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The Unwritten Laws of Engineering

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Manager Stuff

Every manager must know what goes on in their domain

This becomes a vice when carried to the extent of impeding operations, but in general, the more information you have the more effectively you can manage your business.

Don't try to do it all yourself

You should be able to go away on vacation and things work just fine. It's part of your job to develop young talent so don't use "they're too green" as an excuse. Do this by loading them up with all they can carry without being dangerous or embarrassing. On the other hand, serious things will require top programmers and skills.

Put first things first in applying yourself to your job

There isn't time for everything, so do important stuff first. Important = things you're held directly accountable for. A rule of thumb is never do something minor that you can get someone else to do. Experts (other departments, consultants, etc) will usually be faster and better at getting answers to things. It's often wise to limit yourself to only those things where you can bring some special talent or have a natural advantage.

Cultivate the habit of "boiling matters down" to their simplest terms

Some people seem disposed to muddying the water. Make it a practice to condense, summarize and simplify.

Don't get excited in engineering emergencies - keep your feet on the ground

Most crises aren't as bad as they seem at first. Don't ignore signs of trouble, but learn to distinguish between isolated cases and real epidemics. Get the facts first, then act as soon as you have enough evidence to reach a sound decision.

Engineering meetings should neither be too large nor too small

Large meetings frequently suck and considerable skill is required to keep them from digressing. This tendency is usually proportional to the size of the meeting.

Small meetings can usually hammer things out more effectively, but there's a serious possibility that interested parties won't be represented, and "considerable mischief" may result. Apart from actual bad decisions, rework and the like, strong resentments may be aroused.

One good strategy is to call in key individuals when their part is being discussed. Another is to limit the meeting to two layers of the org chart.

In any meeting it's important to face issues and dispose of them. Count any meeting a failure if they don't end up with a clear idea of who's doing what, when.

Cultivate the habit of making brisk, clean-cut decisions

This is the most difficult and important part of a manager's job. A few key principles:

  1. Decicions will be easier and more often right if you have the essential facts at hand. Stay well informed. If you don't have all the facts, ask yourself "Am I likely to lose more by giving a snap judgement vs waiting?"
  2. Form principles in advance.
  3. You don't have to be right all the time. Just 51+% of the time. Higher % will serve you proportionally better.
  4. A difficult decision usually means it's a wash and the loss won't be big either way. Make the call and see it through.
  5. It's futile to try keeping everyone happy. Give everyone a fair hearing and then dispose of the matter.

When indecision occurs ask yourself:

  • Does it expedite the undertaking or produce procrastination and delay?
  • Is it fair and aboveboard?
  • Is it in line with established custom or policy? A good reason is required for a departure.
  • Is it in line with a previous decision? Even a good reason to make a change may get you the impression of instability.
  • What are the odds? Can we accept the risk? How does the penalty compare to the gain?

Don't let a possible mistake inhibit you. Take good risks, take your medicine when you lose. Mistakes can often be turned to profit, if only for the experience.

Don't overlook the value of suitable preparation before announcing a major decision or policy

When time permits, discuss things in advance with key personnel. Embarrassment and bad feelings otherwise.

Managing Design and Dev Projects

Learn project management skills and techniques and apply them to things you manage

  1. Define the objectives
  2. Plan the job by:
    • Outlining steps to accomplish
    • Define required people, money, etc
    • Prepare a definite schedule
  3. Execute the plan
  4. Monitor the progress and respond to deviations
    • Watch for logjams, hit lagging items HARD with additional time, people, money.
    • Revise your schedule as needed
  5. Drive to finish on time

Plan your dev work so far enough ahead of production so as to meet schedules without a wild last-minute rush.

Production planning is a common and devilish error. It's important to plan early enough to involve the necessary stages, and can make the construction phase go way smoother.

Beware of seeking too much comfort in planning your engineering programs

Too much preoccupation with stability and security will often lead to greater danger and insecurity. In a competitive world you must take chances - others certainly will and you'll be out of breath trying to catch up. Undertake stiff development programs setting a high mark. A good shop will work its way out of a tight spot under the pressure of emergency. Have an aggro program or goal, but also have a fallback to hedge against failure. Don't go all in. This lets you go after bigger stakes while limiting the downside.

Be content to freeze a design when the development has progressed far enough

Not always easy to agree on "far enough," but in general get it to a shippable state and go. Design usually will tweak too much and make things late. Can always make improvements in the next round.

Constantly review projects to make certain that actual benefits are in line with costs in money time, personnel.

Projects frequently are carried along by Newton's first law of motion long after they could yield a good return on the investment. If it's not paying off, time to kill or alter the project. Think of a stock that's just not working out: you could put that money to use elsewhere.

