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Quandary: Career Advancement of Technical Engineers Part III

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Read the previous posting – Quandary: Career Advancement of Technical Engineers Part II

This is part Three – Quandary: Career Advancement of Technical Engineers

It all started in part one where I was able to hear an extraordinary question asked by a technical engineer to a vice president at a divisional “all hands” meeting: “What does this [ direction, goals, reorganization of the company ] have to do with me?”.

The question was unscreened, heard by nearly 1,000 people who were present in person, listening on a conference call, or watching via a multi-stream from the company website.  The particular division of which this engineer was employed was responsible for 1/4 of the corporate $20B in annual revenue.  To some ears, this was an extraordinary question.  Perhaps to others, there was nothing wrong with asking this.

Part One cited an academic study on why certain employees turn down offers of advancement.

Part Two was an attempt to say why.  Fundamentally,that the goals of a technical engineer per se would not be aligned with that of an organization.  That is, a technical engineer and a corporation are on different paths and have different goals.  The result is disengagement of employees with the company.  Part Two had some advice from Eric Schmidt on how some companies can keep these engineers on an career path without promoting them to a management or leadership position.  Eric Schmidt is currently CEO of Google, former CEO of Novel, and an engineer himself.  So maybe he has some valid advice based on personal experience – his own as an electrical engineer and as CEO of two companies.

A Different Perspective

Here is a different way of looking at it.

The academic research on why engineers turn down offers of advancement was necessarily limited.  It was about a particular company and a particular group of engineers.  One could extend the insights from this single company and this single group of engineers to other companies – with the necessary cautions.  Every company is a little different; every social group of engineers in those companies are a little different. 

“Success is not really on the engineers’ minds”

This is an extraordinary statement in the research.  Here is the full quote:

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.

Really, success is not on these engineers’ minds.  But what about “other minds” – the minds of other engineers?

The mistake would be to classify all engineers together and say, “Engineers are not really interested in success”.  Or, to put it differently, to say that,  “Because you are an engineer, you are not interested in success”.  Or more boldly, that there is something fundamental to the profession of engineering that it allows individual engineers to easily ask what the corporate direction has anything to with them.  Specifically, “What does this [ direction, goals, reorganization of the company ] have to do with me?”

The Story of Bill and Dave

It’ really not about technical engineers not being interested in success; it’s about people – no matter what profession they are in that are not interested in the traditional definition of success.  Here is a counter example.  These folks are the epitome of the other side of, “Success is not really on the engineers’ minds”

Dave Packard was born in 1912 in Pueblo, Colorado.  At 12 years old he was a ham radio enthusiast building his own equipment.  After high school, in 1930, Packard enrolled in Stanford University.  During his freshman year, Packard met Bill Hewlett.  Both studied engineering under Professor Fredrick Terman.  It was said that Hewlett at age 23 could read Terman’s textbook on electrical engineering, pointing out “quite fundamental mistakes”.  Suggested corrections to the textbook by Hewlett were made by Terman.

Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett graduated Stanford in 1934 with degrees in electrical engineering.  Hewlett went on to get a master’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT.  Packard went to work for General Electric.  Terman of Stanford kept watch on them and encouraged his “two best students” to start a company.  By 1938 Packard and Hewlett made plans to lauch a business together.

Amazingly, 1938 was the tail end of the great depression.  Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett flipped a coin. Bill won the coin toss and the name of the company became “Hewlett-Packard”.  With $538 start-up capital from Packard’s wife Lucile, the deal was done. The Hewlett-Packard company began business out of a garage at 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto, California (read).

In 1957 Hewlett-Packard went public selling 10% to outside investors.

Dave Packard ran the company with legendary stories of toughness on employees – to get the best out of them and hold them accountable.  Some of the memos that Packard sent out can be found in archives.  “Manifestly absurd and evidence of total stupidity”.  “A waste of money and a violation of policy”.  Dave Packard was so tough on the employees that some refused to come back to work thinking they had been fired after a personal tirade from Packard.  Dave would drive to the employees house and ask them to come back and give it another try.  It was said of Dave Packard, “Dave hired ordinary people, and then he found a way to get extraordinary results out of them.”

In the 1970’s HP surpassed $1B in revenue.  Packard continued his toughness.  In 1974 he stormed into the Santa Clara facility to tell 200 managers what he though of company performance.

“We’ve made some very bad mistakes…” Inventories are too high. Executives are chasing market share in crummy businesses that HP should not be in.  Cash is being squandered.  In some divisions earnings growth is feeble and this was spreading to other divisions in HP.  HP’s stock price was tumbling.  “The market does not give a damn about your sales.  They don’t give a damn about your share in the market.  The only thing that counts is rate of growth of earnings.”

