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Quandary: Career Advancement of Technical Engineers Part II

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This is a follow-up to the posting:  The Quandary of Career Advancement of Technical Engineers

And the extraordinary question asked by an engineer to a Vice President at a corporate all hands meeting, “What does this [ direction, goals, reorganization of the company ] have to do with me?”

The last posting cited an academic study on why engineers turn down offers of advancement.  Or, in general why the interest of engineers is often not aligned with the company they work for.

Here is more from that research.  This comes from the Discussion section where the findings are summarized

Advancement Choices
Engineers enjoy technical work. That is why they chose their profession and it is also why they continue to be engaged in it. They entered the corporate world with the awareness that advancement means success, and success should be everyone’s goal. There is pressure to advance quickly, a finding that supports Westney’s (1985) earlier research. However, there is only one career to pursue: management. And even though management is a possible goal, the process of being promoted is mysterious and contrary to the engineering nature that appreciates unambiguity and concreteness. In fact, the engineers are not sure that a technical ladder actually exists. If it does, it is a very short one, as there is at most one level above the one at which they entered. The criteria for this promotion are inconsistent and the meaning of the promotion is ambiguous. The engineers would prefer a more open and structured technical promotion process based on experience and professional demonstration. On the whole, these findings support earlier research indicating that R&D career paths are ambiguous and inconsistent (Allen & Katz, 1986; Bailyn, 1982, 1991; Bailyn & Lynch, 1983; Dalton & Thompson, 1986; Ritti, 1971).

Personal “Reality”
Success is not really on the engineers’ minds, but when prompted they say they do feel successful. However, they tie their success more to family, happiness, and personal accomplishments. They view internal ideas of success as more important than social, or external, measures of success. Their self-development occurs outside of work and they also have outside leadership roles. They feel their lives are sometimes out of balance due to clashes in work and personal life demands. They view the demands of work as excessive and think that their workplace should be more flexible in the area of time. They feel organizations are trying to trade visions of flat organizations and empowerment for more of their time, and this just does not work for them. Their organization does not provide onsite childcare, which they feel would help their situation. They feel torn between their personal and work obligations and this causes a fair amount of stress. They see organizations’ increased demands as unhealthy for people and detrimental to organizations’ long-term goals. The only way they feel that they can cope is by keeping organizational and personal concerns completely separate. Their experiences parallel Hochschild’s (1997) and Rifkin’s (1995) work regarding the difficulty of defining work and personal life boundaries. The engineers would like to continue to “build” things, and they think that they might enjoy doing work that involves “using their hands.” They would like to own their own businesses, or work in a more creative environment. They mentioned trying management under different circumstances, when they have less personal obligations to attend to, or perhaps in a smaller company with a different culture. They look forward to a time of retirement and financial independence, when they might donate their technical work to needy causes.

The Disconnect between Engineers “Personal Reality” and Corporate Goals

Here’s a proposition for you to consider.  The personal goals of an engineer and the basic fundamental goals of a corporation are fundamentally opposed.  Engineers are engineers because: 1) they love technology 2) their primary pursuit is that of personal technical competence – both self-development and application.  Corporations exist to: 1) Make money 2) Satisfy the wants/desires/needs of other people in order to sell products and services to generate revenue (make money) for other people (shareholders). 

To  put it clearly, Engineers are about technology and self.  Corporations are about money and others.

There is a little more to it. 

Self vs Others.  Engineers, left to their own desires,  follow their personal interests in technology wherever it may lead.  This destination may not have a market of willing buyers or a viable product or service.  Therefore, the company can not make money.  The engineers are going to lose on that one (result: disengaged) since the company is not going to pay engineers to develop and apply technical competence in areas that has no viable market.  In short, companies are not about the personal self-interests of its engineers; it’s about the interests of customers and shareholders (others) external to the company.

Technology vs Markets.  Corporate priorities are to sell products into growth markets and emerging opportunities.  The underlying technology may be of no interest to certain groups of engineers.  Again, the engineers will lose on that one (result: disengaged).  They may be dragged into work in which they have little or no personal interest.

So, how to you “square the circle“?

