Engineering has never been "just about engineering" decisions. It's always been about:
- The customer "stuff"
- The product "stuff"
- The manufacturing "stuff"
- The marketing and sales "stuff"
- The business "stuff"
...and finally, the engineering "stuff."
Engineering is a discipline that has rules, or we think it has objective rules, and it does, to a point. Taken in isolation, engineering decisions can be made according to engineering rules, but isolation can be deceiving. I was once training the teams that worked for me in an engineering-dominated company. My point was that people make emotional decisions and then look for reasons why their decision was right.
One of the most vocal engineering managers, Jim, stood up and said, "Bull**it, I don't make emotional decisions even in my everyday life!" I knew Jim pretty well. He was an exceptional engineer and a good manager. Also, he had just bought a new car.
I asked Jim how he had chosen his new car. He beamed and proudly told everyone how he had made a huge decision matrix that included all of the technical features of all of the cars that he and his wife were considering. He had a place for horsepower, and others for fuel economy, stopping distance, crash worthiness, and all of the objectively measurable features of the cars.
Knowing many of the details of the actual process Jim used led me to the Achilles heel of his choice in a few short questions. I eventually asked, "Jim, why did you choose that specific car when some of the alternatives were cheaper?" He answered, "Because my wife liked it."
Aha! An emotional decision! There was no objectively measurable thing that entered into the decision matrix. And, in fact, the car that they chose was not the best fit in the decision matrix. But, it passed the most important test of all: Did his wife like the car?
Business for engineers has a lot in common with this story. There are a great many aspects of the other business disciplines that we'll consider in future columns that won't make logical sense to you. Sometimes, as you gain more understanding, they will start to make sense -- but sometimes not. Sometimes you will just have to accept them as axiomatic, no matter how silly or stupid they seem.
Gaining a better understanding of business will make you a better engineer. It may lead you to new fields or help you define a new product for your company. It might even give you the tools to decide to start your own company.
Hold on tight for the ride -- it's going to be a wild one!