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Myth of the Technical Track

Management Migration of Engineering Talent

Those of us who go through engineering training arrive and depart with a wide range of expectations and purposes.  Some of us were just good at math and science as kids, and we followed that inertia into an engineering program with little thought of long-range lifestyle implications.  We simply chose the college program that most closely mimicked our favorite subjects in high-school and… voila – we popped out with an engineering degree.  During our last year of college, of course, the recruiters invaded the campus with well-rehearsed and elaborate spiels setting our salivary glands on edge with detailed descriptions of generous benefits packages, big starting bonuses, on-site basketball gyms, and company cafeterias. 

Our work would be challenging and interesting, and we’d get to play with some of the coolest gadgets on the planet while developing new and innovative technology that most of the world couldn’t even yet conceive.  Our new billion-dollar benefactor would watch over us and care for our careers with the patience and nurturing instincts of our own mothers, and we’d likely grow old and retire singing the anthem of our company while our stock options multiplied into magnificent fortunes. 

Three years and two layoffs later, we woke up in a six-foot gray cubicle staring at an obsolete monitor, working our way through a batch of bug reports on a product that was about to be discontinued – backed by a pyramid of Mountain Dew cans we’d created as an effigy to late night lab sessions fighting feverishly to get the product out the door only a few months late with what we all pretended was an acceptable level of quality.

At some point during this journey, we probably began to realize that we should start trying to take our futures into our own hands, and engaged in some form of ill-informed career planning.  This might have even involved a sit-down meeting with an HR professional at our employer-du-jour (not the old HR professional that just got fired, but the new one that’s working closely with management to re-vamp our career ladder and improve morale among the engineering staff).  During that consultation we might have been placated with the myth of the technical track – the idea that there are two parallel and equal promotion paths through a high-tech company that culminate in similar levels of responsibility and reward, one through the traditional melee of the management hierarchy and another one – the one with our name indelibly ascribed in golden-parachute ink – where our progress would depend solely on our technical prowess.

This idea certainly put smiles on our faces!

We trundled back down the corridor to our cubicle – past the break room with the automatic espresso machine, past the mahogany doors guarding the window-walled offices of the executives, left down the aisle past the long row of empty cubes belonging to the group that was just eliminated in the last restructuring, past the cube with all the decommissioned workstations from the project that was just cancelled, and into our own cell, er, cube block where our buddies sat spellbound watching Youtube videos while they waited for the build and testing server to come back online. 

Which ones of them knew about the technical track?  Titles are deliberately vague and seldom discussed in many technology companies, so it’s often virtually impossible to tell which “Member of Technical Staff” is a new college hire, and which one has been promoted to the elusive and exclusive E99 paygrade and is now secretly acting as strategic technical consultant to executive management.  Sometimes only the loftiest levels get a business card distinction like “Chief Scientist” or “Fellow” – and often a mahogany-row abode to boot, but the rest of the technical track typically remains shrouded in mystery.

So – how much of the technical track is myth, and how much reality?  In many companies, particularly at the sub-executive levels, the technical track is taken seriously and is often more generous than the management hierarchy.  When you get to the second-level of management and up, for example, it’s hard to explain if more than one person occupies the “manager” or “director” box for a given node on the org chart.  In the technical track, however, there are an almost unlimited number of higher-grade engineering positions, as, theoretically, any member of any team could be promoted without changing their basic responsibilities. 

Probably the biggest fallacy in the myth of the technical track is our own expectations.   We understand that only one manager can manage the team, only one director can manage the group, and only one general manager can run the division.  What happens to all the rest of the aspiring managers that are vying to make their way up to the higher branches of that tree?  We never really track their progress or their fate.  In engineering, however, we create unreasonable expectations that, just because we have a certain number of years of service or a certain education credential we should be promoted on a sort of de-facto schedule right up to the highest level.  In truth, most of us aren’t good enough for that – and will never be.  While we can accept that competition is a key component of management promotion, we don’t reflect that same understanding to the virtual world of the engineering track.

Many engineers get frustrated with the vagaries of technical advancement and defect to the management hierarchy – not because they actually enjoy management work or have good team-building and leadership skills, but because they see a more concrete path to the top levels of the organization through that more visible channel.  The tragic result of this migration is a proliferation of unqualified, unmotivated managers who don’t serve their teams, their organization, or themselves very well.  When you see the “manager” title on the door and the person inside the office busy with a scope or a debugger, you may very likely be in the presence of such a case.

Even our reasons for desiring promotion vary widely from one individual to the next.  For some, it’s a simple question of financial compensation.  “If I had that title, I’d be on that paygrade and get that kind of salary.”  For others, its peer recognition that is most important.  We want other engineers to respect our accomplishments, our experience, and our expertise, and our promotion progress is one way to reflect that.  This effect, however, is diminished by the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of many companies on technical titles.  Still a third group wants the promotion because they want to have more impact on the work of the company itself.  If you’re the engineer making the high-level architectural decisions for the company’s next product, you’re having significantly more impact than the guy whose full-time job is debugging the diagnostic self-test routine.

Perhaps the entire question comes down to impact.  In a perfect world, each member of a team would be compensated and recognized proportional to the contribution he or she makes to the company’s bottom line (if you’re in a company that measures success strictly on financial results).  Managers and engineers would each contribute based on their strength and expertise – managers on their ability to build, organize, and motivate a team, and engineers based on their ability to creatively solve critical, high-value problems. 

I recently chatted with the manager of an engineering consulting company who claimed that an “excellent” engineer had a real value approximately forty times that of a “good” engineer.  When I asked if he maintained such a differential on compensation, he replied that the success of his business was based on hiring only “excellent” engineers in the first place.  If that’s true, he should do whatever he can to hang onto those people.

Another company I knew had no title hierarchy at all.  Every professional employee got the same base salary and had the same basic title.  Differential compensation was determined by the distribution of a pool of money that varied with company performance, and each individual’s variable pay was determined by peer-review of their contribution for the last period. 

I also once worked with a manager who said he believed that each employee’s salary should be printed on his door plate – right below his name.  His theory was that this would promote a sort of accountability not seen in today’s system.  If each person entering your office had his expectations set by the number on the door, you’d probably do your best to justify your rate.  Until that day, however, we’ll just have to live with the current system.

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