Manager or technologist? The real career choice

Engineering careers tend to split into “technologists” and “managers”. 

Choosing between them is probably the biggest single decision in determining your career.

Many engineers do not actually choose. Promotion is generally seen as an important objective, bringing recognition and increased rewards, but it also tends to bring increased managerial responsibility. Most accept willingly without asking whether this is what they really want. The risk here is getting promoted to “a position of incompetence”. That is, while someone is doing well in their role they will tend to attract positive attention resulting in promotion. This will continue until they reach a position where they struggle, for whatever reason, when their superiors will decide they do not have what it takes to get further promotion. And there they will languish, in a role they cannot fulfil well, likely unhappy with the job and unclear as to why their career appears to have stalled.

The first time that you get managerial responsibilities is a good time to ask whether this is really “you”. Did managing people bring enjoyment? Did you do it well? Or do you hanker after those days when it was you inventing enhancements to the latest product? In general, engineers are more disposed towards working with things than people - it is such a disposition that likely drew them to engineering, rather than, say, history or politics during their education. We see this clearly in society - very few politicians are engineers and CEOs are more likely to have marketing, strategy or financial backgrounds than engineering. But, of course, there are many noteworthy exceptions and those engineers that can also manage well are rare and valuable entities.

If you decide you are the managerial sort then how far would you like to take this? Would you like to move completely away from engineering to become, say, an HR director, or would you like to remain a manager of engineers? Do you see yourself as a chief technical officer, a head of research or the manager of a product line? How important is money and recognition to you compared to job satisfaction? A good question to ponder is to imagine having just retired and to be looking back at your career. What do you think would make you feel most content about your 40 years or so of working life? Are you being unduly influenced by societal and cultural expectations that promotion, management and high salaries are appropriate measures of success and fulfilment? Is the recognition of your peers important, perhaps measured in terms of Fellowships or other similar honours?

It’s worth revisiting these questions from time to time - every two to three years is probably a good rule of thumb. People mature and change their views and circumstances change. And while simple to ask, these questions are very difficult to answer. Devote a long plane journey to thinking about just one. Or find a mentor who can sympathetically listen to you talking them over and probe those areas that seem to be less well formed. Another useful technique is to take a trusted colleague out for a coffee and ask them how they see you and how they think you would answer these questions. Talking through why they came to particular conclusions can be very revealing.

Having answered these questions, the next step is to move in the direction you have decided. Most changes in careers are enabled by others - managers who award you promotion, interviewers who offer you a new role or head-hunters who call you. The exception is those who go it alone and start their own company, but even in this role success and fulfilment will depend on persuading others such as customers and clients. And persuading others often depends on being in the right place at the right time - being the person who comes to mind when a vacancy appears. There is an element of luck to every good career but you can increase your chances of the career you want by increasing your visibility.

The degree of visibility that will be helpful depends on the role that you are seeking. In a world of Google searches, publishing articles or papers or speaking at conferences can provide good visibility. Networking as widely as possible also provides opportunities. Institutions such as the IET provide myriad opportunities for publication and networking, from attending conferences to volunteering for panels and networks.

Clearly, you will also need sufficient qualifications. If the position you aspire to demands an MBA and you do not have one then the next step is rather obvious.

Finally, get a sense of perspective. A survey of happiness at work in 2006 suggested that engineers came almost top, behind only beauticians, florists, hairdressers and clergy. Lawyers, accountants and bankers came close to bottom. So think carefully before concluding that you’d really like a different role. I doubt whether anyone on their deathbed said “I wish I’d spent more time in the office.”

My career

I certainly do not want to claim the perfect career, nor to suggest that the options that I have selected will be suitable for others. Everyone needs to find their own way. I offer this only as an illustration.

Take my current role as Head of R&D at Ofcom. It is a wonderful position, offering me opportunities to evaluate technologies across the wireless arena and develop complex and interesting regulation to enable them. It provides me with a great blend of engineering involvement, management of a small team and a feeling of “making a difference” that is important to me.

How did I get here? Well I was head-hunted at the formation of Ofcom for the role. Why did the head-hunters call me? Likely because I sat on an advisory panel for the Radiocommunications Agency - one of the regulators that Ofcom replaced. How did I get on this panel? Well, I decided it was something I was interested in and contacted the chairman to find out more. I knew that other members had important roles or strong track records but felt that my list of publications - something like seven books and sixty papers at the time - would be sufficient “credentials”. So what had made me write all those books previously? It certainly was not a prediction that they would enable me to become an advisory board member at some point in the future but rather a feeling that the visibility would be beneficial and they would “enhance my CV” (and, of course, because such activity brings an important feeling of pride and satisfaction in my work).

If this all sounds well planned, I should add that there are many other things I have done that perhaps have not made a difference to my career, even though I thought they might at the time. (Although it is often near-impossible to tell what factors swayed a prospective employer’s decision or brought you to the notice of head-hunters). For example, I spent three highly enjoyable years as a Vice President of the IET. I did this primarily because I thought I could add some value to the future of the Institution and that it would be interesting and fulfilling, but I also hoped it might further my career. As far as I can tell, it has not yet done so, but who can tell where it might lead in the future?

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