From doll houses to Lego cities, Marina Hatsopoulos says she always wanted to build things. "In college, I decided I wanted to one day start my own technology business and I was drawn to the idea of creating an innovative new product," she said.

However, Hatsopoulos realized that her aspiration to "build things," required more than an entrepreneurial spirit. "I realized that I’d need some tools in my tool kit, starting with an understanding of business and finance," she said.

The need to develop a professional tool kit brought her to Chase Manhattan Bank, Thermo Electron, then onto MIT where she received a Master's in Mechanical Engineering. This distinguished roadmap later led her to become Founding CEO of Z Corporation, an early leader in 3D printing.

Today, Hatsopoulos is Board Chair of Levitronix Technologies, President of Hellenic Innovation Network, and possesses a long list of accolades, publications, and board appointments.

In this "3 Industry Questions" feature, Hatsopoulos talks about her childhood aspirations, the importance of building a solid "tool kit," and offers advice to those entering today's job market.

View the Industry Connections Presentation: Preparing for Industry with Marina Hatsopoulos.

What inspired you to enter the field of computing and technology?

Marina Hatsopoulos: I have always been enamored by the creative process: creating something from nothing. As a child, I loved building my dollhouse, creating cities with Legos, writing short stories, and making movies. There is nothing more enticing than the opportunity of the blank page and being able to fill it however I wanted. It’s an incredibly joyful endeavor, to let your imagination run free and at the end of it to have some sort of a tangible product. I also loved math problems—especially, when I got older, creating a short, elegant proof. In college, my passions were in math and music, which share a deep inherent beauty, carrying peace and a sense of well-being: that the universe is in order, and its elements are in harmony.

In college, I decided I wanted to one day start my own technology business. I was drawn to the idea of creating an innovative new product. I realized that I’d need some tools in my tool kit, starting with an understanding of business and finance. So, I decided to learn these skills by working at Chase Manhattan Bank for the oil and gas industry. At the bank, I picked up some critical professional skills like selling and negotiating, but I felt removed from the creation process. My value-add in the world felt intangible.

I wanted to get closer to the process of building a physical product. So, after a few years I left and went to work at Thermo Electron, a high-tech conglomerate, where I quickly realized that I needed more of a technical education. From there I went to MIT for my Masters in Mechanical Engineering. My purpose was not to become an engineer but to understand technology and speak the language so that one day I might manage engineers.

MIT was an eye-opening experience. My math background enabled me to be there, but I soon realized that engineering is completely different than math in its approach. Engineering is rooted in the physical world in a way that math is not. (In math, most of our work was in n dimensions, where n was any number, not necessarily 3.) I missed the simple beauty of math, but what I learned was the power of estimation and the practical value of knowing when you could drop terms in an equation. (As a math person, the notion of dropping terms in an equation initially felt sloppy and very wrong.) More significant than my learning of engineering was that it opened up the world of science to me, fostering a curiosity about how things work and why certain observable phenomena exist. (Why is it so hard to open a container if you close it when it’s hot? Why does the water in a heated pot suddenly bubble like crazy when you first drop in the noodles? What makes truck engines so noisy? Why is a bike more stable in motion than standing still?)

While I was at MIT, my husband did gut rehabs of several buildings in Boston. I designed the interior layouts on CAD, to maximize the rentable square footage. Major construction is amazing in how quickly you witness the tangible creation of something from nothing. That was a really fun project, but I had trouble visualizing one of the two-story units, so my husband built a 3D model out of foam core. The usefulness of a physical model for visualization was something I carried with me later.

Upon graduating, I’d acquired certain skills, knowledge and experience that I was planning to apply toward a tech startup: business, finance, sales, and technology. The piece that I was still missing was management.

I tried to find a management position, but nobody would hire me because I had no management experience, nor an MBA. I finally concluded that I needed to make my own opportunity. So, I set out to find a failing business to turn around. I looked at hundreds of businesses which I realized were failing due to a lack of product differentiation. I needed a product with innovative technology at its core to set its products apart in the market. I went to the MIT Technology Licensing Office which pays to patent inventions made by the students and professors, and then finds companies to commercialize these inventions. They showed me a dozen innovations.

When I was introduced to MIT’s novel 3D printing technology, which creates prototypes directly from a computer design, I was hooked. It would’ve been so valuable to us when we were doing the building rehabs. So, four of us cofounded Z Corporation. I had always wanted to build a company that built tangible products. At Z Corp., we didn’t just create a physical product; we created a physical product that created physical products. It was perfect!!

