21 Survival Tactics Geared to Engineers & Their Managers

Engineers and technical managers are realizing that it's part of their job to build a better technical self, not only just to create a better product. "Itís up to you, not your management, to ensure that you build up your skills and capabilities," reinforces Ray Weiss (The Technical Career Navigator, Prentice Hall). Technical professionals can no longer afford to let their managers, their companies, and fate determine their futures, he asserts. "You can survive, even thrive, in this new technical world, but thereís a price," he warns. Most engineers went into technical careers because they preferred to deal with things and concepts rather than people problems. "But in todayís superheated work environments, solving technical problems may not be enough."

In his new book, Weiss, a former practicing engineer and technical manager, offers some tough, irreverent, and sometimes, offbeat advice, insights and cures for professional career self-management. Nevertheless, each carries a message geared to engineers and technical managers who want to survive and advance in this new corporate environment. The following is a small sampling from the 138 keys that "may make a critical difference" in one's career decision making.

ATTACK MEMOS Donít write attack memos. Nothing destroys a working environment faster than interchanges of memos criticizing people or organizations. If you do write such a memo, keep it on a high level and keep it clean. Attack a problem, not a person, and present a solution. Don't get personal. TT: If you have to criticize somebody, stick to facts. Don't get personal but this does not mean that you should not let your feeling known.

One manager stopped attack memos with a simple tactic. The individual writing a memo at-tacking someone or a group wound up in the managerís office, reading it face-to-face to the criticized party. While this rule discourages frivolous attack memos, it also insures that legitimate concerns get immediate, face-to- face attention.

BAD ASSUMPTIONS Always check initial assumptions. Most often big design problems are caused by incorrect assumptions made in the early design stages. Go back over the original specs and see if an arbitrarily bounded solution has been created, if unnecessary complexity has been added. Reduce damage from implicit assumptions in design by listing the assumptions made and their requirements. Supplement that list with another that details the counter-assumptions, the things that are not true, that have been eliminated from the design specs.
TT: I was told once that when you ASSUME, you are making an ASS of U and ME.

CONCURRENT ENGINEERING This is the latest fad which companies increasingly count on to speed development cycles. There is, however, a danger in this tactic if management tailors its concurrent engineering tools to match its organizational structure. The reason: Most companies really have two structures; a formal one defined by organization charts and tables and the informal one that reflects the paths people follow to get things done. If tools are built that mirror the official organization structure and that structure doesnít parallel the working one, they may inadvertently build gross inefficiencies into the concurrent engineering setup.
TT; this is called working the (informal) system. You can become more effective if you know whom to ask and how to ask.

DESIGN REVIEWS The primary benefit of most design reviews is not that managers, technical gurus, or other team members pass or fail a design. The real benefit is to let the designer see the design from another, more critical viewpoint, and consequently find critical errors. Most errors are found not by the reviewers, but by the designer under review. Donít be afraid of reviews, theyíre a powerful tool to ensure a correct design.
TT: make sure that you give reviewers plenty of time to go over the material prior to the formal review. Also don't have a room of "yes" people. Try to get at least one "hard nose". If he/she passes your design, you can be more confident that it will do the job. Remember it is not the design that counts, it is the final product!

EXPECTING TOO MUCH Donít become alienated from your organization because it is imperfect. Just about every technical professional suffers from unrealistic expectations. When things donít work, shrug it off and do what you can. But when things do work, celebrate.

FEAR You canít work effectively under a regime of fear. If you are afraid to take chances, then you canít take the steps needed for a good design or a product to succeed. Managers who run a regime based on fear make a serious mistake. Folks who are afraid will not be effective. The others, who are not afraid, will not be driven by scare talk.

GEARING UP The most successful companies are on their way to becoming meritocracies, places where the best people are given leeway to produce. As company hierarchies flatten, they are also gearing up to make use of their best people. Relying on the mediocre has led to less than stellar products, plodding product development, and stifling environments. Organizations can no longer tolerate the built-in fat and inertia that enables average management, run-of- the-mill engineers, and middling programmers to succeed.

HIRING Hire for personality and for drive first, for technical skills second. In interviewing candidates, look for curiosity and increasing technical skill levels. The skills in demand today may not last for tomorrow. Long-term employees can probably grow in skills and can tackle a range of problems. Look for engineers who are doers and take responsibility and finish projects. Beware of applicants who talk of helping or aiding projects. Ask for peer and management references.
TT: the short term need versus long term need is a very hard one!

INVEST 30 MINUTES A DAY Itís easy to get caught up in the daily struggle, to focus on chopping your way through the design jungle to make way for your design. Pace yourself. Make room for a half-hour, an hour a day. Set time aside to keep technically current, to read technical journals and to explore other technologies. Exploring other technical areas or monitoring the technical press is not a waste of time. It may give you an added edge for future work and technical directions.
TT: if you do not invest you become obsolete and companies nowadays have no use for obsolete engineers/scientists.

KNOW WHEN TO STOP One of the hardest things to do is to admit when weíre in over our heads, to recognize a bad technical start or direction, or to acknowledge a bad product idea. Learn to monitor your progress, and that of a project or technical direction. Good senior engineers know when to stop and call for a new project, that comes from experience (or other failures). Back off now and then and try to get an overview of how well your project and individual work are going. Donít be afraid to ask for help or a design review. Donít be afraid to retrench and back up for a better solution. Remember, it is the final result, the product, that counts, not how you got there.