You “square the circle” by getting engineers to transition form a focus on self to a focus on others.  And you transition them from focusing on technology as an end-in-itself to technology as a lever to achieve a higher purpose.   That is, to be able to ask the question,  “What can I build/make/create for others to create significance beyond myself ?”  Amazingly, the fundamental human desires ( read Maslow ) for self-actualization, recognition, esteem, success, and accomplishment can come through “leaving a legacy for others” and this will replace the immediate ego-centric self-gratification that many engineers practice every day, over and over.  Some have called this an “epiphany moment” where an individual finally realizes that leaving a legacy for others trumps egocentric self-gratification.  For some it happens; for others, it never happens.

In the absence of this “utopian vision” of engineers perfectly aligned to corporate goals,  Eric Schmidt has some suggestions to fulfill the need of “immediate gratification” and sense of personal accomplishment and recognition that engineers desire without pushing them up the ladder into management and leadership positions.

This is from Fast Company Magazine in 1999.  At the time, Eric Schmidt was CEO of Novell Inc.

If you don’t want to lose your geeks, you have to find a way to give them promotions without turning them into managers. Most of them are not going to make very good executives — and, in fact, most of them would probably turn out to be terrible managers. But you need to give them a forward career path, you need to give them recognition, and you need to give them more money.

Twenty years ago, we developed the notion of a dual career ladder, with an executive career track on one side and a technical career track on the other. Creating a technical ladder is a big first step. But it’s also important to have other kinds of incentives, such as awards, pools of stock, and financial kinds of compensation. At Novell, we just added a new title: distinguished engineer. To become a distinguished engineer, you have to get elected by your peers. That requirement is a much tougher standard than being chosen by a group of executives. It’s also a standard that encourages tech people to be good members of the tech community. It acts to reinforce good behavior on everyone’s part.

Novell, AT&T, IBM, Google, and others use this technique of “job titles” to provide recognition.

But  to me, this is the “second best” (or third, or fourth) way to deal with getting engineers engaged in a corporation.  The solution above seems “synthetic”, “divisive”, and “unreal” – not getting to the heart of the matter and not finding a solution where literally millions can benefit.  Giving them “distinguished job titles” is like throwing them a bone without really giving them anything of substance.

The heart of the matter is to move engineers along the path from a focus on self to a focus on others; and from a focus on technology choice as “self-interest” and/or as an end in itself to technology in pursuit of a higher goal.  How does it happen?  It’s hard.

Engineers making “insanely great” products are  going to align themselves perfectly with corporate america.  And, no engineer is going to ask a Vice President, “What does this company have to do with me?”  The answer will be obvious.  Back in the early 1980’s would the engineering team that created the Apple Macintosh have asked Seve Jobs, “What does this have to do with me?”  It would be clear that CEO Steve Jobs, the Apple corporation, and the engineering team were in clear alignment on a very clear mission – “to change the world”.  There would be tens of millions of beneficiaries of this alignment – customers, shareholders, and engineers that brought the Mac to market.  Isn’t this a better outcome for everyone as opposed to a team of lone warrior engineers each pursing their own interests?

It could happen to you

Think that the “utopian vision” of the alignment of engineers with a corporation can’t be re/created indefinitely?

Oddly enough, the person quoted above  recommending a sort of ” synthetic career path” for engineers which avoids executive roles and influence did not take this path himself.  Eric Schmidt was himself one the geeks he speaks about.  And, he has a ton of technology degrees to prove it.  Eric Schmidt just had a little different attitude than most engineers.  Eric Schmidt made the transition of values identified above.  This is what sets him apart.  And this is partly what got him where he is today.

Who is Eric Schmidt?

He started his career as a technologist at Bell Labs, Zilog, Xerox PARC, and Sun Microsystems.  At Sun he rose up through the ranks to Chief Technology Officer.  After SUN he became CEO of Novell.  After leaving Novell Schmidt became CEO of Google in 2001.  In 2009, Schmidt was elected to Apple’s board of directors.  (resigned in 2009 due to conflict of interest due to competition of Apple and Google).  Schmidt has a BSEE, MS, and Ph.D in EECS (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science).  As of 2010, he is 55 years old.

Interesting.  If Schmidt the geek engineer (and many more like him) can make it from BSEE out of college to executive leadership through a swath of well-known technology corporations then lets rely less on the “synthetic job titles” for engineers that he advocates for others and get engineers on the path that Schmidt took himself.  Perhaps there will be more “insanely great” products and companies like Google that are changing the world under his leadership.

