A ZEISS Project Manager: When Research Becomes Responsibility
John F. Kennedy once said: "Things do not happen. Things are made to happen!" Max said something along the same lines – as a way of summarizing our discussion about researchers and managers, Excel spreadsheets and atomic layer depositions. But first thing's first: Since July 2019, Max has been working as a project manager at the ZEISS Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology (SMT) segment – and he's passionate about his job. "I'm a team player and am happy to accept responsibility for our shared goals. I don't like it if things aren't moving forward," he says, explaining what motivates him. In fact, this has motivated him ever since he was a student at the Ruhr-University in Bochum, Germany.
And his research topic? Plasma-enhanced atomic layer deposition. This technology is used to apply extremely thin layers of metal oxide and other materials to surfaces such as polymer film or silicon. The layers are usually finer than 10 nm. And today they are essential for fuel cells, screens, rechargeable batteries – and computer chips. But Max isn't content with just doing research. As a PhD student, he's used to starting his own projects. For instance, he applies for research grants himself, and uses these to get his projects and international workshops off the ground. Alongside this, he takes part in faculty activities and sits on student-run committees. He is a self-confessed doer and shaper: "Making things happen and achieving shared goals have motivated me ever since I started university."
Doing research is fascinating – but I want to develop my skills and assume leadership duties.
A stint in Chicago
After studying at university for five years and completing a PhD, Max sought out a new challenge. And he found it across the Pond, at Chicago's Argonne National Laboratory – a major research institute that belongs to the US Department of Energy. For 18 months, he worked at this "El Dorado" among researchers. But he also missed launching his own projects and working in a team: "Doing research is fascinating – but I want to develop my skills and assume leadership duties."
So Max is looking for a way to make this happen. That's when he happened upon a job vacancy that would allow him to work as a scientific project manager. And that's exactly what he'd been looking for! And where was the job? At ZEISS in Oberkochen.
The why and wherefore
A few days after his interview, Max was offered the job! And joined SMT as a project manager. He didn't impress the interviewer with a classic management background, but rather with his experience in lateral management, his enthusiasm for his work, and his team spirit. His new role involves leading different teams and successfully completing various projects related to EUV lithography. He and his colleagues ensure that ever smaller, more powerful and more energy-efficient microchips can be produced. The same microchips that go into smartphones and computers. It's both a tremendous challenge and a new beginning for Max: "When I started I was faced with quite a steep learning curve. I had to acquire new skills and focus on my core competencies: set goals, oversee the project and, above all, support my staff."
And to ensure that he continues learning, Max is taking advantage of the ZEISS part-time professional training program which allows him, among other things, to spend several months training at the International Project Management Association (IPMA), a European project management association with a global reach.
This allows Max to focus squarely on his project goals. The company's structures permit this, with his co-lead assuming dotted-line management responsibility. "I don't need to know every single technological detail – or be able to eliminate such problems. Our projects require far too much research, so that task is left up to the specialists. Instead, I focus on the basic conditions and ensure that we remain in a position to achieve our goals despite any obstacles we may encounter."
From research to responsibility
In addition to targeted training courses, Max appreciates the culture of openness at ZEISS: "When it comes to our matrix organization and the dynamic situation, we base all our actions on personal discussions and team spirit. And this sets us apart from outdated management structures. Everyone helps each other. Everyone can grow. Everyone receives the support they need. And that's just how it should be."