Chris has talked before about how engineers tend to think highly of people in “value-add” professions. At least as perceived by engineers, if you are contributing something useful, that contribution is respected. But perception of value is a very tricky thing – two people in very different fields may both be doing work that is important, but neither one may appreciate the other. I’ve been considering value from another angle – instead of looking at how much you are adding with your skills, what happens if you look at how hard your skills are to take advantage of?
Recently I watched a situation unfold where two people involved in a project – one an engineer, one a businessman – had a falling out and canceled the project they were working on together. Often it is just as instructive about people and their character and values to observe what happens when things go WRONG, rather than when things are going swimmingly.
In this case, when the project was canceled, the business person was very worried that the partner would “take advantage of the relationships” that the business person brought to the table, and so asked the engineer not to contact anyone they had been introduced to during the project.
It got me thinking about not only what skills engineers bring to the table, but also how hard they are to take advantage of.
The nice thing about technical knowledge – is that nobody can make you un-learn a technical thing. If you know how to analyze a beam in bending, then you know. If you can design a circuit, nobody is going to be able to make you forget how to string together Rs and Cs and Ls. If the main skills you bring to the table as an engineer are the ability to think critically while tackling a problem, and the education that gave you the knowledge to solve the problem – then thinking and knowledge are not things that you can lose, even if a project is canceled.
However. I have seen unscrupulous folks steal ideas. I’ve seen this both in the area of patents for mechanical folks, in particular, and in the area of bio experiments in the life sciences fields. You can think of a brilliant gadget, but if you haven’t documented it, someone can patent the idea as their own and steal it from you. Or if you’ve made a genius advance in malaria research, if someone gets ahold of your documentation, they might be able to scoop you for a Nature paper.
So in that sense, even though technical skills can’t be stolen from you, your work can still be taken advantage of if someone takes credit for your technical work.
The majority of business folks I know say that the main value-add component they bring to the table is relationships. Who you know is highly important in business, and it determines a lot about your reputation and your perceived pedigree. There is no denying that people are what make business happen – there is very little substitute for knowing the right people. All decisions eventually go through a person – and there are always, always more factors involved in a decision than pure technical merit.
If you have a personal connection, you can open doors, make progress happen, get better deals and terms, get privileged information, and influence the decision makers. I mean, who wouldn’t be impressed if you could call up Donald Trump and ask him to be an investor in a business idea? 🙂 There is a reason people name-drop when they are trying to impress who they are talking to…
And it is hard to build relationships. It requires time invested, it requires mutual respect and helpfulness, and it requires growing trust between the two parties. It is a SKILL. One that engineers in particular can be known to struggle with.
But what I find so silly about the scenario I witnessed, is that the business person thought that the engineer could – with as little as one email – possibly destroy the relationships they had built, which the business person considered the main skill they contributed. If a relationship could be that easily ruined, then how valuable was it to begin with?
It is difficult to gain technical expertise, and it is difficult to grow personal relationships. It is possible to steal technical ideas, and it is possible to take advantage of relationships unfairly. But I think in the end, in both cases it is the SKILL that can not be taken away. Even if your idea is stolen, it was your brain that came up with it, and you can come up with more ideas – although that would be unfair. If someone you know uses your name to endorse projects that you are no longer involved in – although it would be slimy and unethical – even if it ruins your reputation then you still have the skills to rebuild relationships.
Personally, I am glad to fall on the technical side. I recognize and appreciate the skills required for both engineering and business, but I am much more comfortable operating in my little world of cold hard facts.
What do you think, readers – when you work in a group, how confident are you in the value of your contribution, and how worried are you about being taken advantage of?