Given all the new tools and technology that promise to significantly boost productivity, why do so many engineers consistently rank "not enough time and resources" as one of their top challenges?
None of us, or course, is going to admit to watching cat videos or playing Tetris at work. But are engineers really as crazy-busy as they claim to be? And if they are, what's going on?
Those are questions that three engineering managers explored during a session at the Test Leadership Forum at NI Week 2014, organized by Bill Driver, a marketing manager at National Instruments. We also spoke with a few non-manager engineers to get their take on the issue.
Source: UBM Tech "Mind of the Engineer" Study, 2013
"Are engineers more productive today? I would have to say that they are, but at the same time we keep giving them more to do," said Ken Shephard. He's director of test engineering at Northrup Grumman, where he oversees a department of 160 engineers. "I think more is asked of engineers today vs. 25 years ago, but I don't think it's unique to engineers. Americans work more hours than anyone else on the planet."
That sentiment was echoed by Dale Foster, an engineering services manager at Boston Scientific, who oversees the electrical, mechanical, and software labs that support all design and testing of medical devices. "The claim is real -- engineers are busier than ever, but it's management's job to set the priorities and fight for more resources," Foster stressed.
"There's no doubt that engineers are much more productive these days. If you were to measure it by 'transistor count' or in the case of a software engineer 'lines of code,' a task that took six engineers 20 years ago to do can easily be done by one engineer today," said Edison Fong. He's an analog engineer who spent most of his career in big corporations and now does consulting. It was a career change brought about, not by choice, but rather by declining demand for the kind of analog design work he does.
Given the corporate trend toward "right-sizing" and the increasing focus on profitability, it's tempting to conclude that there are simply not enough engineers to do the work. And while engineering departments are decidedly leaner than in the past, the story is more complicated than that.
Thanks to the Internet, an engineer's job is now 24/7. "In the old days, we had more idle time," said Fong told us. "Not anymore. With Asia and Europe online, teams are working around the clock. I passed by Apple Headquarters in Cupertino the other evening. It was 9:30 p.m., and the parking lot was over 50% full. This would have never happened pre-Internet."
For David Ashton, a telecom specialist in charge of keeping a large communications network going, time always seems to be in short supply. In particular, he said, there is ever less of it for the kind of housekeeping tasks that, while not directly productive work, do impact productivity.
He believes a key issue is that managers are much more involved today -- and not in a good way. "In the past my team had almost total autonomy to design and implement our communications network as we saw fit. We had the expertise and also a good understanding of what the customer (in this case the rest of the organization) needed," recalled Ashton. "But these days more and more of the design decisions, actually any decisions, tend to be taken further up the chain by managers who don't have the expertise to get the best real-world solutions."
Illustrating why Scott Adams will never run out of ideas for the Dilbert cartoon, Ashton cited example after example of situations in which actions by management resulted in more work, more cost, and more time pressures for the engineering team.
"This is kind of a silly example, but awhile ago managers decided our storage area needed 'cleaning up.' They came and, without even checking with us, chucked out a lot of current spare equipment along with some old, redundant stuff. Against orders, I retrieved most of the current stuff, which saved us a huge amount of work later when we needed the spares."