Monday, May 18, 2015

Why Most Engineers Turn Into Managers, and Whether It's a Good Thing

The other day, a student asked me why gray-haired engineers are so rare.  He's been working as an engineer himself for a few years, and had noticed that most of his engineering colleagues are his age or at most ten or fifteen years older.  The vast majority of people with gray hair that he encounters in his job are managers.  At the time, I didn't do much more than confirm his observation from my own experience.  But he touched on an issue that anyone considering engineering as a career should know about.

Depending on the discipline, the purely technical side of engineering can be largely a young person's game.  If you're in a rapidly changing field such as semiconductor chip design, the entire life cycle of a product can often be measured in months.  Recent graduates with the latest skills are eagerly sought after, and those who do the actual programming and design have to be constantly learning volumes of new information simply to do their jobs.  On the other hand, a discipline such as civil engineering doesn't change as rapidly, and the experience of a decade or two of building-design work can make you even more valuable as a designer than a freshly minted but inexperienced engineer just out of college.

By and large, though, the tendency is for most engineers to move into management at some point in their careers.  Why is that?  I can think of at least two reasons. 

One is that as a person ages, acquiring and using great volumes of new information simply gets harder.  Some people can keep doing it better than others, but typically, doing cutting-edge technically intensive engineering in a rapidly changing field gets to be more than most middle-aged folks can deal with, at least without a lot of strain.

The other reason is, engineers do not take kindly to being bossed around by someone who does not have at least a basic grasp of the technology in question.  Many management decisions in engineering organizations involve technical issues, and a manager with a background in accounting or advertising is not often going to receive the respect needed when dealing directly with technical people.  Of course, as you go up the chain of command in most engineering organizations, you will find managers with little or no engineering background, and sometimes they do a fine job anyway.  But that is only because they have good middle managers under them who are former engineers, and who can translate and buffer the stuff coming down from the upper-management heights into terms that the engineering staff members can understand and deal with calmly. 

What if you go into engineering because you find that technical work is interesting in itself, and you have no desire whatsoever to take a management job?  That was my position when I started out in my first industrial position, some thirty-five years ago.  At the time, I was told that the large engineering organization I was joining had two promotion "ladders": a technical ladder and a management ladder.  If you wanted to stay in a hands-on engineering position, you could aspire to the technical titles that were, if I recall correctly, laid out in a little chart that paralleled the more commonly-known management rungs of group leader, section manager, department manager, and so on.  The chart gave me the impression that it was simply my choice as to which ladder I climbed, and I'd be just as well off going the technical route as I would be on the management route.

Well, yes and no.  I don't doubt that there were people in the organization who had climbed the technical ladder—I even met one of them.  But they were few and far between.  On the other hand, managers were everywhere, and it was pretty clear that, to state the obvious, the place was run by managers.  And the more people a manager managed, the more rewarding (in monetary terms) the management job was.  In retrospect, the dual-ladder chart was something that the company showed young engineers to give them the hope that staying in the technical side of engineering was not simply a dead-end job with no possibility of promotion.  But that was largely all it was—a hope, that I suspect relatively few engineers realized.

The cynical way of looking at this is to say that, in the term popularized by the animated cartoon "Despicable Me," engineers who do technical work are simply minions, hired only because the company can't do what it needs to do without them.  They are overhead, treated the same accounting-wise as the light bill, and anything the firm can do to minimize the overhead expense of hiring engineers is good, because that money can now go instead to the shareholders as profit.  And profit is what engineering firms are all about.

This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough.  Engineering can make the world a better place, and unquestionably has for billions of people around the globe.  To do good things, engineering organizations of any size require chains of authority in which the actual engineering work at lower levels is coordinated by a management structure, many members of which may be former engineers. 

Good engineering organizations also play positive roles in society beyond simply making a good return on monetary investments.  They also contribute to human well-being, and avoid harm to the extent possible.  That is the ethical side of the engineering equation, and it is the deeper reason to go into engineering, not simply because it provides you with a well-paying job.  Yes, managers are needed to make all this possible, and in the nature of things, most engineers who stay in the field at all eventually take on management roles.  Depending on the person, this can be a good outcome or a not-so-good outcome.  Some engineers turn out to be born managers, and others couldn't manage their way out of a paper bag.  But as long as we need engineers to do things, and as long as engineering is a complex activity that has to be done by large numbers of coordinated workers, we will need managers, and many of them will be former engineers. 

Sources:  Although the issue of engineers going into management was not their focus, the sociologists Diane E. Bailey and Paul M. Leonardi did an extensive study of three types of engineering organizations—electronic engineering, civil engineering, and automotive engineering—and some of what I wrote above was inspired by their book Technology Choices (MIT Press, 2015).  The career path of technical engineer to manager (and out of engineering altogether) was described well by the self-taught engineer John Robison in his memoir Look Me In the Eye:  My Life with Asperger's (Three Rivers Press paperback edition, 2008).

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