Dear Managers and Future Managers,

You know the personality stereotypes of an engineer.  We calculate, optimize, model real life as complex systems, and prize efficiency above almost all else.  Some may even say that our robotic ways cause us to rate the importance of  'feelings' somewhere between 'of note' and 'totally irrelevant.'  This can make it easy to manage engineers by expecting them to always follow these characteristics like a predictable cog in a machine.  However attempting to get the best from us by motivating the quantitative, optimizing part of our personality will rarely draw out everything we have to give.  Carrots and sticks are simply not that interesting.


Despite our unique ways of showing it, engineers can be emotionally driven like any other human on the planet, especially when it comes to our work.  We are craftsmen and craftswomen, embedded with a desire to make a mark by creating something new.  Allow me to elaborate through a few examples:

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  • Most engineers are paid by salary with no opportunity for a significant bonus.  So why is it that some continue working long after the 5pm whistle?  Sometimes it is fear of not doing a job on time or on target, but I have found the strongest motivation among my colleagues to be “Get out of here -- I'm doing something!” Just like when a mom tries to interrupt the lego session of a 5-year-old future engineer for superfluous things like 'eating' or 'sleeping', an engineer wrist-deep in a circuit isn't going to leave the lab.

  • Anyone who has attended a meeting with engineers where the merits of design features are discussed has seen our emotional side.  You'll never see an engineer so close to throwing a punch!  A true optimizer would bear in mind the schedule, the cost of time, and the R&D risk to agree with management/marketing/manufacturing representatives that some features aren't the most critical aspects of a project.  What other employee would defend, tooth and nail, the opportunity for MORE work?  That's borderline irrational.

  • Few days are more sad than when an engineer's project gets cut.  Those without emotions wouldn't mind, so long as their paychecks continue to come on time.  But engineers respond almost as if someone has died by saying, “The new auto gain control circuit had such promise!  The thing was even working!”

So what does all of this mean to you, manager of emotional beings?  It means an opportunity to gain a better understanding of why we act the way we do, of course!  Here are a few examples of how you might use this new-found understanding:

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  • Allow us to take personal ownership of the design.  Encourage statements such as “I've been working on my auto gain control circuit all week” and give credit in a similar manner by saying, “Jim's auto gain circuit is going to be a real product differentiator.”
  • Pay homage to the technical progress that was made during self-imposed overtime hours.  The extra work was likely put in with a technical goal in mind, so identify with our accomplishments.  And whatever you do, don't cheapen it with vague, half-joking promises of bonuses or raises that may or may not happen.  We get all 'robotic' about money, so don't talk about it unless the checkbook is out.
  • Killing a project needs to happen every now and again.  Engineers understand, but only begrudgingly.  If we work 70 hour weeks without extra pay but with the motivation of bringing a great idea to reality, success is part of our compensation.  It is hard to hear financial rationalizations that do not include the lost time and energy on the engineer's part, which will now go unaccounted for and uncompensated.  If at all possible, a manager should try to do something to pay the employee for their wasted time.  Something like a day off or two is a great way to prevent an engineer from hesitating the next time he or she is motivated to stay late and keep the momentum going.

So Mr. or Mrs. Manager, I hope I've explained a few of the many quirks that we have.  I'd be interested in any other quirks that you've noticed in the comments!