Exacerbating the problem is the real phenomenon of ever-shrinking schedules, something cited so often by engineers that timelines may now be asymptotically approaching zero.
"In the defense industry being quicker to market is important. If you and I are bidding on the same job, and I say I can do it in 24 months instead of 30, that's a big advantage that can lead to a win," Shephard pointed out. "The problem, of course, is that the engineering work is roughly the same, but there's less time in the schedule to make up for the inevitable hiccups that you're going to run into, and the one thing that never changes is the end date."
Another challenge for engineers stretched to the limit is that they're finding less time to get themselves help by bringing new workers up to speed. "I try to remind engineers that they were new once and somebody did this for you, but it's a challenge when there's less slack in the system to pick up extra responsibilities," said Shepherd.
And in an ironic kind of way, engineers also point to the tools themselves as a source of their time crunch.
"Notwithstanding the productivity claims, most of the new tools are forced on engineers, and they take time to learn and actually take time to use -- time which theoretically could have been spent actually getting something done instead of using a tool to show that something is getting done," said Foster. "I've used good tools and bad tools; the risk is in not knowing if the tool will actually address the productivity issue."
Shephard pointed out that engineers do not always know the tools as well as they should know them. But then on-the-job training or the necessary bandwidth to be trained is not always an option for busy engineers.
"To keep up, an engineer must not only have the latest tools, but the right training to use them. And when you're getting slammed at work, the only time to take on something new is when you're off the clock, and that leaves no time for family and social life," said Fong. "Maybe it works when you're just out of school, but it's not practical when you get older. One needs time off from the day-to-day pressure to really learn something new."
A problem that needs fixing, but how?
So what's to be done, given no obvious relief in sight for engineers who have so much work and so little time?
One of the things Shepherd said he likes about engineers is that they are hard workers and strive to do a good job. But there is a limit to the amount of work that can be heaped on their plates. "We are trying to lessen the burden by adding more staff, and we are looking for broader-based engineers. We think having a few utility players that can help out in a variety of different areas will pay off for the team."
Foster concurred that engineers will go the extra mile, so long as they understand the expectations and the rewards for doing the work. "They need to know what the benefit is if they take on extra work to help out or to learn something new. I do not believe this question is always answered very well or answered at all."
Foster argued that management needs to step up and provide more direction and structure to engineering teams, pointing out that he gives his team the top three priorities. If they take on anything new, they must convince him that the schedule will not be impeded. "I also give them time constraints. No more than eight hours overtime each week and no more than three straight weeks with overtime. My motto is 'Work to live, not live to work.' "
Ashton says that engineers today don't feel they are part of the team, and that management needs to return to the "floor-walking" management style of Bill and Dave at Hewlett-Packard. "They had a good idea of the capabilities of every one of their workers, and the workers had some idea of which way management was going. Most importantly, there was communication between them. If managers would think of their role as coordination and communication rather than one of issuing edicts, things would work a lot better."
Foster said he stimulates communication within his department by asking each of his reports to run a one-hour weekly team meeting, during which he or she discusses what they did and why they did it that way. "We then have an open discussion. It's unbelievable how much they learn from each other, and how much I learn from them. And it stimulates ideas on ways that we can work better and more effectively."
As for Fong, he thinks that if companies want more productive teams they need to regain the loyalty of engineers, many of whom have been impacted by corporate downsizing and the hiring of contract engineers. "To build up a productive team takes years," he stressed. "We need to ask ourselves if this is really going to happen as long as we only focus on short term results."
— Karen Field, Director of Content, EE Live and EE Times