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Companies That Don't Understand Engineers Don't Respect Engineers 371

Posted by Soulskill
from the if-you-aren't-part-of-the-solution,-you're-part-of-the-preciptate dept.
An anonymous reader writes Following up on a recent experiment into the status of software engineers versus managers, Jon Evans writes that the easiest way to find out which companies don't respect their engineers is to learn which companies simply don't understand them. "Engineers are treated as less-than-equal because we are often viewed as idiot savants. We may speak the magic language of machines, the thinking goes, but we aren't business people, so we aren't qualified to make the most important decisions. ... Whereas in fact any engineer worth her salt will tell you that she makes business decisions daily–albeit on the micro not macro level–because she has to in order to get the job done. Exactly how long should this database field be? And of what datatype? How and where should it be validated? How do we handle all of the edge cases? These are in fact business decisions, and we make them, because we're at the proverbial coal face, and it would take forever to run every single one of them by the product people and sometimes they wouldn't even understand the technical factors involved. ... It might have made some sense to treat them as separate-but-slightly-inferior when technology was not at the heart of almost every business, but not any more."
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Companies That Don't Understand Engineers Don't Respect Engineers

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  • by wisnoskij (1206448) on Sunday August 17, 2014 @07:41AM (#47688299) Homepage

    Exactly how long should this database field be? And of what datatype? How and where should it be validated? How do we handle all of the edge cases?

    That is not a business decision, that is a technical decision where you try to come up with the most universal and correct to spec answer you can. You are not shaping the business with this decision, you are trying to shape your solution to the business.

  • Machismo... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 17, 2014 @07:43AM (#47688305)

    I think this has a lot more to do with the machismo of business people than anything else. The suits don't have a lick of understanding of what the engineers actually do--sure, they understand the iPhone once it rolls off the lines, but up to that point, what engineers do is basically a bunch of technovoodoo magic to them. Since lots of businessmen are macho, domineering types (especially in large, competitive companies), the concept of having subordinates who are doing things far beyond their understanding is not one they like. In turn, the business people feel the need to assert how hard whatever it is they do--"oh, you wouldn't understand because business is sooo much more complicated than rocket science"--and elevate the complexity and importance of their own job beyond that of the lowly engineers.

    I don't think it's lack of "understanding the engineers." I think it's lack of understanding the engineering and feeling uncomfortable about it.

  • by cellocgw (617879) <cellocgwNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Sunday August 17, 2014 @07:48AM (#47688323) Journal

    /. may be a software-centric site, but those of us in mechanical, electrical, optical, materials, and other branches of engineering are in the same basic position. But sadly, even in businesses which promote engineers into senior roles end up respecting people primarily on the basis of how many direct reports (that's the term for peons whose salaries they determine) they control. Until you're able to rate people by the quality/quantity of output regardless of altitude in the org chart, this problem will continue.

  • That seems fair (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pla (258480) on Sunday August 17, 2014 @08:05AM (#47688377) Journal
    That seems fair (at least at face value), given that engineers tend to hold business weenies in complete contempt.

    We do, however, have both a power and a knowledge imbalance in the situation. We have a power imbalance in that those business weenies can fire me, but I can't fire them; and we have a knowledge imbalance in that many engineers do know the business side of things. I can work up a set of financial statements as well as the weenies; I can perform a ratio analysis better than the weenies, because unlike them, I "know" what the numbers mean beyond a cut-and-paste job in Excel; I can analyze the company's capitalization structure and consider the impact on near-term cash flows right up there with the best of the weenies.

    Now, you might fairly point out that I've mostly describe accountancy, not "business"... But the knowledge imbalance gets worse when we get into actual strategic planning, market analysis, and consideration of macroeconomic factors - At least many of the weenies have significant exposure to accounting, sometimes even a related undergrad degree. For the harder material, they just can't grasp even the basics of supply/demand curves without a solid math background (in taking my MBA, I found one particular economics class hilarious; we spent more than half of the semester learning a set of related equations for (for example) forecasting optimal production levels, that all just took the derivative of the same damn underlying equation from different perspectives. And that counted as one of the "killer" classes in a goddamned graduate-level degree?

    Sadly, though, business weenies do have exactly one trait that engineers lack - Smarm. And in this sick sad world, that will get you further than any level of mastery of any legitimate domain of knowledge.
  • by MindPrison (864299) on Sunday August 17, 2014 @08:15AM (#47688407) Journal
    This is actually a very touchy subject. The Engineers have felt it for years, but this applies to SO much more in business.