Make it a rule to require, and submit, regular periodic progress reports, as well as final reports on completed projects

It's tedious, but you're not organized and controlled until you do this. Nothing is quite as compelling and effective as requiring an engineer to keep the facts assembled and appraised. These reports are as useful for the writer as the reader.

An engineering project is not really finished until it's properly summarized.

On organizational structures

Make sure that everyone has been assigned definite positions and responsibilities within the organization

It's bad for morale when people don't know what they're responsible for. Don't keep tentative org changes hanging over people. Changing them later is better than leaving people in poorly defined positions. Some orgs have a technical manager as well as an administrative manager. Does leave open the possibility of competition for allegiance among managers to reports.

Make sure everyone has the authority they need to execute their jobs and meet their responsibilities

Authority must be commensurate with responsibility. Bestowing this authority is difficult and delicate - add enough to make someone effective, with out making them dangerous. Often people are held responsible for more than they can control and this is a shame. Encourage yourself and subordinates to assume, delicately, as much authority as needed to do the job.

Make sure that all activities and all individuals are supervised by someone competent in the subject matter involved

At high levels in other orgs, supervisors often have dissimilar training and experience, but in an engineering org, ideally people should be supervised be seasoned vets in their area.

A good method is to complement yourself with people who are better in some areas, who can shore up any breaks in your expertise.

Another good method is to assign technical responsibilities to someone and make them consultants for others.

Recognize the limitations in how many subordinates a person can have. 6-7 is the guideline, but don't be rigid here.

What all managers owe their employees

Never misrepresent a subordinate's performance during performance appraisals

It's crucial to review the performance of your reports. It's also crucial to talk things over as soon as something disagreeable happens. If you fire someone for incompetence it means you've also failed.

Make it unquestionably clear what is expected of employees

Number 1 on the list of required communication between manager and report are expectations of the job. Set down goals and expectations and follow up with monitoring and support.

Promote the personal and professional interests of your employees on all occasions

Not an obligation, but an opportunity and privilege. It's up to managers to reconcile and merge what employees want and what the company wants. It's best when employees get a square deal, plus a little extra consideration on occasions.

Do not hang on to employees too selfishly when they are offered a better opportunity elsewhere

Don't thwart them, or try to keep them with you if it's gonna make you look bad when they leave. You should always be training backups for key personnel, including yourself.

Don't short-circuit or override your subordinates if you can possibly avoid it

It's your prerogative, but can be demoralizing and should be a last resort. You can do irreparable damage by exercising authority without sufficient knowledge of the details of the matter.

You owe it to your subordinates to keep them properly informed

Responsibility without information is horrible - only one notch above responsibility without authority. Inform people of past history, present status, future plans of a project. Hold occasional meetings to update on major policies and developments in the biz. Include engineers in lunches, introductions, trips, etc. to get them the knowledge they need to do a job.

Don't criticize a subordinate in front of others, especially their own subordinates

Many times a problem can be traced back to your failure to advise, warn or train properly.

Show an interest in what your employees are doing

It's discouraging when the boss has no interest in their work, failing to inquire, comment or otherwise. A little effort goes a long way - make the effort.

Never miss a chance to commend or reward for a job well done

A first-rate manager is a leader as well as a critic. The better part of your job is to stimulate employees. By all means, get tough when the situation justifies it, but too much criticism, or too much lenience will sour them.

Always accept full responsibility for your group and the individuals in it

Never pass the buck. You're supposed to have control and are credited with the success as well as the failure of your group.

Do all you can to see that your subordinates get all of the salary to which their entitled

Pay increases, however they happen, are the most appropriate reward for outstanding work, greater responsibility, or increased value to the company.

Do all you can to protect the personal interests of your subordinates and their families

Most folks will appreciate your honest, unprying interest in their lives outside of the workplace, and your support as well if they have difficulties. Try to accomodate them when justifiable. You have the right to inconvenience your employees but also the responsibility to avoid doing so when possible.

Professional and Personal Considerations

Any number of studies about on-the-job performance have repeatedly shown that communication and interpersonal skills play a larger role in good performance than tech chops. There are exceptions, but usually tech skills and training aren't the major factors in success in engineering. A highly skilled engineer with good character will win.

Someone with great tech chops but poor personal skills usually loses out because doing anything of scale or size requires other people's cooperation, and cooperation generally hinges on the personal side of things.

