Is the Relationship between Engineers and Their Companies Degrading?

A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine told me a story that I thought was pretty indicative of the plight of the engineer. I want to share it here as I think it underlines a pretty important point.

My friend was finishing up his week of work in the middle of a Friday afternoon when he got the call. You know. One of those calls. There’s a project in dire straits. They needed him to whip up a procedure for this particular product. He asked if it could wait until Monday because it was a lot of work. More than just two or three hours of work. Nope, they said they needed it by end of day. They were going to pass the procedure along to one of their technical centers overseas so they could actually utilize it over the weekend. No waiting until Monday. So, he desperately got to work, iterating on the test procedure until it was complete. He sent what he whipped up to the technical center overseas and left the office late that night. Actually, he left the office about 1AM Saturday morning.

But the story doesn’t end there. By the time I had talked to him, the overseas technical center had used the procedure…and it worked. So in this moment of success, how did he react? Was he elated? Was he proud? Sure. But he was more concerned with the expectations he had just set in his moment of triumph. Managers would expect him to be able to do this on a common basis. Another engineer friend, after relating this story to him, just laughed. He said he just doesn’t answer his phone after noon on Fridays.

Overall, its great the project progressed and met success. But the comments by both of these engineers reveal a larger issue. Somewhere along the way, there’s been a breach of trust in the relationship between the engineer and the company. That doesn’t make good for alignment within an organization. And it doesn’t bode well for retention.

What do you think? Sound off. Is the relationship between engineers and their companies getting worse?

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

Is the Age Profile of Engineering a Saddle?

This series of posts covers a number of issues related to the differences in generations specifically in engineering organizations. Today’s post covers how the age profile of a typical engineering organization resembles a saddle. Resulting implications are discussed.

In the last post in this series, I wrote about how the face of a modern engineering organization is not age-homogeneous, but instead is multi-generational. But in reality, it’s actually far more complicated than that. I first got a hint at that complexity when I listened to presentation from Raytheon (wikipedia entry), an aerospace & defense manufacturer, at the 2010 PTC/User World Event in Orlando Florida. Mainly their presentation focused on their PLM deployment, but there was an undercurrent to generational issues in engineering. Specifically, he referred to it time and again as managing the saddle. Let me explain.

Imagine if we mapped the number of engineers (y-axis) against their age (x-axis) for a particular engineering organization. What would the distribution curve look like? Well based on historical hiring demand and the relative sizes of different generations, we can project what it would look like. In the ’70s and ’80s, there was a glut of hiring from the Baby Boomer generation. So it starts with a peak. Then in the ’90s and early ’00s, with Gen X being smaller and less drawn to engineering careers, hiring in engineering organizations tailed off. Fast forward to late ’00s and now, there’s an upswing in hiring engineers out of Gen Y. So overall, our engineering age distribution curve started high, sloped down into a valley and has come back up. It resembles a saddle.

What’s the problem? It might be easy to theorize some potential issues. But last week, I had a chance to talk with Howard Schimmoller (LinkedIn profile), a 20+ year veteran engineering project and program manager formerly with Lockheed Martin, and get his perspective on the issue. We talked about this in the midst of a longer yet-to-be-posted podcast, but here’s the excerpt on what he calls the generational trough he saw at Lockheed Martin.

Howard’s point, for those of you that don’t have time to listen, is that from a succession perspective, you have to go back a generation and a half to find suitable replacements. This is particularly troubling given the impending threat of baby boomer engineer retirement. Not only would many engineering organizations find much of their knowledge walking out the door but that there’s an absence in the number of senior tenured engineering staff to pick up the slack. In a highly technical field like engineering in industries where design decisions can make or break a company, that’s just plain scary.

In the next post in this series, we’ll talk about these baby boomer engineers. Many industries are scared at what will happen when they retire. But interestingly, some studies are showing they might not exactly be ready to exit stage left quite yet.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

The End of Engineering’s ‘Black Box’ Operations?

This series of posts covers the relationship between the engineering executive and the c-suite executives in a manufacturer. This post looks as the increasing need in the c-suite’s visibility into engineering operations.. This background will be the basis for future discussions and posts on this set of relationships.

If you had to guess, do you think that the c-suite executives in your company view the process of engineering a product more of an art or more of a science? Based on my experience, even though engineering is heavily based in science, their answer might surprise you a bit. Before I give you my perspective on that initial question, let me preface it with a fictitious conversation that represents the general tone of the conversation between engineering and the c-suite that I’ve heard before. In this case, a c-suite executive’s bumped into an engineer and wants to know status of a development project.

