back to article Proper boffins make your company succeed, even if you're not very technical

Good news for British techies. A wide-ranging innovation study recommends that firms should hire more staff who can solve complex technical problems, even if they’re not tech companies or the techies aren’t employed in a narrowly technical function. So says a report on Innovation and Growth prepared for the Department of …

COMMENTS

This topic is closed for new posts.

Ah, but...

...are techies really the best people at doing the very people-centric job of networking and communication with lots of other people? IMHO, I think not.

What this article makes me think is that we don't have enough technical jobs in this country any more due to all the outsourcing, so now we've got to find something for the technically-oriented to do which isn't actually technical...

1
6

Re: Ah, but...

Will you give in with this bull**** nonsense about techies being basement-dwelling, neck-bearded, live-at-home-with-mum, single and lonely introverts? Please!

We have more than enough technical jobs "in this country", we also have a shortage of people trained up to do those jobs and willing to do them for the going rate - this will change once people fully grok the pros and cons of outsourcing. RBS, NatWest and Co. are doing a nice job educating people thankfully.

6
1

Re: Ah, but...

Actually I disagree. I am, I suppose, squarely the sort of techie the article is on about - PhD in mechanical engineering, and working for a large vehicle manufacturer in Northern Ireland.

I'm no Obama when it comes to communication, however, when our customers (large fleet operators) or suppliers visit, they much prefer a presentation from an engineer, working on engineering solutions to engineering problems, then a polished, high-tech, all-signing all-dancing presentation by someone in a suit, who doesn't actually work at the sharp end of development. Even if I say "um" and "like" too much.

I think the article is spot on. Stick intelligent, educated people into traditional industries, and they'll get to know everyone relevant in their sector, they'll attend seminars and meetings, they'll spot opportunities and they'll attempt to solve problems in larger, more integrated ways than simply "get that guy to drill that hole there."

9
1
Silver badge
Holmes

Trick cyclist with scant knowledge about economic exchanges spotted.

What this article makes me think

Yes?

is that we don't have enough technical jobs in this country any more

Go on...

due to all the outsourcing, so now we've got to find something for the technically-oriented to do which isn't actually technical

Intredasting! I sure will subscribe to your newsletter.

0
1
Anonymous Coward

Re: Ah, but...

Would you rather a sales person tried to explain a problem or an engineer?

2
0
Anonymous Coward

Re: Ah, but...

I'm not mr confident, slick sales person. Many companies would probably not want to send me on-site at all. Yet customers warm to me, they feel i'm one of them, not some flash twit in a BMW trying to bullshit them. I was even invited down the pub one lunchtime by one customer, something unheard of before for that customer.

2
0

Re: Ah, but...

I have a degree in Physics and a Post Grad in Business and run a successful Sales and Marketing department. Having an analytical and inquiring mind are not mutually exclusive to being a good communicator and networker. In fact, I think they are most complimentary!

0
0

Re: Ah, but...

>I have a degree in Physics and a Post Grad in Business and run a successful Sales and Marketing department. Having an analytical and inquiring mind are not mutually exclusive to being a good communicator and networker. In fact, I think they are most complimentary!

The higher level one works at, the more important the effective communication of ideas. The best leaders are those who get everyone together and harness the differences rather than play them off each other. I would go further and say the mind component is necessary, but not sufficient to be a good communicator.

For every geek or bully-type engineer/techie there are 10 well adjusted ones you don't hear about. While we're being honest, lets admit that more than half of engineers/techies are barely fit for their work much like the general population. No wonder the delusions of greatness are so common.

The reality is for many bright people, the specialization early in education coupled with their own propensity to pick up certain subjects faster allows them to get 'skills' that would take most people much longer to acquire. When you look engineer/tech types after several years in the workplace, most of these early achievers have greatly increased their speaking and writing skills as they have had much practice through the course of their work.

0
0
Anonymous Coward

A lot of truth in this

Back in the 1990s, supply chain management was my big thing. Fortunately I had a very good purchasing guy to work with. Too often purchasing wants to get the contract signed with the lowest price. Engineers tend to want the lowest cost of ownership, which means being able to see further down the process chain.

In several cases we found that where things had been done properly in the past, contracts had been renegotiated to "reduce costs", which caused major production headaches down the line. We even found it possible to "rearrange" the supply chain so that apparently competing suppliers could co-operate. But this was working with German, Swiss and French companies and liaising with engineers.

I will say that Harold Wilson did have a clue about such things. But since then what can you expect? In 2014 the UK is run by an Old Etonian PR man and a retired towel folder, who followed a historian, a lawyer, a banker and another lawyer. Germany is run by a Frau Doktor. When we read about low productivity, low growth and the rest, that might be a clue as to one of the reasons.

6
0
Silver badge

Re: A lot of truth in this

And what's even better if you did hire skilled experienced engineering graduates to run the country - you would only have to pay them £16k

1
2
Anonymous Coward

Re: A lot of truth in this

@YAAC

I don't think the current senior members of the Chinese Government get by on £16k.