Over ten years we built the company to become a market leader, but with four small kids, I got burnt out. We finally sold the business, and I joined corporate boards. I also got involved with Greek tech startups which arose out of Greece’s economic crisis. The Greek tech startup ecosystem—with its aspirations and a newfound economic vitality—was built after the economy in Greece had been decimated. It was about building something from nothing.

I’ve also returned to my childhood joy of writing: filling a blank page, whether with short stories or business articles. In summary, my career in technology was rooted in my pull towards creation, which is enabled in the physical world through engineering, in the economic world through innovation, and in the literary world through writing.

How would you describe the computing/tech job market today? And what skills do you think are critically necessary to possess before graduation?

Any employer is going to assume knowledge and comfort of technical tools. That’s a given. Beyond that, basic accounting and finance are easy to learn and very important. When you don’t understand it, arguments and discussions fly over your head. When you do understand it, you’ll make much better decisions. Money is a core factor of decision-making within an organization, and you can’t win if you don’t know how to keep score.

Effective communication is about conveying a message in a way that is easy for the recipient to understand: not too fast, not too slow, not too short, not too long.

What will make you stand out as a job prospect and later in the workforce is your acquisition of fundamental non-technical skills. First, it’s critical to learn how to simplify and articulate a message, both in writing and in person. Effective communication is about conveying a message in a way that is easy for the recipient to understand: not too fast, not too slow, not too short, not too long. Often technical people think their contributions speak for themselves, but they don’t. The most valuable technical contributors are the ones who know how to communicate effectively with non-technical people. Bridging the divide between the tech and non-tech side is extremely important.

Effective communication will also help you sell. Your entire career will involve selling, whether you like it or not. It might be selling yourself to get your dream job, or selling your ideas to your team. I’m not talking about sounding like a used car salesman. I’m talking about articulating a succinct statement of problem, solution and quantification of the value proposition. Whatever your goals, you will have a better chance of achieving your goals if you can sell.

Negotiation is also a learned skill that is valuable throughout one’s career—not to mention in the home! Don’t ever pass up the opportunity to take a class in negotiation. It will also help you reach your goals.

Finally, teamwork is fundamental. Learn to stand up for your ideas but also learn to compromise, and always support your peers, whether they’re being praised or criticized. You will not get far without the support of those around you.

Negotiation is also a learned skill that is valuable throughout one’s career...Don’t ever pass up the opportunity to take a class in negotiation. It will also help you reach your goals.

For introverts, these soft skills—communication, selling, negotiating, and teamwork—may sound frightening, but they can be learned. The more you do it, the easier it gets. Don’t pass up the opportunity to learn these skills while you’re still in school, because that is the easiest way to pick these up. Later it gets harder to find a way to learn these skills, and the stakes are higher.

What advice do you have for computing and data science undergraduate and graduate students?

Look around at your peers and spend some time on introspection to consider what makes you different from them. What skills, experience, talents and passions set you apart? Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses. What activities do you dread? What’s fun? Whom do you admire? What does this indicate for your future career path? What skills are you still missing in order to make that future a reality?

Keep in mind that the real world is not school. Your effort doesn’t really matter. You will judged on your results. Don’t look at a work project like an academic exercise. Think about it from the perspective of your manager, your manager’s manager, and the company CEO. If the assignment is fundamentally flawed, explain why you think that. If you don’t have enough information or experience to complete it, be resourceful to fill in what you need. Making excuses for why you couldn’t complete your project on time will not get you far. Finishing the project and forgetting to submit it will get you nowhere. Be organized. Stick to the schedule. Keep your manager informed when you hit bumps in the road, and use your manager as a resource to get whatever support you need.

If you disagree or something doesn’t make sense to you, speak up! (Respectfully, of course.) The most valuable aspect of our corporate culture at Z Corp. was that people were encouraged to speak their minds. This led to massive debates, because everyone has a different perspective. It is that hashing out of a diversity of opinions that leads to the best decisions. When an employee agreed with everything I said, that person lost value in my mind, because they weren’t adding anything. Of course, if you have nothing to add, don’t say anything. The only thing worse than not adding anything is to waste everyone’s time by speaking without having anything to say. The point is, don’t blindly follow what people are saying. Always stand back and try to understand the big picture. If there’s a better way to achieve the larger goal, speak up!

Hatsopoulos will be sharing her experiences, expertise, and job market insights as a CDS Industry Connections speaker on November 29. Her talk, "Preparing for Industry," will outline the benefits of working at a startup, offer tips to manage a startup landscape, and ways to positively impact your career growth. Read about Hatsopoulos in Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Boston Business Journal, Boston Magazine, and Technology Review.
- Maureen McCarthy, Editor, CDS News