The Engineering Boss. A peculiar creature. Shhh, there he is in his native habitat.
Most likely, you’ve had a boss you liked and, more than likely, you’ve had a boss who made you question humanity. Maybe you are the boss now and you’re suddenly realizing it as you stand at that cubicle wall asking for those TPS reports. Fact is, there are many a Boss Type (BT), leadership style and awkward standing position within the engineering industry. It’s time we took a closer look at these to help promote and (hopefully) prevent any unnecessary bloodshed. We’ll cover the gamut, identifying dangerous behavior and providing recommended precautions to turn into practical applications. Oh, and, I’ll need you to come in this weekend. Ha! Just kidding, but yeah, come in this weekend.
The Dream Boss
The dream boss is a version of you 10 years down the road from now. This person was once a hands-on rock star designer, just like you. As a result, they have a great understanding for many of the struggles of the job that go on behind the scenes. When things seem to flow easily and smoothly, this boss knows it is because of you and not because it is easy. They realize, you are behind the scenes, dealing with vendors, and anticipating problems before they arise. Accordingly, they know how to set realistic timelines and make game time decisions based on practical experience and not false bravado. They realize that being an extremely talented designer does not directly translate into being a good manager. As a result, they have taken the time to read and study management theory, skills, and tools. They are able to communicate effectively with others in the organization on behalf of you and your department. They make sure you have the resources you need to do your job as effectively as possible, and help to minimize organizational inefficiencies in your way. They understand that good management is to provide you an environment where you can be as effective as possible and then get out of your way.
You can learn more about this boss type at the cryptozoology museum in Portland, ME.
This Boss Type is also a former designer. However, this BT came from an industry where they worked on a specific subset of a larger system. This part was of critical importance and they focused on it with a high level of detail. This BT only had to wear one hat, and had dedicated people in the organization that took care of many of the things that you are now expected to take care of. The organization they worked for was very process oriented as a way to provide redundancy and prevent human error. There was a time when this combination of brute force bureaucracy and resource allocation worked, and the checks and balances gave them that “warm fuzzy” feeling. That is no longer the case, and to succeed now requires the ability to be nimble and embrace risk and the best feeling you can hope for is “tepid not-scratchy”.
In this BT’s ideal world they would replicate themselves such that everything was done exactly the way they like. It may seem like great design is secondary to following the appropriate protocol. They will micro manage and scrutinize your drawings and calculations. They feel that the more people that look at something, the better it will become, when in reality this can produce watered down designs. Ultimately, they are risk averse and able to “devil’s advocate” and “what if” bold ideas to death.
Keep reinforcing the general message that perfect is the enemy of the good. Learn upfront to do things this BT’s way when it comes to anything involving standards or process. The reality is you can do it their way the easy way or the hard way. Maybe you will learn a thing or two. It is impossible to do things 100% but close is good enough. Before proposing new designs, create quick and dirty proof of concepts. The proof is in the pudding and it is hard to argue with something that you can demonstrate as working. Try to keep them off your scent, while this BT is triple checking your drawings, rig together some modified COTS parts to create awesome concepts. An in-house 3D printer can be your greatest ally as it does not require drawings, approval, or any of the traditional approval roadblocks.
Their basement with their model train set where everything is polished, meticulous, and punctual.
The Other Discipline Boss
In multidisciplinary work environments you may have a manager with a technical background different from your own. This BT is very smart and has strong analytical and problem solving skills. This BT is likely to say things like “I know just enough about what you do to be dangerous”. Which is such an elegant way of simultaneously devaluing the importance of the work you do and what is required to do it.
This BT thinks the work you do looks exciting and fun. They have been doing what they do for a long time and now they want to try to get their hands dirty doing what you do. They may delegate you to implement and execute their design ideas, or even try to execute them themselves. This BT sees tape as the end all be all of mechanical fastening technology.
The challenge with this BT is to convince them of the value of what you do and that it requires very specific training and skill sets. When communicating with them, use very technical jargon. This is to emphasize the point that there is a great amount of specific knowledge and training required to do what you do and that it requires more than just general smarts. If this BT is the kind that likes to make design decisions, rather than arguing against their ideas, selectively let them touch the hot stove. This will be a lesson they won’t forget. Particularly, if you know a quick and easy fix.
In their garage voiding warranties.
The Non-Engineer Boss
This BT is driven by financial incentives. You are driven to create something quality. While it seems like these two motives are at odds, the reality is that they can and should be inline. Ultimately, providing value is how to make money and money allows us to continue doing what we do. Think of it this way, this BT is motivated by one thing, their boat.
You Say: This is how long this project is going to take.
They Hear: I don’t want you to spend time on your boat.
You Say: This is how much this is going to cost.
They Hear: I don’t want you to have a nice boat.
You Say: I wanted to make you aware of…
They Think: A boat goes vrooom vrooom.
They view their role as determining customer needs and selling products, and your role is to use your oversized brain and technical wizardry to make that a reality irrespective of feasibility. You must try to bridge the gap and find some common ground and language. Avoid using technical jargon and speak in layman’s terms. Technical jargon will just cause confusion and further reinforce the perceived divide between you two. You will have to become a walking, talking manufacturing for dummies book and teach this BT a few basic principles. The main principle being that to produce low cost parts in volume, you need to pay high upfront tooling costs and that there is no one process or material for all purposes. Keep patiently, deliberately, and with a smile, reiterating these basic principles. As this BT doesn’t really have any interest in what you do they may let you run wild. This can seem great but can also quickly get out of control. Find ways to institutionally get the right amount of process in place.
I’m on a boat
The Who’s the Boss
In matrix management organizations, one reports to a functional manager and can also report to project managers. Employee’s allegiances tend to lie with the functional manager, as they perform the review and control the purse strings. The difficulty comes in knowing how to prioritize your efforts and this can be where personalities and politics come into play.
The danger here is getting pulled in too many directions and stretched too thin, resulting in employus burnt outus. You may be doing the work of two engineers but feel like you aren’t succeeding because you aren’t able to give any one project your normal 120%. Your desire to be a team player and deliver results that far exceed expectations can snowball out of control as others continue to change and add new criteria. This can result in the schedule getting extended, and it looking like you are responsible, when in reality, you are going above and beyond to please and be accommodating.
A loose project management style won’t work. Work with your managers to collaborate on schedule. Make them aware of long lead time items and create a Gantt chart. Be disciplined about sticking to the schedule, and be firm and clear that if the criteria changes, it will add on to the schedule so the onus is on them to make those decisions.
Nobody really knows. If you want to spot one, the best time is at the end of a project when it is time to take credit or place blame.
Any Boss Type that you identify with? I’m not so sure any would admit to most of these. Maybe a better questions is, have you ever had a boss that matches any of these behaviors?
Note: No managers were hurt in the writing of this.