May - June 2002
in the Business World:
The Things They Don't Teach You in School
by Gordon H. Geiger, Ph.D., P.E.
When typical engineering graduates go out into the world, they will have likely had some exposure to both current, as well as outdated, buzzwords and management fads. But beyond the trends, five key business audiences are important to an engineer's career. Care must be taken with these groups to avoid the minefields that await the unwary. Experience is a great but costly teacher. With a little advice and thought, understanding these audience groups can make working with them more productive:
Customers — They're Not Just Who You Think They Are
In general, new engineers are not used to thinking in terms of customers. In fact, everything we do as engineers is for a customer. After all, we provide a work product at someone else's request; that someone is the customer.
When people think of customers, they generally think of the external group — the company's customers. As engineers, however, you also need to treat your supervisor and their supervisors as customers. They rely on you to do a good job and to keep them informed, and they use the information you give them to communicate with the end customer on the outside. While it may be difficult for engineers who work for large organizations to think about the ultimate customers because they don't come into contact with them frequently — they should treat their internal customers the same as they would external customers.
Beyond understanding just who your customers are, perhaps the single most important factor for working with them successfully is to understand their requirements. Providing results that differ from what a customer wants is a waste of time — both yours and the customer's. To avoid this pitfall, clarify requirements and expectations early on.
Having done that, provide timely responses, or explain the timing required to provide results. No customer wants to be kept in the dark about when a job is going to be ready. But don't promise what you cannot deliver, and explain the time necessary to do the job right up front.
Suppliers — Know How They Operate
Every organization has suppliers — external vendors that provide material, components, information, energy, or other resources needed to make the organization work. As engineers, you will probably have to evaluate and recommend suppliers to management often. Choosing the right suppliers is a critical task. To conduct this task well, define the requirements carefully. That way, when it comes time to evaluate the bids, you'll be comparing apples to apples.
Remember these guidelines as you review bids and prepare recommendations:
Employees — You're All in It Together
It's commonly said that secretaries manage companies, mechanics and operators keep them running, and salespeople and shipping clerks keep the orders coming in and going out. If you're smart, you'll get to know these people and make special efforts to recognize them for their work. Managing by walking around is the most effective management style. That means stopping, talking and getting to know people. Recognizing a job well done, even with a simple "thank you," will pay huge dividends when the chips are down and you need team members to go the extra mile.
Lawyers — Trust Your Own Judgment
Contrary to popular opinion, not all lawyers deserve the fate Shakespeare had in mind for them. But engineers have to learn how lawyers think and operate to survive in today's business world. A fundamental piece of advice is to consider lawyers' training to be amoral; not immoral, just amoral. "Right" and "wrong" are defined by whose side they are representing. Be aware of who is representing whom, and what conflicts attorneys might have from previous clients, before dealing with them.
Because of their training, lawyers' answers to questions about the legality of actions that might be taken will depend on the how you phrase the question. If you ask, "can I do such and such?" you will likely get a series of reasons why you cannot, should not or might not want to. But you'll rarely get a clear "yes" or "no." On the other hand, if you say, "I would like to do the following; how can I be sure it is done legally?" you may get a logical set of steps to follow within legal boundaries.
Lawyers are trained to be advisers, not business people. They give advice. It's up to you to decide whether an attorney's advice is good and whether to follow it. Using your own judgment has no substitute.
Contracts — You Can't Anticipate Everything
Contracts are the glue of business, and most engineers deal with employment, construction, equipment, union or energy contracts at some point in their careers.
An incredible amount of time is spent negotiating and writing contracts. After parties settle basic issues, they are turned over to lawyers, who must then construct a detailed contract. Wordsmithing can go on ad nauseum as each side tries to get one up on every detail, and document what should happen in the event of every possible problem.
But Murphy's Law will almost always prevail during any given contract period. Seldom will the contract provisions cover what actually goes wrong, mostly because it is nearly impossible to write a contract that specifies determinations for unanticipated events. The lesson to be learned is: don't waste lot of time on writing lengthy sections to cover what-if situations. Concentrate on doing business with people you can trust to do the right thing in the event of a problem. These kinds of people have a handshake you can rely on.
All of this of advice is given from the basis of experience. It won't necessarily be found in a formal degree program. Talk with the "old hands" where you work; discuss these ideas with them and see if they agree. Even if you don't use this advice every day, tuck it away for future reference. It may come in handy at some point during your career. Good luck!
Gordon H. Geiger was CEO of Qualitech Steel Corporation. He is currently director of the engineering management degree program at the University of Arizona in Tucson.