man having a great idea

Entrepreneurial engineers

Entrepreneurial skills are going to be increasingly important to young engineers whether they want to go it alone or find employment in a highly competitive jobs market.

Whether entrepreneurs are born or made is a topic frequently up for debate. Many facets of an engineer’s psychological make-up point to them being in the natural category. Joel West, professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences, part of the US-based Claremont University Consortium, has been studying engineering entrepreneurs for some ten years and considers himself one.

“Some are tremendously successful as entrepreneurs: think Irwin Jacobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Ken Olsen,” he says. “In particular, one trait of a visionary engineer makes for a great entrepreneur, (they both ask) how can we solve a problem that's never been solved before?”

Dr Muttukrishnan Rajarajan, who teaches the Engineering with Management and Entrepreneurship BEng at City University London, agrees that engineers have natural leanings in this direction.

“The word engineer has the same Latin origin as ingenious and our profession is fundamentally about problem solving and inventiveness – probably the most important quality an entrepreneur can have,” he says.

Not all engineers find it easy to develop a great idea though, let alone have the all-round skill set to take a ground breaking product or technology to market for themselves or their employer. And with notable exceptions, such as the City programme, traditional engineering courses tend not to focus on developing these skills.

Entrepreneurial skills, however, are going to be increasingly important to young engineers whether they want to go it alone or find employment in a highly competitive jobs market. An entrepreneurial spirit is being increasingly cited in skills rankings as important in today’s graduates with companies looking for people who can not only come up with a great idea but know how to run with it, too.

The changing role of the engineer

The City course was introduced last September and aims to equip students with the skills to launch their own enterprise or make them more attractive to graduate employers.

Dr Peter Roberts, who also teaches the programme, says that the course is also responding to the changing role of the engineer in recent years. He explains that the rise of large, complex, international projects means that engineers must be able to balance a range of subject knowledge and managerial expertise.

“In addition, increased competition in the global marketplace and growth in Asia is requiring engineers to consider more entrepreneurial ways to make the most of their skills,” he says. “The engineering industry has always been creative, but now, more than ever, it needs creative and enterprising leadership. Rapid technological change and globalisation provides unique opportunities for engineers to be at the forefront of entrepreneurial developments. There has never been a better time for engineers to develop their entrepreneurial talents.”

What holds engineers back?

West and those involved in the course at City University cite people skills such as communication and leadership as one of the factors that can hold engineers back when it comes to being more entrepreneurial.

“[We need] to ensure we can tell the wider world why our ideas are so important and develop the team that can make them a success,” says Dr Rajarajan, who explains that a central theme running through the course is that of understanding entrepreneurial behaviour and how this interacts with innovation, technology, the economic environment and opportunity recognition.”

He and Roberts are less concerned about the engineer’s ability to turn their hand to accounting and project management which are critical to building and growing a business because they are numerate and tend to be highly organised. That said, West stresses young engineers must ensure they learn about finances, profits and bottom line and highlights another “blind spot” that they can suffer from: what he describes as the “technology push”.

“There are cases when a technology push strategy is very successful, look at the cellphone, something that no one expected would become as ubiquitous as it did,” he says.

“Other times, engineers push something for which there is no market, or the market isn't big enough to ever make money.” And he adds that engineers must learn to take market research and customer feedback “much more seriously”.

Develop your entrepreneurial skills

Reality television programmes such as The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den in recent years have done much to parade good and bad examples of entrepreneurial behaviour and, whatever you think of them, have made everyone aware that entrepreneurs needs to be multi-faceted people with an all round skill set. The debate over whether entrepreneurs are born or made will continue in the field of leadership and management theory but engineers can content themselves in the belief that their natural ability to problem solve and come up with new ideas gives them a head start over many.

Equally though, they can’t expect that to be enough and must put effort into developing the necessary people and business skills that will ensure their great idea not only sees the light of day but is also exposed to a wide enough audience. And if they are unable to develop the necessary skills themselves, they must be able to team up with others who have them, says West.

“Steve Wozniak was perhaps the most brilliant PC engineer of the 1970s, but where would he have been without Steve Jobs?” he asks.

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