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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Why engineers should aim to be leaders

(This is a personal opinion piece. It does not reflect the views of any organisation that I am affiliated with.)


Engineers should aim to be leaders.
Or more generally, the people who produce the widgets that a company derives its revenue should aim to be the leaders of that company.

That makes sense, doesn't it? If a company's revenue stream depends on the widgets that it produces, then the leaders of that company should be intimately involved in producing those widgets.

Unfortunately, the ones who build the widgets rarely get a table at management. Or if they do, then they are confined to a small corner. Instead, it is common for management to be dominated by sales and marketing people.
I don't discount the importance of sales and marketing's functions. But I think that their importance is over-rated.

Perhaps my experience of working in marketing has made me jaded to marketing. In an era of puff pieces and scam ads, it is easy to dismiss marketing as just a bunch of "hot air".

And as for sales people, well, one only needs to think about car salesmen. They should know how the widgets work and what they can do. But they also think about their own pockets. And what better way to fatten their purse than to promise everything -- and then more!

But engineers know about their widgets. They understand how the widgets work. They know the ins-and-outs. They know what can be done and what can't. And if it can't be done, they know why it can never be done, or they know how to make it get done.

However, engineers don't think the way leaders do. In a profit-driven company, the widgets must produce revenue. That means, the widgets need to have innate qualities that make consumers want to purchase them. But engineers rarely think about monetising their widgets. Instead, they are more concerned with building the next "cool" widget.

That is unlike sales and marketing. Sales have a definite eye to the bottomline, since their pay is usually tied to a commission structure. Marketing are also concerned about revenue, because their performance is based on how they can balance their costs against revenue.

At least in the technology world, only one marketer made it to be a great leader. Steve Jobs was never a widget guy. He may have claimed to be a widget guy, but he really was more interested in selling widgets. But he had an advantage: he knew his widgets, or in some cases, he had a hand in making his widgets.

Many sales and marketing people aim to be like Steve Jobs. But they all fail. They're only interested in selling the widgets. They don't care how the widgets are made, as long as they can sell them. That's why they sit at management. Their efforts translate directly into revenue.

But engineers shouldn't try to be Steve Jobs. That takes a different level of intelligence. I suggest another role model: Bill Gates. Before Microsoft went down its path of self-destruction with "Windows Everywhere", it was a truly remarkable, widget-driven company. And Bill Gates was the engineer who built it. If only he hadn't over-reached by trying to make Windows work everywhere.

A role model for companies is Facebook. This is a widget-driven company. It has an army of sales and marketing people, but the product people call the shots of what happens to the widgets. And their leader, Mark Zuckerberg, is an engineer.

So engineers should be leaders, but they also need to think like leaders. They need to know how to make their widgets "sell-able". They need to know how to market their widgets. Armed with their knowledge of the widgets *and* revenue, I believe that they can turn their companies into formidable organisations.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

My memories: September 11, 2001

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I woke up in my room, washed up, changed, ate breakfast, and dragged myself to a boring Computer Science lecture that I was sure I would sleep through. It was just another normal weekday morning for me as an undergraduate in a US university.

I arrived at a lecture hall that was more empty than usual, but I figured that everyone had already realised what a boring lecture this was. Later, when the professor said that he wouldn't mind if what few attendees didn't stay for the lecture, I didn't bat an eyelid.

It was only later when I crossed over to the students' union to get lunch that I realised something was wrong. People were everywhere, standing and talking excitedly. And there were television sets at every corner. I peeped at one…

… and saw the tragedy that was happening in New York city.

While I had gone about my usual morning routine, two airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center, while another had collided into the Pentagon. Now I knew why everything seemed more abnormal.

The next lecture was for a mass communication class. The professor suspended his usual lecture and let us talk about the tragic event. He also spoke about some political concepts, one of which I still remember: "rally around the flag". That is, during tragic and uncertain times like this, the people were more likely to support the government, no matter who was in power.

The rest of the day was kind of a blur to me. But that evening, a few of us celebrated a friend's birthday at a deserted restaurant. We hadn't thought twice about calling it off. Even back then, we understood: keep calm and carry on.

