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The Quandary of Career Advancement of Technical Engineers

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Last week, I was able to listen to an exchange between an engineer and a Vice President at an “all hands” meeting of a Fortune 200 company ( $20B in Revenue).  The context was the reorganization of a division responsible for 1/4 of the company annual revenue.

The question from the engineer came at the question and answer session at the end of the presentation.  The questions were not pre-screened.  Several thousand people heard the q/a exchange.

The big question

After the VP finished talking about the reorganization to better align the organization to the changing marketplace and competitive landscape an engineer asked this simple question:

What does this have to do with me?

There was a long silence.  It was as if the engineer was asking: “why are you wasting my time telling me this stuff about the organization – what does this have to do with me?”.  And I think the long silence from the VP was perhaps that he was trying to figure out why this employee was disinterested and unconnected with the company.

After some delay, the VP talked about careers and how this engineer would need to know about the organization, how it is structured,  and why the reorganization was taking place  in order for employees to take advantage of new opportunities that this reorganization might provide them.

After the meeting, there was considerable discussion of this engineers question.  This particular company invests heavily in “Learning and Talent Development”.  Why are we spending all this mony on L&TD when (at least some) people seem not to care about the organization or advancement?  Do we have the right people if they are not interested in the organization or advancement?  The question and answer session was deleted from the recorded version of the presentation that was made available for replay on the corporate internal website.

The Research

This reminded me of a masters thesis by Elena Papavero which I read a while ago.


The subject of the thesis is a study of engineers who rejected offers of advancements.  This research was limited to s single company so the research has this limitation and the risk would be to generalize the findings.

So, this seems to be what we have going on at this company.  The particular engineer (and how many more like him?) seemed disinterested in what was going on with the organization.  Did this extend to his career advancement in the organization?  If he was offered career advancement would he turn it down?  Stated more clearly, if the company invests in talent development and segments of employees “go along” but are ultimately disinterested in moving from technical to management or leaderships roles, is the company wasting resources (investments) that could be better used elsewhere?  Or, should the hiring/retention policy be changed to reduce this segment of employees?  For critical parts of the organization should the policy be “up or out”?  That is, as soon as someone become nonpromotable should they be “out”?

Elena’s thesis starts off with a couple of interesting quotes about employee relationship with their employer

The first

Reducing the inordinate rewards of ambition and our inordinate fears of ending up as losers would offer the possibility of a great change in the meaning of work in our society and all that would go with such a change.

To make a real difference, such a shift in rewards would have to be a part of a reappropriation of the idea of vocation or calling, a return in a new way to the idea of work as a contribution to the good of all and not merely as a means to one’s own advancement. (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1996, pp. 287-288)

The second

The term “career” has taken on a whole new meaning, reflecting the precedence of self development and individual survival over organizational loyalty. The choices to be made concerning careers are more complex than ever. The right decisions regarding movement into positions with increased responsibility become less clear. The new psychological contract has brought a “corresponding drop in the career aspirations of those who work in corporations” (Hall & Mirvis, 1996, p.

Engineers Perspective on Success and Careers

There is much in the Masters Thesis – but here are a couple of Elena’s findings relevant to this posting


The majority of the engineers are not concerned with success. Moreover, they have much difficulty defining success: “But I feel successful. You know. I mean, I don’t how I’m measuring that. So I really feel in life I feel successful. But I don’t know how you define it.” One engineer points out that a successful life may be the sum of many small successes rather than one big one. Another noted that she feels “wildly” successful. However, she does not think that she pursued success aggressively in any way, but was instead pushed towards it by others. The engineers see themselves as professionals, but they are not all together sure that they have careers: “I don’t have a career in the sense that I don’t have an advancement plan.”

Several of the engineers think that being happy means being successful. Some think that a successful family life or providing for a family is of utmost importance. Most do not link success with their jobs: “I imagine that success is going to be defined by something other than work.” All of the engineers feel financially successful, but they feel there is a lot more to success than making money.

Internal success is differentiated from external success by several of the engineers:

…a lot of these things kind of differ between things that can be externally viewed and things that are internally viewed. You could say because somebody is a vice president, they’re a success –most people can agree with that. But you can’t say because they’re an MTS [Member of Technical Staff], they’re successful. … [unless] you defined it as happiness or self-fulfillment…

One engineer describes how the drive for job success can lead to personal sacrifice:

…sometimes I think that’s why a lot of these people really get involved and call themselves quote/unquote successful…They’ve dedicated so much of their being and energy and emotion to that job, to that role that they wear that they have no room left for anything else. Anybody else that was in their life is now gone. They don’t exist. That’s all they’re focused on. … it slowly consumes you, especially in today’s world. Cause they’re just keep throwing stuff at you. And it just does consume you. So I felt that this is really–I can’t believe this here, you know. It’s like I can’t get away from it.


Most of the engineers think that their self-development occurs outside of work and do not see technical skill development as self-development. One of the engineers feels that he has plateaued as far as personal skills that he can learn from his job. However, he does view the mentoring role that a senior engineer naturally assumes as giving a sense of personal satisfaction, even if it is not actually an opportunity for self-development: “So you actually get more reward– personal satisfaction reward back from helping other people. So that’s the aspect that I take away from it, but again, I wouldn’t qualify it as a self-improvement or self-development.”

Several of the engineers have some type of leadership role outside of work. One engineer plays a leadership role in her extended family and runs family meetings where important decisions are made. Several of the engineers coach children’s sports teams, which gives them a great feeling of accomplishment. One engineer ran a non-profit organization at an early age. Another heads a sports league at his place of work.