A lot of them are engineers.

0
0
Anonymous Coward

Re: A lot of truth in this

As a former research chemist with a BSc, Maggie was something of a techie ...

0
0
Anonymous Coward

Breaking news...

University leaders produce reporting stating more companies should employ those they educate.

More at 11...

0
1
Silver badge
Holmes

"I don't often talk to liberal arts majors, but when I do, I order LARGE FRIES"

I would think if they are correctly "educated" (as opposed to today's "edulcorated"), they would be hired forthwith and no "reporting" would be needed.

1
1
Anonymous Coward

Re: "I don't often talk to liberal arts majors, but when I do, I order LARGE FRIES"

Business often knows what it wants, but not so often what it needs. Universities are needed to turn out graduates who know stuff that is going to be very important in ten years time. Many MBAs are not thinking beyond the next bonus.

During the Industrial Revolution, a few far seeking engineers came up with crazy long term thinking like railways, steamships and the telegraph system. Even quite little firms carved out niches (there is one near here which specialised in cricket pitch rollers, and they are still going.) Now, we're told social media is innovation. Business managers are now very rarely the driving technical talent behind companies; they do need to have their horizons widened.

Oh, and it was a "liberal arts major" (psychology) who realised that Rolls Royce needed to learn how to talk to the City and change the perception of its business. I doubt he'll be found in a fast food joint, on either side of the counter.

0
1
Silver badge

Re: "I don't often talk to liberal arts majors, but when I do, I order LARGE FRIES"

It's not quite that simple. I've worked with PhD's from some of the highest caliber educational institutions on Earth, and I've worked with people who never graduated high school. The interesting thing about that is, if you weren't informed ahead of time you'd have 50/50 shot at identifying which was which.

Simply going to university, any university, is meaningless if the student is more interested in a degree and potential than greater understanding of their chosen field. Even at top notch, technical schools like Stevens, MIT and Princeton the ability to take exams well is far more valuable than knowledge of a given field.

That situation is exacerbated by the fact that university education can be more correctly labeled 'university training. Courses of study tend to focus on specific technologies and popular practices, rather than fundamental principles. That's about the worst possible way to create a valuable member of any technically oriented field, and the best way to prematurely end a career.

There's no university that can even come close to matching the speed of evolution in commerce. Even things that appear to be done the way for hundreds of years experience large shifts on a regular basis. What you end up with is an undergrad entering the workforce and knowing nothing about the basics of their field and nothing about current technologies, processes and operations within a given field.

Those undergrads, which have become the majority, can't justify even junior engineer or researcher salaries. It takes 18-24 months to beat all that university 'industry trend' garbage out of their heads then a couple more years to educate them on the basics of the field. They can't help with 'innovation' because they don't know what's actually possible. They come up with the most dangerous, ill conceived notions imaginable and, even worse, don't know the difference between data in tables and that same data in an applied environment. In my field, there aren't many reference materials that tell you not to put (Alloy A) in contact with (Alloy B). You've got to be able to deduce that from the data in the tables, which is perfectly fine, if you actually understand the tables. Unfortunately, a lot of even graduate students don't know how to do that.

That's not to say that a university education is a waste, but it's on the student to go beyond the exams and experiment, and learn, on their own time. Getting a degree in Mechanical Engineering does not an Engineer make. It's really easy for governments to push certain tracks of education, but what always happens is the schools just game the system, meet the requirements and ship out tons of people with titles they don't deserve, or even understand.

If driving business is what you want tech people for you've got to teach them the tech before you can even start on teaching them business. Universities all suck at teaching business, and they always have. But in the last 20 years or so they've been sucking at teaching technical disciplines as well. Universities are degrading the value of a degree and undermining the very governments they are supporting. They're targeting career paths with good salaries, but sending the least desirable people toward those paths.

Applied technical disciplines are supposed to be incredibly difficult to learn. It's a safety mechanism that keeps the wrong people from getting into advanced fields where vast amounts of property damage, personal injury and death are the penalties for making mistakes. If a school has a tremendously high graduation rate in complex fields then something is really bad wrong.

Like I tell my interns every year, my responsibilities are my staff and our clients. I refuse to jeopardize either with substandard entry level staff. Nor will I jeopardize anyone else by letting those substandard entry level staffers work in the industry. I'll close every door on Earth to them if I don't find them sufficiently capable. I cannot, with a clear conscience, support someone who doesn't know enough to effectively assess risks. If people get hurt by their errors that makes me responsible for those injuries. If you know your stuff, I'll back you as far as necessary if something unfortunate happens. Unfortunately, far, far too many current graduates simply don't know enough to empower. I'll consider hiring about anyone, but I'm not going to give them engineer or materials scientist pay if they aren't up to the task. If a PhD doesn't want to work for McDonalds pay then they should go back and discuss a refund with their universities.

2
1
Gold badge
Unhappy

high innovation <> high growth.

It seems a lot of "highly innovative" companies are happy at the size and turnover they already are. They rather do more "clever" stuff than "bigger" stuff.

It's a different kind of ambition.

