course. You’re welcome.