That event changed one of my morning habits. From then on, every morning, while eating breakfast, I would pore over the news faithfully to see what had happened or was going on.


Saturday, September 07, 2013

One night in Pangaea

Despite living in Singapore, there are still a few places that I never would be able to get to except under extraordinary circumstances. One of these places is the high-end exclusive nightclub, Pangaea, tucked away in the basement of the grandiose Marina Bay Sands.

I'd heard of Pangaea before, but never thought I would be able to get in because of its steep entry fee and rich clientele. But thanks to a colleague, I and a group of colleagues managed to get in. And my colleague turned out to be well connected. We skipped the queue by dropping the name of my colleague's boyfriend. Then, I was momentarily barred from entering because I was dressed too casually in polo T-shirt, jeans and stained sneakers. But again the name-dropping worked.

So there I was, walking through this dark passageway, lit only be neon green lights. After walking one floor up, we entered this misty and dark hall that was the nightclub. The mist was like a fog, but it didn't smell of smoke. Perhaps it was used to add to the allure of mystery there… as if it wasn't dark enough already.

We went to our colleague's boyfriend's table, where a beautiful waitress in a skin-tight red miniskirt dress poured our drinks. Later, I saw her also holding a glass of champagne and toasting other guests, though I noticed that she never drunk from it.

A colleague mentioned that besides the rich clientele, there were also hookers. It was easy to spot them by their cliques and dressing. I saw two of them grinding with two Caucasian men. Another group stood behind our table, perhaps eyeing their next clients. I had no intention of approaching any of them, but even if I did, I doubt that my wallet would satisfy them.

The rest of the night was spent drinking, talking (or what talk we could above the noise) and dancing. There were also some professional dancers in LED costumes, who danced on the tables. That was probably the highlight of the night.

One thing that was curious to me was to see waitresses walking around with bottles of Dom Perignon. Some of these bottles also had sparklers in their mouths. They stopped at some tables, posing for photos, and pouring drinks. Most of the clients looked happy to be able to just pose with the neon-lighted large bottles. I don't think I'll ever understand this brazen worship to the Greek god, Bacchus.

But then, I guess all of this was just something that I would never normally be able to be exposed to. There were probably as many Singaporeans as there are fingers on both of my hands, in the entire hall of hundreds. The patrons were primarily Caucasians, with some well-heeled Asians too. I didn't see any celebrities, but then I was at one corner of the hall anyway, so I couldn't see very far.

I left with my colleagues at about 2am, about two hours after we had arrived. While walking down the staircase, I wondered why there was even a staircase at a nightclub, where the drinkers could potentially slip and fall and cause the nightclub an insurance nightmare. (Yeah, I was sober enough to contemplate that.) Anyway, I made it out safely, away from the strange Pangaea, probably never to set foot in there again.


Thursday, September 05, 2013

My memories: ghost in the school

My whole life, I have never believed in ghosts. I think there is a spiritual world that exists alongside our physical reality, but there are no spirits that appear in ours.

Having said that, I think I saw a ghost once.

This happened when I was in primary school. My school building was in an estate that used to be a cemetery. To house a growing population, that cemetery was removed and replaced with a new housing estate. Some people still believed that the ghosts of the dead still lingered there. But I thought nothing about such superstition.

I was a prefect then. One of my duties was that, at every recess break, I would be stationed at a staircase on the top floor to prevent any one from going back to the classroom. The thinking then was that this would prevent thefts. Being a young boy, I didn't think about whether that was logical or not, I just did as told.

Every day, it was the same routine. I would stand around the staircase, just doing nothing, and waiting for the school bell to ring.

One day, I was just walking up and down the corridor. Then, in the corner of my eye, I saw a shadow dart from the staircase to the opposite corridor! I turned and ran there. But there was no one! I went to the staircase and looked down. There was no one there either.

The bell rang then. I rejoined another prefect who had been stationed at the opposite staircase. I asked him if he had seen anyone. He said no. I didn't say anything further, and thankfully, he didn't pursue my questioning.

So to this day, I still don't believe in ghosts, but I maintain that I had seen one before.