    How many times haven't you been seen as the "useful idiot" every time someone need something technical fixed? This is something I've lived with and experienced since I was a kid (we're talking 30+ years here), and I wasn't even the geeky one. But it seems like every manager, every company executive and even just everyday people think they're somewhat "superior" because they make money on your kindness and professionalism.

    I even had friends like that for years, sure...when something breaks, they'll come to me to get it fixed, and expect not to pay for it. But when I needed something, then they where nowhere to be seen. I made millions for one of my bosses back in the Commodore heydays when I literally was the "driving" motor of his entire store chain, I got people together, computer-clubs, repaired the computers etc. One could always argue that I was the IDIOT for not being business savvy enough to charge more, but they are just better at business than fixing things. When I left, his business went to ruins within 2 years, he thought he did it all by himself because he was such a smart businessman. That's the worst part...these company directors wouldn't know good people, and they always get high on "their" own success. And eventually fail.

    How many times haven't you seen bosses walk away with HUGE fat bonuses, and all they basically do is talk. You do all the work anyway. Small minds think small, and only see the carrot dangling in front of their face. Intelligent bosses actually think ahead and invest in great minds. The companies that have the biggest successes - are those who appreciate their workers and the incredible minds behind it all. The best company executive in the world, praises his coworkers where credit is due.
  • by Shoten (260439) on Sunday August 17, 2014 @08:21AM (#47688425)

    /. may be a software-centric site, but those of us in mechanical, electrical, optical, materials, and other branches of engineering are in the same basic position. But sadly, even in businesses which promote engineers into senior roles end up respecting people primarily on the basis of how many direct reports (that's the term for peons whose salaries they determine) they control. Until you're able to rate people by the quality/quantity of output regardless of altitude in the org chart, this problem will continue.

    Indeed; the underlying basis of the article could really match almost any profession. Accountants, HR personnel, programmers, even admin assistants. Not understanding the role of a job invariably means not understanding its challenges or the value it brings. So what? This is not news. Hell, I've seen companies where they didn't understand the value of managers...and thus, promoted/hired people into such roles who had no skill at doing their jobs.

  • Re:"Her" Is Forced (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 17, 2014 @08:34AM (#47688461)
    Female perspective perspective is diversity. Female domination is equity. You should report to the nearest re-education camp. It would be very disappointing if you turned violent and we would need to be put you down.
  • Re:It's simple (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 17, 2014 @08:52AM (#47688541)

    A related point: In my experience, managers who hung on to their engineering responsibilities as well as took on a management role were crappy managers. Those engineers who took on management full time were much, much better at it.

  • by Mr D from 63 (3395377) on Sunday August 17, 2014 @09:29AM (#47688733)
    Its not about preconceptions based on attire. Its about perceptions based on the wisdom of choosing ones attire that puts the business environment ahead of one's personal need to express himself through dress. That is a statement in itself. Some get it, others don't. The accepted dress in most companies today is much more casual and varied than it was even 10 years ago. It will continue to evolve. Having the capacity to know where the standards of the day are, and what may be pushing the limits, is one that you can demonstrate through your choice of dress. Trying to prove something is fine, just don't blame others for the result it brings. Business leaders don't like complainers.
  • Re:Database? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Zero__Kelvin (151819) on Sunday August 17, 2014 @09:38AM (#47688781) Homepage
    Of course they do. Real Engineers design up front, before implementing. We understand the implications of our decisions. We optimize. We know that there are many orthogonal factors to consider in doing this. Shoud we optimize with an emphasis size or speed? If we optimize for size, how will that decision effect scalability and the ability to add functionality we may not have originally considered, or that the original design specification didn't call for?

    Anybody who thinks that Engineers don't have a major impact on the entire business model have never worked in the real world, or have no idea the impact we have. "Why do we do thing X even though it no longer makes sense? ... because they system won't work if we don't, and it would cost too much and be too risky too change it!.
  • Re:Database? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 17, 2014 @09:53AM (#47688871)

    Yeah, like calculate the square root of -1!

    seriously though, the summery is tagged as IT, but this is true of all engineering branches.
    it's what happens when you hire engineers to get things done, but bean counters to manage them.

