Begin Again – a Retrospective

I decided to wrap up my 39 years in engineering this month. It turns out it was not too hard of a decision to make. Financially, I’m able to support myself although that wasn’t the main reason I left.

Engineering management has changed. You would expect some evolution to occur over four decades. Technology has evolved and with it the incorporation of technology into the engineer’s life would cause a change. How we do our job, the availability of new tools to use in our job, freedom to create and innovate, but not so fast.

Working within the constraints of a corporate structure doesn’t always bring that freedom of thought and creativity. The corporation, or any business for that matter, is in the business of making money, adding value for its shareholders, paying its bills and salaries. A corporation should be in the business of recognizing its greatest resource is its employees. And to that end, provides its employees with benefits and salaries that encourage long-term loyalty and devotion and opportunities for the employees to contribute to the longevity of the business.

What happens when corporations care more about the shareholder value, the stock options, and the cost control? What happens to engineering creativity, quality of design and safety?

When I began my career in the late 1970s, along with the normal wide-eyed innocence of planning to make my mark, I was on my own for the first time. I was determined to make my new-found independence work. The first twenty years of my career were spent with companies who provided outlets for creativity, who encouraged teamwork and who cared about products that not only enhanced shareholder value, but products that improved the lives of customers. There was a willingness to spend the capital necessary to produce a product that was both safe and high quality.

The end of the 1990s I noticed a shift. Suddenly CEO and executive pay went up and up and up. The term ‘shareholder value’ made its way into our yearly goals. We were expected to provide products that increased shareholder value. Now I’m no expert on corporate management by a long shot. But it seems the companies lost the bubble regarding their greatest resource and with it engineering suffered and continues to suffer.

The focus on value has meant a decline in engineering quality and innovation. It’s all about the money now. Corporations are run by executives with financial backgrounds, barely scraping the surface of technical expertise. Put out the product in the fastest way possible. Fix it later at a much higher cost, I might add.

I get that the military needs are emergent and the way war is currently run with entities for which there are no ‘rules of war’ that there is a need to get updated product to the field in the most expeditious manner. The lives of our service men and women depend on us to get the job done.

I get that the consumer has become a machine with very high expectations for fast service, fast delivery, with an attention span of less than five seconds to hook them. Watch a movie from the 1950s and compare it to the latest ‘hit’ in the theaters. Movies used to slowly evolve, character definition and plot development would take as much as 30 minutes. Now the rule is to get the viewer hooked within 10 minutes or risk the movie being a flop.

My cousin swears this downfall happened with the advent of one-hour photo development and I agree. Back in the day we took our film to be processed with an expectation that we wouldn’t see our beloved prints for a week. Enter the dawn of one-hour photo processing. Drop it off at a kiosk in the parking lot of a strip mall, do your errands and in one hour pick up your prints. Of course now there is instant gratification with the multitude and quality of handheld digital cameras and social media.

In this new rush, we’ve lost the time and the desire to create and innovate. We no longer have time to develop an idea, to thoroughly vet it to determine pros and cons and potentially have to start all over. I’ve seen bad ideas and implementations proliferate into eternity because ‘we don’t have the money to update it’. Turns out we have one shot and that one shot design can carry into eternity.

Not all corporations disallow creativity. Certainly the technology companies are able to produce innovative products on a regular basis. It’s their lifeline to keep up with a consumer who is bored after the latest thing is a month old or less. Rotating employees maintains creativity for these companies. I have to wonder how long one stays with these companies. Either they work a project to completion and then look for the next best thing even if it means leaving the company or the company looks at them as a one-shot creative source and leaves them on the curb after they have performed.

Benefits aside, for companies to keep what is called ‘tribal knowledge’ they have to feed the engineering mind. Engineers have an innate need to explore, to question, to discover and to create.

The company I retired from started facility upgrades to attract and hopefully retain the younger employees providing a ‘cool place’ to congregate. These lounges had couches and comfortable chairs, Keurig machines, and large monitors in which to plug in your laptop to co-create with your peers. Interesting to note they weren’t used that much from what I could tell. It’s much simpler to email or instant message in seclusion.

Could it be the tasking was divided in such a way that coordination and feedback weren’t seen as a need to get the job done? Schedules forced a lot of the lack of teamwork. Maybe by starting as a team when assignments were received would result in a continuation of the teamwork?

There is a thought also that ‘we can always fix it later’. Yea, there’s an idea. Later either never comes or it’s at the expense of the schedule and quality and the employee. Overtime is always an option, isn’t it?

During a proposal phase for one project, the engineers spent some time, and a lot of proposal money, defining a preliminary design. This project was going to be awarded to us, there was no question; it’s what they call sole sourced. We overspent the proposal budget but produced a great product in the end. Great products are defined by the lack of rework and issues the customer identifies after the fact. The program manager scolded us for overrunning her budget. She totally missed the point and even stated we would not do that again.

So what is it they want? A half-assed product that is under budget? I hope not, but that’s what comes across most of the time.

What’s a solution? What provides the engineer with their creativity fix, provides shareholder value, and produces a quality product? Is it possible to intertwine all of these things? We used to. Unfortunately, I think the shareholders are demanding more financial spoils. It’s hard to keep an even keel when one of the entities wants more than their share. And as corporations increase the number of executives who each is then vested in stock options and become shareholders themselves, it’s not hard to see how the creativity and/or product quality suffer.

I think a look back to how business was done 20 years ago is in order. Unfortunately I don’t believe that’s going to happen because there is no impetus as long as a company is making money.

Let’s say the company is struggling with making money. OK, reduce employee benefits. Remove pensions, remove retiree medical, increase health insurance premiums, and lay off the most senior and therefore the most expensive salaried employees. Done! Wait, what?

I think it starts with recognizing what the most important resource is to a company.

I elected to retire because I grew tired of the struggle to engage creatively. I elected to chart a new course for my life that challenges me to create and innovate. I’m excited to jump onto a new road of exploration and discovery.

Those are my thoughts; I encourage you to tell me your side. New engineers: how do feel about being able to be creative at your job? Experienced engineers: do you feel you’ve lost the battle to maintain relevancy? Managers and executives: do you recognize the need for engineers to have some creative freedom?


About stemzandroses

I'm an engineer and writer with a built-in need to share my nearly 40 years of experience working in a male-dominated field with the rest of the world.
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2 Responses to Begin Again – a Retrospective

  1. Letty Watt says:

    I find your story and thoughts hold true to many of the changes that we see in our lives, industry, cities, and schools. Your analogy of the shift in our thinking and productive to the one-hour photo very well describes the new era we have entered.

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