Kevin the CEO: Oh…hey…Bob. Glad I ran into you. I wanted to talk to you about your project. What’s going on with that one issue?

Bob the Engineer: Well…there’s a problem with compatibility between the… *trails off*

*awkward silence follows as Bob the Engineer tries and fails to find a subtle way to say the executive isn’t smart enough to understand*

Bob the Engineer: …well…it’s complicated.

Kevin the CEO: I’ll catch up with your manager and get an update from them.

*Kevin the CEO walks away with a frown*

OK, so maybe I’ve embellished this story a little bit. But my primary point, based on my experience, is still valid. It’s that the issues around designing and engineering a product have been so complex, it has been difficult to relate them to other stakeholders in the development process, including those in the c-suite. When pressed on a busy schedule, the underlying tone from engineering to the rest of the organization often became it’s too complicated, you wouldn’t understand. That’s why other stakeholders have traditionally seen design and engineering activities as far more of an art and than science. To them, engineering has been like a black box. Market needs and requirements went in the front. Something magical and unknown happened in the middle. Product designs popped out the back. And for the most part, engineering was left alone.

But times are changing. In the last post on the relationship between the c-suite and the engineering executive, I wrote about the imperative the c-suite is placing on new product development to drive profitable growth in the economic recession. Because engineering is so core that that strategy, c-suite executives want to know what’s going on in the latest development projects. They aren’t content with the what we do engineering is really complicated, you wouldn’t understand answer. In other functional areas of the organization such as production, sourcing and others, there have been a variety of recent initiatives to gain visibility into operations for the sake of business continuity. For engineering,  this sort of requirement may seem yet another burden on top of everything else. However, it may not be such a bad thing. From a c-suite executive perspective, if engineering is such a black box and can operate in a relatively detached manner, they might ask themselves a scary question: why not outsource the entire engineering group? Insight into how complex engineering really is and getting them to personally invest in product development changes the tone of that conversation dramatically.

So far, we’ve outlined an important issue about providing visibility into engineering for the c-suite. How do you go about delivering it? Ultimately, the objective here is to make engineering a more transparent box instead of a black box. There’s lots of things that can be done there like defining the development process, identifying key metrics to track and measure and potentially investing in Business Analytics (wikipedia entry) and reporting for c-suites executives. But these are longer discussions deserving of their own future posts.

In the next few posts, we’ll start to talk about some of those approaches, but also, we’ll hear from some executives on how they manage their relationships with the leadership of their company.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

The CEO’s Recovery Directive to Engineering

This series of posts covers the relationship between the engineering executive and the c-suite executives in a manufacturer. This post sets the background for this set of relationships, specifically in the context of the economic recession of the past two years and the projected recovery of the next two. This background will be the basis for future discussions and posts on this set of relationships.

Wanted: Profitable Growth, Wrong Answer: Cost Controls, Right Answer: Innovative Products

Optimism is good thing, right? After the violent storm that was the economic recession, it seems that the waters have calmed and some stability has returned. And whether c-suite executives see real opportunities or they are being driven by corporate chairmen and boards, many manufacturers are forecasting profitable growth again for the new couple of years. Furthermore, many executives have thankfully realized that the cost control initiatives that might have saved the company the last two years won’t be what drives growth in the next two. In fact, new sales, which is frequently led by innovative products, is generally recognized as a repeatable path to growth. That’s where things come to you, the engineering executive. We could debate the feasibility or plausibility behind such objectives until we’re blue in the face, but all in all, the point is moot. The goal has been defined. How will you achieve it?

You can’t do more with less…You do less with less… (nod o’ thanks to @Andrew_Boyd for quote)

So how do you get down to business. First, take stock. The recession for most manufacturers caused a serious trainwreck in engineering organizations. You took your fair share of the layoffs when the CEO and CFO needed to get costs in line with revenues. But it went further than giving low performers the pink slip. It took away some of your mid-level performers too. Now might seem the most appropriate time to trot out the age-old adage do more with less. However if we’ve learned nothing else from the past two years, it’s that being more aggressive with schedules and workloads without any other changes doesn’t magically make the organization produce more. It just makes your people more frantic, more prone to mistakes and ultimately more likely to leave the company at the first chance. The more pragmatic answer, the one to garner more alignment with your haggard organization, is to work smarter rather than harder.

The following posts in this series will look at additional trends in the relationship between engineering and the c-suite as well as some new strategies and initiatives to work smarter, not harder.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.