On Leaving a legacy, from a famous engineer:

As I look back at my life’s work, I’m probably most proud of having helped to create a company that by virtue of its values, practices, and successes has had a tremendous impact on the way companies are managed around the world.  And I’m particularly proud that I’m leaving behind an ongoing organization that can live on as a role model long after I am gone.

William R. Hewlett, cofounder, Hewlett-Packard – (passed away in 2001 at age 87)


Written by frrl

August 29, 2010 at 6:10 pm

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  1. As an ex-RnD engineer, I was quite satisfied in that role as long as the challenges and monetary compensation warranted my continuation in my field. Outside of that realm, engineering management was something for people who didn’t relish the “hands-on” experimentation and data mining that led to discovery. It became obvious, as I progressed into the deeper regions of the Corporate structure, that the upper echelons had lost sight of what makes a successful manager of an engineering program/project. It was compitence in the science/engineering realm and a communal perspective as regards personnel management and coaching. Both of these qualities comes through having the qualified mentors who excell at both. Such an environment is rare in today’s OEM offices and labs.


    September 26, 2010 at 10:07 pm

  2. A corollary is that engineers can be productive without managers, but managers can not be productive without engineers (and techs and laborers etc) to do the real work.

    Yet the rewards and labels of success go to the managers. One manager told me once he thought this was because he had to operate in the abstract where even the rules of engagement are subject to creativity, while engineers always had it easier where their rules are fixed due to the math and science and so on. Thus the engineering could in principle be done by automatons, but management would always be too complex to codify and thus his achievements deserve greater awards.

    Elwood Downey

    August 30, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    • Without labor, low level management (or supervisors) would have nothing to do since these folks mostly play an orchestration role in the management of physical or intellectual labor.

      Mid level management could probably keep busy manipulating the inherent corporate bureaucracy 🙂

      Engineers are generally invisible until something goes wrong – (Apple Antennagate on the iPhone 4). Then there will be a probe to find someone to blame and that will go down to the engineering staff and then up to management, who, is ultimately responsible for the quality of the work of the engineers.

      In the case of Apple, and Antennagate, I thought it was surprising that a Sr. Vice President ( Mark Papermaster )got fired over it. That says something about the Apple culture, ultimate responsibility, and a “no excuses” mentality to making mistakes. Apple protects its brand equity by doing such things (firing a Sr. VP over this) and sends a message that Jobs will not tolerate these sorts of mistakes where QA is lacking resulting in a lot of dissatisfied customers.

      So, successes, as well as failures, go up the chain – at least at Apple – all companies are different. How many of the engieering staff were fired with the Sr. VP? Don’t know, was not reported. So what happended under the Sr. VP was invisible.

      As far as your other comments. I found that engineers are not good at dealing with ambiguity, uncertaintly, taking risks, communicating and dealing with non-engineers, and the sorts of judgement that go along with these classes of problems. People in executive positions have to deal with this all the time when they work the corporate strategy and have to anticipate moves of markets, customer preferences, negotiating strategic alliances with other companies, a wide variety of other external factors that affect the company, as well the moves and counter moves of competitors that compete in the same market space. None of this is “math or science” or anything that an engineer deals with on a daily basis. But it is “life or death” for a company and its shareholders that this goes on continually. This is why executive compensations are so high – since folks that can make judgements with limited information and ambiguity and deal with these complex issues of strategic direction, markets, alliance partners, etc are more scarce than engineers. These sorts of problems are nothing like the “math and science” and “closed form solutions” that engineers deal with on a daily basis – it’s not thier skill set.

      It “can” be the engineers skill set – but they (engineers) need to make that as a personal choice (to be a NOT engineer). If engineers do not make that choice it is likely they will be engineers for their entire 30+ year career (that’s OK). But if they do make the choice then they could end up a CEO – like Eric Schmidt, Bill Hewlett, Jack Welch, Andy Grove, Ed Zander, and a ton of other folks that started out as technical engineers, got new skill sets, and made it up the corporate ladder to CEO. This is essentially to give up an engineering career for acorporate executive career – which many engineers are not willing to do – for various reasons – some of which were pointed out in Elena’s Master Thesis – and things you can find out just by casual observatioin of people who have chosen long-term engineering careers.


      August 31, 2010 at 1:13 pm

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