LATERAL THINKING Itís easy to paint yourself into a solution corner, to be trapped, endlessly trying and retrying solutions that donít work. One way out is to go at your problem in different ways or directions. Lateral thinking says: stop, break the causal chain, go at the problem from another angle or a different tack. Break up that pattern; suspend judgment; free up your mind and try combinations outside the fixed sequence.

MISTAKES The best thing to do with a mistake is to admit it; fix whatever can be fixed; then go on with what has to be done. Effective people make mistakes, thatís the price of doing things. One way to limit mistakes is to have your work reviewed, either in design reviews or by your own private critic. The more people in place to catch and correct errors, the better off you are. Encourage subordinates, colleagues, and administrative people to find and fix any mistakes you make.

NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH Good managers never lie. But theyíve learned to manage without having to tell the whole truth. Instead, they tell partial truths. The tactic sounds appalling, but it is not. Managers act as a filter, scrubbing out the worst before passing information on to their troops. The question is when does a manager stop, when do their subordinates need the unvarnished truth. Managers need to listen to their own bodies: when such filtering causes unbearable tension, thatís the bodyís way of saying that itís time to tell the straight dope.
TT: this also applies to engineers. Don't ever lie!

OBSTACLE COURSE To most technical people, itís a basic act of faith that their organizations use logic and rational analysis to select new ideas and products. Most companies, in fact, employ a hidden mechanism, an internal obstacle course to winnow out unsuitable proposals. These obstacles have naturally evolved to fulfill a need, and many top managers even may not be aware of the existence of such a winnowing mechanism. If you have a potential winner of an idea for a technology, a new methodology or a product, be prepared to fight for it or just forget the whole deal.
TT: this is the idea of a product champion. Don't be discouraged if your idea is not accepted. If you are really committed to it, find another sponsor inside or outside of the organization/company.

PROMOTIONS ARE NOT JUST REWARDS Management uses promotions to advance those who display potential to tackle the next level of bigger, tougher problems. So if you want to move ahead, do spectacular work. But also aim for the next set of higher level design or management problems, you have to show the capability for doing more and handling tougher tasks.

REVIEWING SUBORDINATES (advice for a first-time manager). If youíre a first-time manager this may help you keep your priorities straight, especially when it comes to salary reviews for subordinates. Donít feel constrained by company guidelines. Be a bit generous to your people; it pays to violate a few rules on the side of the angels, not the accountants. If you can motivate your people, if they believe youíre on their side, if they deliver, then they will make your reputation. If you canít motivate them and get them to perform, they can sink you.

SACRIFICE Managers, especially high-level ones, serve another, special function. They are the ultimate sacrifice, a pawn to get company-wide attention. Managers also serve a symbolic role, as a quasi head-of-state. And sometimes, for the good of the state, their heads will roll as a symbolic sacrifice. Many managers donít recognize this part of their job. Itís a surprise for them to d iscover that they're expendable precisely because they are so prominent. They are hired not only to lead, but also to serve as a convenient scapegoat.
TT: Ummm!-(((

TALK If you're an engineer and management discovers that you can talk to people and make sense, and that you can also manage or sell, then you are on your way out of technical design. Anyone who combines technical capability with people skills will find themselves quickly dragooned up into management, product management, sales, or marketing. Be prepared for a fight if you want to stay in design.
TT: This is the old concept of promoting somebody until he/she reaches his/her level of incompetence! In the 90's we should do what we like not necessarily what the company likes. With dual career ladders now in use at most companies, promotion to management does not means better pay. If you like engineering stick to it and it may pay more in the long term.

USE YOUR BOSS Your manager succeeds if you succeed, thatís a fact of technical life. If you get things done, your boss will be glad to help you to be more effective. Use your boss to get you the resources that you need to get the job done. After all, your boss is the best resource you have.

VANISHING MANAGER These days technical professionals are taking on more of what used to be managementís role. For better or worse, they are on their way toward self-management. Being your own mini-manager is a major consequence of todayís move toward flattened organizations. In essence, engineers now have the responsibility to make key decisions and the accountability for results. More self-management doesnít necessarily mean that youíll be left to stew in a solitary world of isolation and your own mistakes. Band together with team members and collectively address many problems previously handled by a manager. Management is still there to provide access to company resources, to help out as needed, to review projects, and to reward or punish behavior.

WHEN YOU ARE ONE I'LL MAKE YOU ONE Many engineers wait patiently for management to anoint them as managers before theyí11 make the effort to act as a manager. It'11 be a long time, if ever, before they are ever selected for management. Act like a manager. Take responsibility and produce results. Take the initiative. The best technical managers got into management not because of ego, but because they wanted to get things done. They recognized the need to work at a higher level to be technically effective. Also, many felt a strong sense of obligation toward their fellow workers and projects. They took the appropriate action long before they were promoted into management.
TT: don't be shy to let the right manager knows of your aspirations!

YOU'RE WORKING FOR YOURSELF Youíre not working for your boss; your department; division or company. Youíre working for yourself. Itís your career thatís at stake, and everything that you do or donít do will contribute or detract from your professional reputation. You are a technical professional and have a commitment toward professional excellence. Whatís good for you professionally should also be good for your employer. So do what is professionally called for, no less.

This page is maintained by VACETS.