Find the Right Engineering Candidate … through Patents?

April 7, 2015

If there was ever an example of a prolific patent-holder in pop culture, it’s Hubert J. Farnsworth — the doddering, bespeckled professor from “Futurama” who invents an outlandish gadget every episode.

Professor Farnsworth represents plenty of the stereotypes surrounding patent holders: independently wealthy, a mad scientist, imaginer of obscure, single-purpose applications of technology. Is that really the kind of candidate your hiring manager is looking for?

Don’t get scared off by the patent section of an engineer’s resume — just like Professor Farnsworth, this candidate could be a fan favorite. Here’s how to read the relevance of patents in the engineering industry.

First, dismiss any assumptions you may have about patent holders.

“I’ve found that the average person thinks that if you have a patent you are getting paid huge sums of money for it,” said Jud Ready, the Deputy Director of the Innovation Initiatives at Georgia Tech’s Institute for Materials as well as a Principal Research Engineer for Georgia Tech Research Institute’s (GTRI) Electro-Optical Systems Laboratory.

It’s true that patents grant a monopoly right to commercially benefit from an invention, but Ready is quick to point out that it’s not always the inventor that reaps the rewards. A patent lists the inventor(s) and an assignee — it’s the assignee who gets the control of the invention.

“For decades, each Bell Labs employee was famously paid $1 on the first day of their employ in exchange for assigning all their future patent rights to the Bell System,” he said. Academic institutions vary in the ways they reward one of their inventors in the case that a patent is licensed commercially.

Next, resist the impulse to over-emphasize a resume with a patent section.

Although patents are respected, they don’t mean an automatic fit for the job, said Ron Bohlander, the Deputy Director of GTRI’s Information and Communications Laboratory.

“If I had a stack of resumes, and [had to point out] which ones I was likely to be enthusiastic about, I might notice the patent ones in terms of how things would be initially staked. Of course, an awful lot has to do with how well they interview and what their background details are,” he said.

“The buzz word these days in engineering companies is ‘innovation’,” Ready said, “and a patent is (typically) a prime example of one’s ability to innovate at a high level.”

Ultimately, it means that the candidate is an inventor, Bohlander said. “It’s a significant data point, but not the whole of what we would look at.”

Consequently, it’s necessary to view patents on a candidate’s resume objectively.

Whether the candidate was the sole inventor on a patent or among a group of inventors is important, Ready said. Also notice whether or not the patent was issued by the US, since the strength of patent laws vary widely by country. “A United States patent seems to be a well-accepted ‘gold’ standard.”

Being an expert witness for a patent also carries a weight of respect, Bohlander said. Maybe it sounds like a scene from an old Perry Mason movie, where a witness might be on the stand for ten minutes, tops. But engineers know the painful truth, he said.

“Being an expert witness in a patent dispute means you’re going to be on the witness stand for days and days and days, trying to educate a panel of jurors, many of whom only have a high school education, what the technology means inside this patent.”

Bohlander has been an expert witness. “That was arduous.”

Patent topics can get into some wacky Professor Farnsworth territory, so take the time to look at the descriptions. “For instance in 2000, a patent (US 6,368,227) issued on a unique way to sing in a swing (side to side vs. front to back),” Ready said.

Yes, You can Use Patent Searches to Source Engineering Candidates

Finally, you can start using patent searches to source candidates, said Steve Levy, a retired engineer who crossed over to the dark side into recruiting.

A patent lists the patent number; data about the inventor(s) and the assignee; classification of the invention; a description of the best way to achieve the invention being patented; and a list of the aspects of that invention that are claimed for monopoly protection. Anyone can search the almost 9 million patents that have been granted to date, Levy said.

The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database or Google can turn up patent searches, but “I happen to like using,” Levy said. He uses the expert search function on the site to search by patent class (“it’s almost like a Dewey Decimal System of patents,” he said), inventor country, city or state and by name or key word.

“Let’s say we want to hire a brake designer,” he said. “I click search, and now I have 180 patents. I might take this list as a first cut to a hiring manager and say, ‘Which one of these patents do you covet?’.” A hiring manager’s response could lead you to look for clients from a specific company or use search terms not listed in the job description, he said.

Then you can attempt to find a narrowed down candidate pool through LinkedIn, but be forewarned: there’s a lot of patent holders who aren’t on LinkedIn, Levy said. If you do find a candidate this way, their page might be bare bones.

“Most people coming across his profile probably wouldn’t call him because there’s no buzz words there,” he said.

But make that call, Levy said. Those profiles are scrubbed, “because they’re too busy being brilliant inventors.”