It was a big day for Analog Devices' packaging specialist, Carl Robert. He had just helped develop a new packaging system that was about to go into production, and today he was invited to present it at the company's annual General Technical Conference (GTC), a gathering of circuit designers held at a Boston-area hotel.

When Roberts walked into the room, it was packed. Even the standing room was taken. And sitting right in front of his podium was Ray Stata, then-president and CEO of the company.

"He was sitting on the floor," says Roberts. "There weren't any seats left." The enthusiastic audience peppered him with questions for an hour after the presentation, and after that, Stata cornered him with even more questions.

Roberts recalls what it felt like to have the undivided attention of his colleagues and managers. It's a feeling that has stayed with him.

The Best and the Brightest In the 20 years since its creation, Analog Devices' GTC has become one of the most anticipated annual events among the company's technologists. Last April, 1,300 design engineers flew to Boston from as far away as Japan and India to hear papers on 102 technical subjects. Although the official purpose of the conference is to give design engineers the chance to share their ideas, it also creates a sense of community among engineering teams all over the world.

It may also be the event that best reflects the company's culture, which focuses on attracting and retaining the best employees in their field--especially technologists. And it's one of the main reasons the company reported sales of $1.45 billion in fiscal 1999.

Anyone who worked at Analog Devices in the 1970s knows that Stata loved to say that the primary asset of the company was "walking around in the minds of its employees." He had started his own career working for Hewlett-Packard and took his earliest managerial inspiration from the much-touted "HP Way" of empowering employees. By the mid-1970s, Stata was teaching his top managers that listening had to be their primary skill.

By 1980, the first real engineering shortage had hit the high technology industry. When Stata spoke to stockholders that year, he referred to it as a crisis, predicting that the companies that would survive would be the ones with the "brain power."

These days, every high-tech company in America is competing for this brain power. But ADI has retained its staff is because Stata, who has become the chairman of the board, created a culture in which technologists can advance through the ranks in the same way that managers do, and have a voice in the way the company is run.

"That may be one of the reasons why engineering as a career is maybe not as attractive as it should be," says Stata. "It's too much like the job of a mechanic, as opposed to somebody who is strategically able to influence what goes on in a company."

It's About Recognition To do that, Stata created the "Parallel Ladder Program," a system of promotions that provides progressively higher pay and benefits, on a parallel to what managers receive, as the scope of an engineer's contributions increases. This way, engineers can advance within the company and remain engineers without having to become managers.

At the top of the system, outstanding engineers who have made contributions in important products and have published papers and mentored engineers within the company reach the highest rung on the ladder, that of a corporate fellow (the equivalent of a vice president). Each year, the CEO of ADI awards the new fellowships to one or two outstanding engineers.

Fellows don't have to manage a staff or a project. If their talent is in designing circuits, that's what they do.

Many engineers who have achieved this level have remained with the company no matter how many job offers have come along. In fact, some of the legendary integrated circuit designers of the early 1970s are still working as fellows at ADI, and young engineers have joined the company just to work with them.

Doug Mercer, who became a fellow in 1995, knows that he could find a company that would pay him more, but he doesn't care. Given the number of stock options that he has accrued, he could have retired by now, but this doesn't tempt him, either.

"The money isn't the issue. It's strictly the recognition of the value of your contributions and the people that you're working with," he says.

Even when ADI loses engineers to competitors and startups, they often come back, realizing that they would rather work in a company that discourages political maneuvering in favor of self-reliance and innovation. Management has even come up with a name for this phenomenon: They call it the "Analog Sabbatical."