Total concept engineering – executive leadership

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

Engineers recognize that leadership involves many, many things beyond just technical details. But, especially in engineering companies, engineers who advance to executive leadership can make a big difference. Here are my suggestion, plus some good advice from the gurus who were engineers themselves.

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Check out, September 2004

Engineers recognize that leadership involves many, many things beyond just technical details. Perhaps they feel that they should stick with what they know rather than branch off into the grey goop of people interface. But, especially in engineering companies, engineers who advance to executive leadership can make a big difference.

Did you know that very few company CEOs are engineers? Even in technology companies the top gun is typically a Marketing person, followed (in order of probability) by Finance, then Sales, then Operations (manufacturing) and then Engineering. I'm an engineer, so I feel I can discuss these things frankly and directly, for and about engineers.

The engineer's image

After decades of leadership which goes far beyond software and technology, most people still see Bill Gates as a “nerd”. Sure, he may have generated a lot of respect and even admiration for the reclusive “geek” who spends most of his spare time peering into computer screens and clicking at keyboards. But, he’s still considered a techno weirdo.

Engineering has an image problem. Surveys show that 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.

There are virtually NO engineers in politics. Somehow, engineers feel that cannot have any big impact, and so they shun the political scene. And so, even in this technology driven age, important things like science, energy and education are abandoned to lawyers who dominate the political scene.

Leadership starts inside your self

Early in my career as an engineer, I was as frustrated at the lack of leadership around me. Most people seemed happy to be part of success, but did not take responsibility when things went wrong. Then I realized that, directly or indirectly, I was part of the problem. Instead of kicking back to blame others, I started to find ways to become part of the solution. I started taking responsibility (another word for blame) – and got promoted. I discovered the truism, "I looked for a leader, and found myself!"

Engineering is a detail-orientated job. The design of products, especially those that are manufactured in high volume, entails a host of details that must be integrated. And so engineers are usually narrowly focused, trusting in the old adage, “build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door!”

The truth is that the best mousetrap does not sell itself. It has to be designed for volume production, produced in volume, at good margins, marketed to the public so that everyone knows it’s available, distributed to every possible sales outlet, returns collected and a healthy profit generated. Make sure that all is done, and you’re a good engineer.

Guru Advice

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.

To many engineers, Hewlett Packard is the ultimate engineering company. It was started by two engineers, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard in the proverbial garage. Seeking guidance from the gurus, I made the pilgrimage to HP. I simply telephoned, was a little persistent ("Why do you want to see Mr. Hewlett?" barked the dogs) and found it remarkably easy to connect with the big guy himself, "Sure, when would you like to come?"

I tell you, this visit with Bill Hewlett made a big difference in my life. We sat and talked like two engineers. I rattled off my questions: When did HP start? What was their first product? How did Hewlett and Packard share responsibilities? When did they hire their first Accountant? Bill Hewlett ("Call me Bill.") put his feet up on a coffee-table and answered like a friend.

I ended up asking, "Bill, what is your key advice?"

His response, "Understand the numbers. Engineers forget things like margins and profit. If you don’t control those things, someone else will."

Dave Packard walked in, and Bill introduced me as if I was a close friend, "Jim wants to start his own company, and he’s picking our brains today."

Dave Packard was a big guy. He didn’t sit, but smiled, "OK, shoot..."

I was quick, "Mr. Packard..." I started (and he interrupted, "Call me Dave."). "Dave, what is your advice for an engineer who wants to start his own company?"

Dave Packard’s response was immediate, "People. Without good people you have nothing!

I floated away from Palo Alto, California on a carpet of entrepreneurial dreams. I looked for leadership, and found myself.

Broaden your perspectives

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 are developed through "total concept engineering". Success demands a much broader perspective, 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 be constantly re-educating yourself in other disciplines. If you’re working for a good company, they will encourage you to move to other departments, to help give you a broader perspective. If they don’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 were based on ideas that came from customers! When those products were introduced, those same customers felt a sense of involvement, and they’d buy.

After a stint 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.

Go talk with Accounting. They’ll be surprised, but should be pleased that an engineer is actually asking about things like margins and overhead. Study your company’s balance sheet – if it’s a publicly-held company, you should have easy access – if it’s not, it wouldn’t hurt to ask.

Keep moving, to make sure you re-invent yourself and your business on a daily basis. Finally, in the word of Andy Grove (former Intel chief, himself an engineer), "Only the paranoid survive". Hey! When you understand that statement, you’re ready to lead...

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Copyright 2003 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA