How can managers get the best out of engineers?

Although engineering is a core component of many companies’ operations, managing the personnel who actually carry out these types of tasks is fraught with difficulty.

“Engineering is unique among professions in that it is very common for engineers to be managed by non-engineers,” a Medium.com editorial noted. The contributor – known only by his or her Twitter handle, @fmstraka – went on to point out that this state of affairs “creates a lot of tension for both the engineers and their managers due to the fact that these managers may not understand how engineering works.”

So, how can executives eager to mitigate bumps in the road more deftly handle the engineers working on projects for their firms?

Follow the 10 golden rules
In a post on his personal blog, IT expert David Kimbell outlined 10 golden rules for managing engineers. Some are specific to members of the sector, while others can function as valuable leadership tips to managers overseeing all kinds of workers.

  • Lead rather than manage, acknowledging that, particularly in the case of a complex field like engineering, “no one else knows how to do the job better than the worker him/herself.”
  • Provide clear, comprehensive guidance, then step back and let engineers do their jobs, remaining “accessible, but out of the way.”
  • Let them contribute, and incorporate their ideas when possible.
  • Take the time to connect with employees on a personal level. If workers feel their managers genuinely care about their well-being, they’ll be more likely to go the extra mile in a professional capacity.
  • Play to their strengths, assigning tasks at which they will excel rather than ladening them with whatever needs to be done.
  • Stand up for and protect them against unreasonable demands, expectations and treatment.
  • Create a productive and motivational environment. This can mean different things to different companies; some workplaces thrive with an open-plan setup that fosters collaboration, while cubicles, offices and meeting rooms are the key to productivity in others. Employees should feel as if their work matters and is appreciated, so personally acknowledging their contributions (in the form of awards, shout-outs in the company newsletter or simple verbal praise) can go a long way.
  • Leave personal drama at home. Managers should have their head in the game at all times, and allowing themselves to be preoccupied by personal matters does a disservice to everyone they work with.
  • Don’t be afraid to be a micro-managing control freak – but only when the situation really requires it. “Different situations call for different kinds of leadership,” Kimbell wrote. “Get good at recognizing which need which.”
  • Nip undesirable behaviors, attitudes and activities in the bud by taking decisive action, which might include termination, “before your other engineers start looking for the exits, and before your products (and customers) start to suffer.”

Ebony and ivory
When dealing with engineers, it’s important for leaders to acknowledge the basic behavioral differences at play. For instance, engineers tend to be introverted, whereas people in management roles typically exhibit traits located at the more extroverted end of the spectrum. While managers tend to be very schedule-oriented, measuring tasks using specific measurements related to time, money and personnel wherever possible, engineers are often unable to adhere to such timelines.

“One of the most difficult things for engineering to work towards is the schedule, particularly in product design,” noted @fmstraka. The Medium contributor went on to cite three main reasons for this uncertainty: Obstacles that only make themselves known after a project is already underway, unintended consequences that derail an undertaking’s initial aims (sometimes irreparably) and the fact that flashes of inspiration cannot be scheduled and could happen at any time, on or off the clock.

“There are times when an engineer needs to be spending 60+ hours a week on something (such as paperwork, testing or reports),” @fmstraka acknowledged, speaking to the last point. “However, there are times when more time in the office will not help if there is a technical problem that he or she does not know how to solve.”

Google it
When it comes to mitigating the aforementioned tension, the best approach managers can take is to set preliminary guidelines, steer engineers in a general direction and then let them “do their thing” as much as possible after that. The organizational structure of Google is a testament to how well this approach works. After experimenting with a flat organization devoid of management roles beyond the elevated positions of its two founders, the company “now has some layers but not as many as you might expect in an organization with more than 37,000 employees: just 5,000 managers, 1,000 directors and 100 vice presidents,” wrote David A. Garvin in a Dec. 2013 piece for Harvard Business Review publication The Magazine, adding that some engineering managers have as many as 30 subordinates reporting to them.

“There is only so much you can meddle when you have 30 people on your team, so you have to focus on creating the best environment for engineers to make things happen,” said Google software engineer Eric Flatt, as quoted by the media outlet.

For some companies, the prospect of managing engineers is uncharted territory. It’s important to remember that although these types of workers come with some unique needs, they aren’t that different from other professionals. Ultimately, trusting them to do their jobs and deploy the processes that work best for them can go a long way.

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Rob Chorney

Rob Chorney

Making his home in the east end of the GTA, Rob can often be found at the ball diamond coaching his son's baseball team or in the studio laying a new track with his band. His branch focuses on engineering, primarily in the manufacturing sector and nuclear.
Rob Chorney