on August 18th, 2010

Dear Colleagues

In contrast to the well defined structures of engineering, it never ceases to fascinate me how the topsy-turvy way business actually works. In many cases, defying the laws of logic (and as the old saying goes: rewarding the guilty and punishing the innocent).

There are six important issues to always bear in mind to extract maximum value from the business world whilst working in engineering.

Customers are not always obvious. Customers are not only the external guys who buy your company’s products or services. A customer is your immediate supervisor and their bosses, and other departments to whom you deliver work. These often require far more attention and care than the external customer. Understanding their real requirements is an art form which you have to work hard on. And communicating all the time with them esp. on when you can deliver, and the real costs they will incur is fiendishly important.

Know thy supplier. External vendors that provide the bits and pieces that make your business tick are critical to your long term success. Watch out for the cheapest bidders. They are either providing rubbish or there are some hidden additional extras that are going to cost you later on. Care should be taken with suppliers who provide excessive favours – there may be a hidden cost later. And sadly, in today’s world, company reputations aren’t worth much – companies are changing so much and when key employees leave, this can result in a massive changes overnight.

Your colleagues. Get to know who does the real work in your company and who actually performs and delivers the results. It is often the quiet secretary hidden behind the scenes who is managing the CEO and company.

Lawyers. Shakespeare was somewhat harsh in Henry VI in saying: ‘The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers’. Engineers have to learn how lawyers think and prosper in today’s world. Lawyers operate amorally (not immorally). ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ are defined by which side they represent. They will very rarely give a hard ‘yes’ or ‘no’ opinion but focus on advice; not running a business. The optimum approach for you is to have an impeccable understanding of the law, research the best way of doing something and then merely ask the lawyer to critique your proposal for advice on how to implement a particular course of action legally. Throughout, there is absolutely no substitute for your own judgment.

You never know how contracts will turn out. An unbelievable amount of time is spent negotiating and putting contracts together. And it is very difficult to anticipate what happens when things go wrong or turn out differently. I have found to my cost, over the years, that the longer one spends on haggling (seemingly forever) over the details of a contract (the ‘what if’ scenarios); the less likely you are going to have a successful long term relationship. So, by all means, put the framework of an agreement in writing; but above all – do business with people you trust and who perform.

Only the paranoid survive in business. This famous quote is from a famous engineer (Andrew Grove – ex-CEO of Intel). Change is a constant factor in business life (new products and services are the lifeblood of any enterprise) and a dynamic (perhaps painfully) always-changing business environment is something you have to embrace and ensure your engineering systems cope with.
As Tom Robbins remarked: ‘Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business’.

Thanks to Gordon Geiger, one of the old hand engineering CEOs, for an interesting article in the IEEE, which I have modified extensively.

Yours in engineering learning


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