Laws of Personality and Character

  1. Cultivate the tendency to appreciate the good qualities, rather than shortcomings of people.
  2. Don't give vent to annoyance or impatience on slight provocation.
  3. Don't harbor grudges based on honest, objective disagreements
  4. Get in the habit of considering the feelings and interests of others
  5. Don't become preoccupied with your own self. Especially where credit is concerned - you can lose credit when you strive after it too hard.
  6. Make it a rule to help the other person whenever the opportunity arises. Even if you're a mean asshole, it pays dividends to help others out.
  7. Be particularly careful to be fair on all occasions. Whenever you've got the upper hand or can mistreat someone, it's especially incumbent on you to bend over backwards to be fair and square. Not give them whatever they want, but just to be fair and not abuse your power.
  8. Don't take yourself or your work too seriously. Much better to laugh off things than maintain a tense, tragic atmosphere. Take things seriously, but aim for "quiet dignity."
  9. Put yourself out just a little to be cordial in greeting people.
  10. Give people the benefit of the doubt, especially when they're probably wrong. If you treat others as depraved scoundrels, they'll usually treat you likewise and live down to your standards.

Don't be too affable

It's a mistake to be agreeable or submissive on all occasions. You'll earn respect by engaging in a good fight when it's worth fighting for. "Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, bear 't that the opposed may be aware of thee" (Hamlet quote). When quarelling, best to settle "out of court" if you can, one on one. Your employees should know that whenever they deserve a reprimand, they'll get it every time.

If you don't face your issues squarely, someone else will be put in your place who will.

Regard your personal integrity as one of your most important assets

The reward for having integrity is confidence: the confidence of associates, subordinates, and outsiders. All your dealings with people are enormously simplified and easer when people have confidence in you.

In engineering orgs, it takes a surprising short amount of time for you to be appraised and catalogued for what you are. Make sure you overtly and covertly represent the highest standards.

"The obsessing and overpowering fear of being cheated is a common characteristic of substandard personalities." Being clever in this way just hurts you. Also it's not really integrity if you collapse when the going gets tough.

Never underestimate the extent of your professional and personal liability

Many engineers pretend they can hide behind their employer's shield, or that they are powerless, merege cogs in the machinery, especially if things go haywire. But don't let all this responsibility weigh you down into inaction. Don't be unreasonably anxious - as an engineer it's your job to identify and judge the risks. Don't be a coward, don't be a permanent martyr.

Behavior in the workplace

Be aware of the effect your appearance has on others and, in turn, you

Your appearance has a hefty influence on how others view you

  1. Look at how those in positions you aspire to are dressed and follow their lead
  2. Dress for the occasion, when in doubt, slightly over dress
  3. Conservative styles and colors will never do wrong, at least in engineering circles

Some common-sense tips

  • Clothes are clean, well-fitting
  • Hair and nails clean and kept up
  • Good hygiene
  • Perfumes used sparingly
  • For men, good shaving habits

Of course, there are great engineers who are oblivious to these details, others who are wild. If that's you, accept the consequences, like it or not.

Refrain from profanity in the workplace

The trouble with using profanity is that the actual effect is known only to the listener, who may conclude something way different than what you intend.

Learn what constitues harrassment and don't tolerate it

If you see or hear something, tackle it directly with the person, discreetly and delicately. If that doesn't take, next step is to let your manager handle it more formally.

Beware of what you commit to writing and of who will read it

Engineers have been known to broadcast things with damaging or embarrassing statements. Assume your stuff is being read by everyone and write accordingly. Especially refrain from angry, malicious things - those get remembered way longer than you'd want them to.

Beware of using your employer's resources for personal purposes

The risks often outweigh the small benefit of borrowing a shop tool, etc.

Regarding career and personal development

Maintain your employability as well as those of your subordinates

If your skills and knowledge are valuable only to your employer, you're in trouble. Obsolete skills are bad for business as well as employees. Life-long learning doesn't mean constant formal training. It's just more than a passing interest in your field. Find ways to keep up-to-date, regardless of how much or little your employer supports you. This will require sacrificing some personal time and expense. Deal with it, or become obsolete.

Analyze yourself and your subordinates

Engineers and engineering managers need not be students of psychology. Most of us get into it because we're good with machines and not people. Simply recognizing that people are remarkably different and judge things differently is a great first step.

How much managerial effort is needed? Most people are interested in a) more responsibility, or b) improving their tech skills. Let those be your guide. Either should be rewarded with more pay.

People are often surprised that they're less happy with their new higher-level job, especially when technicians become managers. Beware of how you promote and why. In reality, nobody successfully moving through an engineering carreer can avoid management and administration altogether. Don't pigeonhole yourself though: just because management seems gross now, doesn't mean you won't change later and find satisfaction there. Just because you're not Mr. Super Outgoing doesn't mean you can't excel as a manager. You can become good just by selecting your style and playing to your strengths.

In analyzing yourself and others, good advice is: do what you do best. Try to improve your best traits and make them most visible. Work on the substandard things too, but aim for par on these things. If you're weak in some area, you can also make it unnecessary for your job, thus making it invisible.