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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.


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