 The Take

The take away on this one are a few questions:

  1. If any employee asks “What does this have to do with me?” when corporate executives communicate the vision, goals, and strategic initiatives of a company do you have the right people in the organization?
  2. Why do engineers – or do engineers in general – think that “self-development occurs outside work”.  Why is this?
  3. Why do engineers have leadership roles outside their corporate employment and not inside their corporate employment?  Aren’t leadership qualities fundamentally the same that they can be applied in both contexts?
  4. Another researcher came up with a taxonomy of “tribes” or groups that can exist in an organization (read the article – Parsing Corporate Cultures).  The “what does this have to do with me” would not fly at  Zappos employees are offered money to quit if new hires do not feel they fit into the organization or corporate culture.  Are the “What does this have to do with me” folks stuck in “what’s in it for me” culture at the expense of team goals and at the expense of making a significance impact mediated by corporations?  Can anything significant be accomplished by a phalanx of  “lone warrior” individuals each pursuing their own personal self-development?


Read the masters thesis –


Even though the engineers in the study did not see themselves in corporate management or leadership careers they had some interesting insights on the management, leadership and how these are different.

Here are a few more quotes from the thesis

Leading and Managing

Natural ability

The engineers described the difference between the role of leading and the role of managing. They see leaders as charismatic, unique, driven, courageous, visionary, and having a certain style and a strong personality. Most of the engineers believe that leadership cannot be taught, but rather, they see leadership ability as something with which one is born. One engineer mentioned that new managers are sometimes sent to “charm school” to learn to be a “sensitive and caring person,” but he does not believe that a course is really going to change anyone.

Control versus vision

Leaders step up “for a certain role for a period or time.” A manager is “somebody who has been appointed to manage you, and that has really nothing to do with leadership.” A leader does not have formal authority bestowed on them. Leaders are chosen by consensus. People follow leaders voluntarily because they are inspired and the decision to follow is an unconscious one. Managers are seen as people who control, whereas leaders provide vision or take “you further ahead than you’ve been before.” Leaders “have something to say or some way of doing something which makes sense.” Leaders teach and lead by example. They have ideas which they act on, and for which they generate enthusiasm. A leader picks up the group and moves it forward with visions and ideas.

Responsibility and authority, respect and trust.

The engineers believe people follow leaders because they trust them and because they think that the leader cares about them. A leader is like a coach:

… because you entrust the coach to do the best thing for the team and for each individual player. And you also have respect for the coach because the coach can help you play that position, and he can also play, or she can play that position. Leaders are motivational and can take any group of people and “whip them into a team.” A manager has a specified administrative role whereas: “a leader is somebody who gets people to do things because they’re showing the way.”

Managers work through responsibility, authority, and control, but do not necessarily require respect or trust:

I’m there to manage and to control, and I have the responsibility and the authority to make this happen. I don’t necessarily have to trust this manager. Or maybe I don’t even trust this manager. I might not even respect the person. But they’re my management.

Leaders can help people balance personal and company goals. They can “lead people in the direction which will be beneficial to the company.” A leader trusts and respects their people. Their people respect the leader’s opinion and judgment. One engineer sees one aspect of this respect for people as: “protecting them against the corporate animal….” Leaders protect their people and respect their personal lives:

I think just realizing what some of the pressures are outside of work on the people in your group can make a large difference. (…) if you’re very heavy-handed and aren’t willing to look at your people as real people, you’re not going to see the opportunities that are there.

Administrating and motivating.

Leaders are good organizers and motivators. They care about people. Managers handle administrative tasks and make sure that they track the performance of their people so that they can get them the raise they deserve. Managers make sure their people have the resources that they need. They take care of the “machinery, all that stuff has to be watched after and taken care of.” Managers organize and pay attention to details and schedules. In one engineer’s words: “Managers watch milestones go by.” A manager has to track things and is responsible for making sure things are on time and done in the right order. Working together.

The leadership role is seen as much more necessary than the management role by several of the engineers: “I don’t think there is a need for the manager part. By in large I think most people manage themselves. If they were given an interesting assignment and challenging work, they would do it.” Managers and leaders can work together, with a caveat: “… there has to be some level of maturity on both ends because whoever is in the leadership position would have to have respect for the management capability and need and vice versa and so on. Respect for each other.”

Working together

The leadership role is seen as much more necessary than the management role by several of the engineers: “I don’t think there is a need for the manager part. By in large I think most people manage themselves. If they were given an interesting assignment and challenging work, they would do it.” Managers and leaders can work together, with a caveat: “… there has to be some level of maturity on both ends because whoever is in the leadership position would have to have respect for the management capability and need and vice versa and so on. Respect for each other.”


Written by frrl

August 22, 2010 at 10:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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One Response

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  1. One day over twenty years ago I was in a coffee shop and overheard some “suits” talking about a project. One said “we can just hire some engineers to do that then throw them away. The idiots are so insecure they work like dogs and never complain.”. It struck a nerve because I was just such an engineer. I was about 35 at the time and had just finished working 80-100 hours a week for a struggling startup for the previous eight years. I really cared about that company but it failed. At the end, all the engineers and other staff were just dismissed but the top managers had golden parachutes. Since then I’ve seen more evidence for this attitude including layoffs that targeted engineers, imposition of impossible deadlines, willingness of engineers to work long hours indefinitely, lack of consultation with engineers when setting company goals, and a constantly widening gap between top engineer and manager salaries.

    My response has been to cut back on my devotion to any employer. I still do a good job every day, but I’m no longer doing it for any sense of shared commitment, I just do it for the personal enjoyment and satisfaction of a job done well. I know I am still considered a throw-away, but I don’t run scared.

    Elwood Downey

    August 23, 2010 at 5:35 pm

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