Monday, January 23, 2012

Rockin’ to the Encore

Mary was a “mover” in her engineering department.  Though she had only been with the company for 2 years, she was currently in her third position and was working on her fourth product responsibility.  Mary thought that the best way to move up the ladder was to get a little bit of experience in everything – that way she could someday be the one that everybody turned to when things got exciting.  As part of moving to her second position, she was promoted to Senior Engineer.  She’s now hoping that her next promotion is right around the corner as she is looking at job postings in other groups.

Stephanie was more of a “stay put” kind of person in her engineering department.  Granted her first assignment wasn’t too exciting (as is the case in most entry level jobs), but she hung with it and in her second year, she found some interesting cost savings on a product that hadn’t changed for decades.  Although she was supposed to just “baby sit” this mature product – she presented her idea to her boss and it was actually implemented.  This cost savings earned the attention of her upper management and she too was promoted to Senior Engineer.

Flash forward several months to two everyday scenarios:
Scenario 1: A new team is being formed to work on designing the brand new WidgetMaster 9000.  (Doesn’t it bother you when I don’t get more specific?)  As the engineering managers look around; who do they choose to be on their team?  Mary-The-Mover?  Stay-Put-Stephanie?
Scenario 2: A million-dollar-a-day warranty problem hits in another department and additional engineers need to be deployed to help solve the problem.  Who do they choose to be on their team?  Mary-the-mover?  Stay-put-Stephanie?

Now some situations may be different, but the majority of the time, I’d put my money on Stay-Put-Stephanie.  She’s demonstrated the ability to “go deep” and depth is very a rare commodity in many of today’s engineering environments.  While Mary became a generalist; Stephanie became a specialist.  When you go to your doctor and he can’t figure things out where does he send you?  To the specialist.

Many companies have a two-path approach: managerial or technical – personally I think there should be some middle ground between them.  However as you think about your engineering career trajectory – where do you want to land?  That should ultimately guide your movement – or lack of movement within an organization or between organizations. 

I talk to lots of companies that struggle with retaining bright, young engineers.  That can be attributed to the companies themselves and their ability (or inability) to encourage, challenge, motivate and reward.  However, it can also be attributed to the “short sightedness” of many engineers.  The concept of “depth” is not necessarily valued as much as it should be.  So let me give you a few reasons to hang in there and “go deep”:

1.  Increased knowledge.  Spending time in an area means more time to learn about that particular technology.  Use that time!  Learn about what goes into making your product.  Learn about the areas that your product touches.  Learn about the history of your product.  Learn what others (or competitors) are doing with their versions of your product.  Learn what the biggest problems are with your product. Spend some time thinking about “what would the world be like without your product”.  Try designing your product if nothing ever existed.  Think about your product’s function and find 5 other things that have the same function but are totally unrelated (for example from nature or other industries).

2.  Increased reputation.  Staying in a department and “going deep” gives you more opportunity to deepen your “brand” as an engineer.  Not only do you have the chance to get smarter (see #1), you also have more opportunities to show off your abilities.  Reputation can be thought of as “that thing which you are known for” and reputation can be reinforced with repeated successes. 

3.  Layoff Prevention.  Let’s face it.  Economies change and sometime people lose their jobs. By becoming the resident expert in a specific area, you are perceived as more valuable.  In many cases it is preferred to keep the specialist as opposed to the generalist.  Generalists can be hired when needed; specialists take time and effort to develop.  Furthermore, the loss of the specialist’s knowledge can be much harder for the company to deal with.

4.  Peter-Principle Prevention.  I have a good friend who is a high-ranking executive in a Fortune 500 company.  He and I were talking about the topic of “when should someone make a career move?” and he offered some great advice.  (No wonder he’s where he is today!)  In his mind, you should move only when you feel that you’ve learned all you can and have mastered your current position.  In business school there is talk of the “Peter Principle”.  This is the principle that states: “people are promoted to their level of incompetency”.  In other words, people will always be promoted until they wind up in a job that they can no longer handle.  Then they are stuck there (often miserably) for the remainder of their career.  By staying put and going deep before a promotion, you guarantee that you hit the next promotion level with an added degree of knowledge – thereby holding Mr. Peter and his Principle at bay.

Keep on rockin.