Engineering vs. Business

Engineering vs. Business

It’s a classic struggle – the logical, practical engineer butting heads with the uncomprehending, inefficient business major (see: all of Dilbert). Or wait – is it instead the visionary manager struggling to focus a socially inept engineer puttering off on a inscrutable tangent? (See: popular portrayals of mad scientists.) Somehow, engineers and business people always struggle with communication. As much as it’s beaten into us that the best teams are made of diverse people, both technical and managerial, somehow, in practice, collaboration between the parties is always painfully difficult.

Why is this? Partly it’s the way that business people and engineers perceive each other.

I’m currently a PhD student in Mechanical Engineering, but my minor is Entrepreneurship, which means I’ve taken a good number of classes in the business school. I’ve had to deal directly with the stereotypes that business students have when perceiving engineering students, and also with my own engineering bias against business students.

As an engineer:

I find most business people very hard to work with. I know that there MUST be smart business people out there, but man if I can’t tell the difference between a good one and a sucky one. They all sound the same! They all use buzzwords that mean nothing. They can make any simple concept sound ridiculously complicated by confusing the issue with unnecessary jargon. Then they trivialize the truly complicated things (technology-related, usually) by tossing out things like, “and then we just scale up manufacturing to a million units a year.” They can make anything sound important, even if there is no substance behind the hype.

And you can’t have a discussion with a business person without having to watch out for their agenda – usually they just want to know how they can use your best ideas. They take credit for entire projects, even if their only contribution was to make changes to the titles of the PowerPoint (which it took them a week to do). The only way they know to make a decision is just to discuss it, and talk in circles endlessly – never does it occur to them to take data to make a quantitative decision. Or is it because they aren’t capable of even doing the analysis? Because they never do any actual work, instead perfering to spend time “networking,” which means talking about nothing, eating and drinking on the company dime, and sending countless useless emails.

As a business student:

I find most engineers very hard to work with. They are all supposed to be SO smart, but man if they are I sure can’t tell. They all sound the same – all they want to discuss is the boring modeling they are working on. Nobody cares, because none of them seem to be doing any work with practical relevance. When they try to explain what it is they are so excited about, they describe it so confusingly and use so much jargon, that nobody can understand what’s going on. Then they trivialize the truly complicated things, by tossing out statements like, “and then we just hire salespeople and sell a million units a year.” They can make anything sound boring, even curing cancer, because their PowerPoints and writing are so bad.

And you can’t have a discussion with an engineer, because they can’t communicate. They don’t pick up on social cues, can’t carry on a conversation, and the whole thing just becomes painfully awkward. They will take off and work on an entire project, without ever collaborating with anyone else, so nobody is kept in the loop with what’s going on. They refuse to appreciate the nuanced approach that is necessary to make complicated decisions with multiple parties involved, and refuse to accept that sometimes data is just not available in certain situations. They don’t see the value in spending time to make connections with valuable resources, they sneer at the countless hours managers put in to keep the business running smoothly, and they are always arrogant enough to think that they can do my job better than I can.


How many of these perceptions are true? Depends highly on the specific person in question, of course. I have to say that in my experience, Dilbert is spot on. I have had a few really good experiences in my business classes, but in most cases – honestly, the “business person stereotype” is mainly all true. Which makes me wonder – to my business classmates, am I a true “engineering person stereotype” as well?


What perception biases have you experienced between engineers and business people?



Great post. In my experience, engineers are often TOO practical. As in they think if the merits of their design and project are good enough they won’t need to sell it to the customer. On the other hand like you said, business people usually think technical changes are easy and don’t understand why engineers don’t have quick and easy answers etc.

Business person/writer here. What tends to bother me about engineers (caveat: I am married to one who is NOT this way, so I can’t say it’s universal) is the arrogance. I found it funny that this was illustrated so clearly by the comment above – I’m guessing it’s from an engineer.

The problem with engineers is that they are “too practical?” Isn’t that actually a compliment? While the problem with business people is that they get mad that engineers don’t dumb things down to “quick and easy” answers . . . .

But anyways, great blog, just had to point that out. I love working with most engineers, and I think it is really fun to debate ideas with them, learn from them, and teach them that smart liberal arts people are just as smart as smart engineers. The best way for us all to work together is to understand that everyone brings something different to the table, and that a little bit of respect goes a long way.

Engineers are very talented, this would encompass intelligence that many business people would certainly not have. Certainly both are intelligent but from a different trajectory. However it maybe perceived by the business person that an engineers intelligence can be harnessed for a lucrative purpose and the engineer would find this a lot more challenging as businsss people tend to have an entrepreneurial spirit to master a concept which would be used to target an audience effectively to generate a working relationship fit for purpose to harness talent for expansion.

Switching from an engineer to a business-person is like having a sex-change operation. You do need to change the way you approach all problems AND be driven by different goals. I now work in a small business where I get involved in buying, selling, accounting, marketing, legal, customer service, packing and storing, and of course IT — the lesson I learned is that ‘computers don’t pay you, customers do.’ and customers are imperfect humans. At the end of the day I’m selling to the customers, not doing research in a university.

Engineers care about molding reality for change. Businessmen care about milking reality for profit. Businessmen need stagnation. In a stagnant or decaying society (like the US) businessmen control money and rule. The US’s major problems are engineering problems but no engineers are in congress or power. It will change…..

