As we continue on our theme week, I thought I had a slightly different perspective on the business spectrum. While I won’t be writing about my current situation, I have in the past worked for companies that have been on the downward trend. But more to the point, I have worked for companies as a sustaining engineer (keeping old product alive) and through a recession. I think both of these put me in the red area of the spectrum, though the business I worked for did not ultimately shut down. Regardless, I think this situation causes some interesting changes in how I and my colleagues acted as engineers. I’ll cover the the sustaining engineering and the recession separately, though there will be similarities between the two.
Sustaining engineering is not always fun. For those who have never heard of it, it’s the engineering based around keeping a product as a revenue source; this almost always means there is some or exclusive interaction with the manufacturing of a product. This means dealing with issues as they arise in production, dealing with obsolete components as your product ages and reducing cost as consumers continue their march towards cheaper and cheaper goods. If products begin aging the day they’re first produced, the sustaining engineer comes in as the products reach middle age and begin the slide towards death (obsolescence). While this hardly ever means the end of the company (though if the company is small enough, it surely can), product lifecycles follow the same curve as companies; hence, I thought it would be good to mention how the engineering mindset changes as you reach the end of a product’s lifetime.
Sure, there are some interesting challenges inherent to the job. You’re constrained by the existing design. Engineers love constrained problems because it means there are very well defined problems to solve. I’m no different, I love a good set of constraints and trying to optimize a design for those constraints. It’s also a great way to learn about a lot of different aspects of product design. A sustaining group will often have to cover multiple products (hopefully not everything will be broken all the time!). This allows you to see the different methodologies each designer employs and recurring building blocks utilized in different designs.
However, the mindset is the critical thing and it truly changes when you’re working on aging products. More than anything, the focus is on keeping a product alive, at least until its determined to no longer “be good business” (i.e. no longer turning a profit). The drive to get things done quickly often overwhelmed me into guessing solutions versus analyzing them. Oftentimes I felt that if I stepped back and truly calculated what the best solution would be it would have ultimately saved me time. This same “get it done” and “keep it alive” mentality constrained how many new things I was able to try. If the customer is expecting their widget to turn a screw or measure a parameter, they ultimately will expect it to do that action the exact same way. This means rigorous testing after I made any changes, however small. It also meant that those changes should be large enough to fix whatever problem was at hand (in order to justify the cost of testing) but small enough so that it doesn’t change the functionality of the product. Overall, it was usually interesting work, but it constrained how I thought about problems. Now that I’ve moved onto more design-oriented work (leaving my problems for other poor saps in the future!), I’ve found myself constrained by the same thought processes, to my detriment. When doing an update of a new product design, I now have to fight myself. In design, bold new changes are required (sometimes) and my brain is wired not to allow them!
Engineering During Recession
Above all other thoughts, the company shutting down was the defacto assumption. You can see this in my writings from the time. I wrote about my surprise at still having a job on January 1st, how I planned to utilize my nimble skill-set if I in fact lost my job and how I leaned on writing as an escape to not think about the sour economic news.
I’m sure many of you experienced similar environments at your workplace during the recession. Things change. It feels like the walls are closing in daily. Fear is pervasive. Every decision from the top executives to the assembler on the factory floor is made with the thought of survival in mind. In engineering, this means that cost becomes the number one design criteria. Not always for good reason either. This could either result in worse products or longer design cycles. On the sustaining side, mentioned above, it meant even more focus on keeping the cash-producing product lines alive (“Cash is king”) in order to fund other flailing business arms. This meant even fewer product obsolescence instances, even when they were sorely needed; sometimes a product cannot logically be made any more.
In terms of the “employment” side of things when a company is shutting down, the mood changes as well. No one is willing to stick their neck out anymore, oftentimes because they’ve already seen a few heads cut off (sometimes at no fault of the recipients of the chopping). This means that poor decisions can easily be passed through committees, simply because no one is willing to say anything otherwise. It also means that bold product decisions that are often needed in new designs are passed by in favor of “safe” product decisions. And sometimes the decisions don’t even get to happen because no new products are being made; the focus is more on surviving and all resources are steered towards anything producing cash.
Being an engineer towards the back of the business spectrum really isn’t fun. If Dilbert is in a corporate hell-hole of a workplace in the famous cartoon, he at least is dealing with an established company. The pointy haired boss isn’t nearly as annoying once he gets laid off and you get shuffled under a new set of management. Engineering in the back end of the business spectrum can have some significant design challenges that allow you to grow as an engineer. I’d suggest you try growing somewhere else though.