  • by GeorgieBoy (6120) on Sunday August 17, 2014 @10:10AM (#47688981) Homepage
    Sorry, I only take comments like this seriously when written by someone with an actual user account, instead of an AC. Then they're being "professional" and standing by their words. In all seriousness, I have experienced virtually no hipsterism in engineering culture over the course of 2 decades in the industry. Those that were about style over substance usually didn't even make it through getting their engineering degree. If you look at computer languages through the lens of "C++ is a proven technology" then you're ignoring other advances that make other solutions more appropriate. This comes from a place of not-understanding, rather than something being objectively better for any task. I started as a C++ developer for the first half of my career, and while I still occasionally maintain some older C++ software, most innovative work is done in modern languages now. Also, have you ever heard of a buffer overflow? There are lots of good reasons not to write certain things in C++, one of them being that it's easy to make a mistake and create a security nightmare. You might have heard of this when watching "business news".
  • by AnotherBlackHat (265897) on Sunday August 17, 2014 @10:29AM (#47689089) Homepage

    Valuing people by their number of direct or indirect reports makes a lot of sense. If I am one of a group of ten people and I'm 20% more productive than the others, my extra contribution only adds about 2% to the total. If I am a good manager my staff might be 5% more productive than an average manager's.

    If you're good you should be in charge of more people, but being in charge of more people doesn't make you good.
    Or to put it another way, just because a position is important doesn't mean the person in the position is.

  • Re:Machismo... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Austerity Empowers (669817) on Sunday August 17, 2014 @10:44AM (#47689157)

    Since lots of businessmen are macho, domineering types

    Who usually make decisions based on "gut feelings" and aren't used to people calling them on it because they're making such decisions on things that can't be weighed and measured very well. They don't know what to make of people who make decisions on things that have some absolutism involved, and frequently will not make "gut decisions" when the data is missing and they are asked to.

  • by houghi (78078) on Sunday August 17, 2014 @11:04AM (#47689251)

    Why would engineers be any different? Do you think they appriciate the rest of the staff?

    You are there because they can not do without you. If they think they can do without you (or without your function) they will fire you. That goes for EVERY job in the company, including the CEO.

    The difference is that for some jobs it is very hard to change on short notice. Sales can push a few deals so they will make the new requirements or hold them back so they will have it easier for next years budget.

    So they can react to the question of 'increase profit by X percent for the next 3 months'. There is no such thing for e.g. IT without cutting in projects/jobs. (Sure there are some ways to do it)

    The real issue is that the majority of companies are in it for the money, so if you want to be understood, you need to speak the language of money. In companies that means budgets. This means when you take a decision in your job like "how should I set up this database" they do not care as long as you can provide the information on cost and profit both short, middle and long term and then they will decide what you should do.

    If your datafield for the year still has 2 digits, why should I make it 4? Show me the outcome in $ and then we will see if we do it or not. THAT is taking a business decision, not if it is technically the best solution. Sometimes the technically worst decision is best for business.

    I have seen (easy) technicaly solutions overturned time and time again. One time I asked for a soltion and they told me it was 3.000EUR as quoted by Cisco. A while later I told them I had a solution for a problem and would they OK it if I did it for 100 EUR. I never detailed that it was the same problem that had been denied for several years. Without blinking they said yes and looked if I was stoopid because I could spend 250 EUR per month on anything I wanted.
    Bought two hubs and solved the issue.

    Lesson: They must not talk your language. They must not understand you. You must understand them.

  • by trout007 (975317) on Sunday August 17, 2014 @11:48AM (#47689507)

    In the end it is always the customer that pays the bills. If you are selling things to technical people then the engineers may have a better grasp on what the customer wants. I've been in customer meetings where we were selling a machine to the customer and both management didn't really understand the requirements. When I talked with the manufacturing engineer we both understood each other and were able to agree upon some real requirements that could be verified. In this cage management wasn't helping. Luckily they understood this and allowed the technical people to work together.

    In other cases when I worked for a company that sold services to the government I had to learn to relize the business wasn't about doing a great job. They have the contract so the business goal was to milk the government as much as possible. This means doing exactly what you were contracted to do even if it wasn't technically correct.

  • by mc6809e (214243) on Sunday August 17, 2014 @12:05PM (#47689583)

    Many engineers don't understand that business people are engineers of a sort, too.

    What we all should do is realize that we're all part of a team that can't work without the participation of everyone. Mutual respect is key.

    Many skills are needed if a firm is to survive.

  • Re:Machismo... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by digsbo (1292334) on Sunday August 17, 2014 @12:54PM (#47689801)

    They don't know what to make of people who make decisions on things that have some absolutism involved, and frequently will not make "gut decisions" when the data is missing and they are asked to.

    That's incredibly insightful. I never saw it that way before. Nonetheless, as an engineer, I've had to prove beyond any doubt that a certain problem existed to get business people to move on it. So I think there's another layer there: If the evidence goes against the businessperson's gut, it needs to be 100% iron-clad.

Lo! Men have become the tool of their tools. -- Henry David Thoreau

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