^Be scared of this crackpot^

Hahaha, he might be engineering something that will change everything!

sadaf, please choose your field based upon your interests and your natural abilities. Engineering requires heavy math and science skills, while Business requires heavy communications and entrepreneurial skills. If you tend to be introverted you may find that an engineering job fits you better than a business job. Don’t base your decision upon possible pay and job stability because you cannot assume those will exist in today’s economy (no matter what field you choose).

As far as engineers vs. businessmen in general, we need each other to survive. Engineers need to create and produce products, and businessmen need to sell those products and find markets. It’s too much for most people to perform both functions well. But it would be nice if we had better respect and cooperation.

At most companies, businessmen control the money and so they have the power. Sometimes that power corrupts, and businessmen overvalue themselves while undervaluing engineers. That leads to the general economic malaise that we’re experiencing in the U.S. today – too many years of outsourcing engineering in order to increase profits has led to an inability to create products and respond to changing demands at home. It has also drained our technical talent pool as STEM graduates cannot find or maintain jobs. It will take years for most established companies to recognize this problem and correct their courses, but new start-ups can leapfrog the problem somewhat. So we see many older companies dying while small startups are multiplying. I lay most fault at businessmen’s feet because if you have power you also have responsibility; use it wisely.

Symptoms of power corrupting businessmen: emphasis upon nonproductive work that they understand, while downplaying work they don’t understand. Examples: creating lots of spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations about projected sales and goals without revisiting them later for accuracy and strategy corrections, product feature creep, and assumptions that what the other side does is easy and overpaid.

The problem is the engineer’s mindset; if something is worth knowing, then we would have learned it engineering school.

Engineers get promoted into management for reasons unrelated to their suitability or willingness to be effective managers.

The best talker who is also a competent gets the first promotion into engineering management.

The second best talker who is also a competent gets the second promotion into engineering management.

The third best talker who is also a competent gets the third promotion into engineering management and makes the best manager.

ferd, you mention many of the things I wanted to say. Many companies cannot work well if they don’t have both kinds. And if these two groups don’t value each other things turn sour as well.

Being a business engineer myself, I am interacting with both groups and am often the bridge from one “world” to the other. We need to understand that these groups are very different.

Business people / engineers have a different focus.
While sales people have the $$$, the customers and keeping them happy as a focus, engineers have the functionality of the product as a focus.
It always amazes me to see how good sales people can make contact with customers, approach new customers, and continue to do so even when they get rejected many times. On the other side, they often oversell and promise functionality or fixes to the customers (to make them sign or keep them happy), which then turn out nonexistent or very costly.
Engineers can come with amazing ideas, create great functionality, great shortcuts, great products. However, the costs for creating them may be in no connection with what you can sell them for. When they demonstrate their product they often do it in a way as if they are talking to specialists, go into tiny details and the listener is lost in no time as they cannot follow. When implementing new functionality, they often don’t think of the consequences when introducing changes, forget about downward compatibility and don’t think about how sensitive a productive system is to changes.

Business people / engineers also act very differently.
Sales people don’t only sell products but they sell themselves as well. I often feel that the interaction of sales people is very competitive in the sense of who is best, who has made the better quota etc.
Engineers are often deep in details. Using achronyms and technical jargon is due to the fact that they think the others are as deep in this topic but also for competitive reasons, like: “what, you don’t know what JXCYL37 is??”

So, both groups have their plus’ and minus’.
Important is
– in most companies you need both professions if the company is to be successful.
– if we value each other we can bridge the gap between the diverging focus and the diverging behavior.

I hate to bring this to you, but from my experience business and engineering
people don’t go together. there may be some exeptions, but they are not many.

i have studied industrial engineering and hated it all the way.
if you are an engineering inclined person, like i was my whole life,
you’d always choose engineering over some 50/50 course ware.
i never got along well with most of the business inclined people,
even when i forces myself to.

i have always been the practical one and hated to talk about marketing or psychilogical concepts to bring people to the point to buy your incomplete stuff.

i took on a sales/ marketing internship and realized that this is not for me
i sort of knew it before, but i never thought that you can’t force yourself into a warderobe you fortunatly don’t fit.

i started with the goal to become an engineer. but all my classmates would rather be businesspeople i recognized.
choose what you feel more comfortable with and look at the courseware you will have.
also look at the future job positions for your study.
don’t do anything you don’t see yourself doing later on life.

Just curious. Why did you dislike industrial engineering so much and are you currently working in that field? I am an industrial engineer myself and I found this article because I began to see what seems to be a veiled contempt for I.E.s within my production value stream. Our company recently was merged and post merger the operating system of the company seamed to take industrial engineering concepts and simplify them so that non technical people could take on the role of improvements. What we have now is alot of business managers trying to operate a manufacturing production facility solely around the simple tools that where taught. Any insight or recommendation by us newly hired Industrial engineers seems to be disregarded and we have to sit back and watch things become worst. Also post merger many of the non technical contiuous improvement managers are now scrambling to find ways to fit into the new operating system which is muxh more data driven. In other words the are trying to do real I.E work and this usualy is a disaster as it reveals there true lack of understanding about the manufacturing processes they work with or worst the try to attach themselves to an I.E to later take credit or present the work or ideas from the I.Es as there own. It has been pretty interesting to witness thos for the last year or so.

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