Bill and Dave were engineers.  What was their definition of success?

There is tremendous amount written about Bill and Dave at HP.  You can read some of it here:
Bill and Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World’s Greatest Company
Bill and Dave’s Memos

Ed, Andy, Bill, Eric, Mark, Jack, and a cast of thousands

In 2005 Ed Zander, former CEO of Motorola, addressed the graduating Executive MBA class at Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University.  In that address, Zander, who earned a degree in Electrical Engineering, told students he was “a bad engineer” and wanted to be a manager.  So, he went to get an MBA. (Watch the address here).  Zander became COO and President of Sun Microsystems.  In 2005 Zander was selected as CEO of Motorola replacing Chris Galvin.  Galvin was the 3rd generation of the founder of Motorola.

Andy Grove, who holds a Ph.D in engineering from UC Berkeley, became CEO of Intel.

Bill Gates.  Well, what can I say?  A Harvard dropout software engineer that founded Microsoft and held the CEO position

Eric Schmidt.  Schmidt has a BSEE, MS, and Ph.D in EECS (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science).  He is CEO of Google and former CEO of Novell.  Prior to that, CTO at Sun Microsystems.

Mark Zuckerberg.  Harvard dropout.  Software Engineer.  One of the founders of Facebook.  CEO of Facebook. At age 26 worth $6B

Jack Welch.  Former CEO of General Electric and probably the most successful CEO of the last century.  Ph.D in engineering.’

and many more for large companies; thousands more for small companies

What’s the point?

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.

People have the opportunity to make decisions every second of every minute of every day of every year.  Some people make the decision to stay where they are for an entire 30+ year career.  What is the expectation?

When the engineer in the story – the subject of this posting – asked the question to the vice president, ““What does this [ direction, goals, reorganization of the company ] have to do with me?”, it could well be that the expectation of the VP was that this engineer would follow the same path as he did.  Or as other “successful” people have (Ed, Andy, Bill, Eric, Mark, Jack, and perhaps thousands more).

The psychology of engineers is very complex.  The nature of the work can be very solitary.  The psychology of some individuals is one of mastery of subject matter, combined with competitiveness, and insecurity.  This combination is deadly for career advancement insofar as these individuals treat others knowledge and accomplishment  as a zero-sum game – “if they win, I lose”.  This attitude has sunk thousands of individuals careers.

The key to “success” (in the traditional sense) of engineers is a transformation.  If you listen to Ed Zanders’s keynote address at Kellogg School of Management you will hear him say, that as an electrical engineer, he wanted to be a manager.  So, what did he do?  He got an MBA.  Why?  Because he knew that advancement would not be achieved with learning any more about electrical engineering.  He had to learn a whole new set of skills and change what he values as important.

The fundamental challenge to engineers to is value the success of other people.  Only when they get past this bit of psychology will they ever get anywhere in their careers – success as would be defined in a traditional sense.  Engineers who can not get past this piece of psychology will find themselves with a 30+ year career with little advancement beyond a couple of job titles – junior staff engineer, staff engineer, senior staff engineer.  Worse, they will be “warehoused” as senior staff engineer on the path of the Eric Schmidt solution of “distinguished job titles” as the remedy and alternative to promoting these folks to managers or leaders within the company.

I don’t doubt that anyVP of a $4B division of a $20B company would want their engineering staff to be “successful” and become managers and leaders in the company and create real value by leveraging their extensive technical knowledge and apply it to the corporate strategic goals – especially in a technology-based company.  A technical engineer with business sense, judgement, and knowledge trumps folks with an MBA out of business school that do not have this background – all other things equal.  Most companies would rather hire from within than from the outside.  For a company to have sustainable success it must have and grow a bench of ready-to-deploy management and leadership talent.  Where will this bench talent come from?

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.  A company can spend ten’s of millions of dollars on Learning and Talent development programs.  But  still, someone will ask, “What does this [ direction, goals, reorganization of the company ] have to do with me?”.

Maybe other folks in the audience had the same thoughts as me.  We are still waiting for the epiphany for some employees.  Success is not about you – it’s about others and the company.  It’s about competition.  First, with other companies.  Then, it’s about doing something of global significance.  Or, as CEO Steve Jobs likes to say, “I want to make a dent in the universe”.

Science and engineering is so much about individual personal accomplishment and achievement.  In a sense, to be truly successful, one may have to overcome the engineers definition of success.  Trading it for a different kind of success that is much more profound, significant, and leaves a legacy.

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)


Bill and Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World’s Greatest Company
Bill and Dave’s Memos
garage at 367 Addison
Shrine to Hours of Tinkering in a Garage on the Ground Floor of Silicon Valley


Written by frrl

September 27, 2010 at 1:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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