23 June 2004
Leadership and the engineer
By Jim Pinto
Engineering has an image problem. Surveys show the public is not really aware of what engineers do, beyond being involved in construction of machines and buildings. School students tend to think of engineering as being a job concerned with objects and gadgets rather than people. And you know what—those ideas start with engineers themselves. That's their self-image. And that's why few engineers become leaders.
Engineering is a detail-oriented job. The design of products, especially those manufactured in high volume, entails a host of details that an engineer must constantly study, tweak, and then integrate. So that means engineers are usually narrowly focused, trusting in the old adage, "build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door."
However, it takes more than good engineering to develop good products. I remember the advice John Fluke (founder of the instrument company Fluke, now part of Danaher) gave me, "Good people make good products which make a good profit." The product has to sell (customers have to need it and buy it) at a good price (customers must prefer it over other alternatives), at good profit margins (produced at sufficiently low cost), with good quality.
Too often, a good engineer will want to tweak a product to provide additional features and functions, without any view of what the customer really needs. "I can make it do this, at pennies on the dollar." But, too many bells and whistles may simply confuse the customer.
In engineering parlance, successful products come about through "total concept engineering." Success demands a much broader perspective and multiple skills—marketing, sales, operations, finance, etc.
If you are a technician, or engineer, and want to move ahead in your management career, you need to constantly reeducate yourself in other disciplines. If you're working for a good company, it will encourage you to move to other departments, to help give you a broader perspective. If the company doesn't allow it, you're in the wrong company—find another employer.
Move to product applications to talk with customers about how they are using your company's products. Go out with sales people to talk with customers and find out what they are doing with current products. Go find out what improvements customers want—it's simple, ask them. Most customers are quite happy to tell you about their pet peeves. Some of the best products I ever designed did not originate in the lab—they came from ideas from customers. When those products hit the market, those same customers felt a sense of involvement, and they bought.
After some time in sales, move to marketing. Start writing leaflets and application notes. Do some product-comparison analyses to find out how your products stand up to the competition.
When you're ready, start rooting around in manufacturing to investigate costs, overheads, and margins. Do a stint in the stockroom, to find out what's on the shelves.
Keep moving, to make sure you reinvent yourself and your business on a daily basis. Finally, in the words of Andy Grove (former Intel chief, himself an engineer), "Only the paranoid survive." When you understand that statement, you're ready to lead.
- IEEE – Leadership . . . or Something Like It
- Tomorrow's Engineer: Leadership Lessons
- Andy Grove's book – Only the Paranoid Survive
Behind the byline
Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and founder of San Diego–based Action Instruments. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or view his writings at www.JimPinto.com . Read excerpts from his book Automation Unplugged at www.jimpinto.com/writings/unplugged.html.
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