OTOH some companies may produce fairly pedestrian products but in ever cleverer and cheaper ways.

And then of course there are the rump of SME's in the UK, whose owners lucked into the business and have been milking it ever since. They wouldn't know any kind of innovation if it wacked them on the side of the head with a lump hammer.

If C&C are hoping their growth is going to fix the UK economy they are s**t out of luck.

1
0

Lessons for Government

It would be nice to see the same principle applied to Government. A few more Ministers with a technical background and the ability to make some evidence based judgments would be a vast improvement on the knee-jerk reactions of the present incumbents..

8
0
Silver badge

Getting the right people starts at the top

> dispel the popular idea that innovation means growth.

indeed. Innovation can mean producing a lot of new products that are crap, too narrowly focused, too expensive to get into production, not as good as the chinese version at half the price (or: better than the chinese version, but far too expensive and not on sale to 1.3Bn chinese) or not what anybody wants. In that case innovation can simply be the fast track to closure.

The greatest asset a company can have (at least a company who's size is such that a couple of turkeys in a row means death or takeover - if anyone would want to take it over) is someone who knows what is both possible and desirable. Techies are phenomenally bad at knowing what's possible and even worse at knowing what the average customer can be persuaded to buy.

However, that doesn't mean they have no place in a HIFs. They just have to controlled properly, partnered with the correct production, marketing and design people and receive clear direction from the company about the sort of product areas they should be addressing. Sadly, british firms are terrible at doing any of those things, let alone all of them at once. Even if the techies et. al. come through, and make their company a fortune, loyalty is usually seen as a one-way street, so they're just as likely to get the axe when the company fails in a future venture - possibly with a "Cheerio and thanks for all the fish", but still out on their arses.

So, there is no magic STEM fairy that a government can simply drop into smallish companies and turn them into successes - especially trying that with freshly graduated STEMs. Instead, the motivation has to come from the top: C-level types (all of them, not just the CIO) have to be willing to have confidence both in their own ability to recruite the correct set of original thinkers (technical and all the rest) and also in their own ability to plot a way forward, for these thinkers to come up with the right solutions to the correct problems. Once the people at the top do their jobs properly (instead of heaping expediency on top of compromise, without looking ahead further than the next quarter's figures/bonuses), then the right people will become apparent. But they won't appear fresh out of college with a bow around their necks.

2
0

My 2 cents

The problem is most business only see profit and quick profit at the end of the day and highly paid technical staff are normally in the firing line as they can get cheaper out sourcing or hire some junior for half the price, They of course don't see the long term cost by rather pat themselves on the back by increasing the bonus pot for the top echelon of the company.

1
1
Silver badge

Why you only have 2 cents

The problem is that tech people do not sell themselves well...

There are two sides to being profitable:

A) Increasing revenue.

B) Reducing expenses.

Sales people are on the revenue side. Sure, they cost money but they bring in the customers/contracts. More/better sales people ==> more revenue. Most sales people know their numbers. They can say things like "You paid me $200k last year and I brought in $2M or revenue."

On the other hand most techies end up on the expenses side of the ledger. Cost is bad, we try to reduce cost. Sure they are needed - just like we also need chairs and paper clips. We shop around for a good price for paper clips let's get the cheapest techies too.

If you say things like "60% of IT stall in my position are paid more than me", then you are selling yourself based on cost. Management start thinking: "40% of the staff out there are cheaper than this guy. I should try to find some of them!"

What techies need to do is shift themselves from being seen as cost, to being seen to be adding value (by reducing cost or increasing revenue). For example:

* "Last year I designed the software that allowed us to use cheaper electronic components. That saved the company $5M in parts last year."

* "The new network monitoring system I developed reduced down time of the retail website by 10 hours. That gave us $2M of extra online sales this year."

Basically, unless you can articulate your value to management, don't expect them to see it. Certainly don't expect them to pay you for it.

4
0

Re: Why you only have 2 cents

I agree with your sentiment, but many companies are deliberately configured to prevent 'techies' from knowing this information.

1
0
Silver badge

The report is produced by academics employed by a government department. Nobody in this scenario has ever had to make a profit, and that is maybe reflected in their blithe recommendation that companies should employ more engineering-qualified staff. This would be great for us engineers, but costly for the companies involved. Why should company A employ a BEng to manage their company car fleet when somebody less qualified (cheaper) will do ?

And do we really want our electrical engineering grads cutting hair ?

1
3
Silver badge

Re: Why should company A employ a BEng to manage their company car fleet

It's a good place for them to get their feet wet with your company while they learn what you do.

Engineering isn't just the facts and tables. It's a mind set. Engineers see problems differently than other people do. As a result they come up with solutions other people can't. My answer above was a bit whimsical, but depending on what the company car fleet is, an engineer might be one of the best people to put in the position. It might not matter so much when the company fleet is half a dozen vehicles, but get it up around 300 and an engineer might be a good hire. Especially an industrial engineer.

For example, I once asked a mechanical engineering friend to run a registration event for a convention. We had a process, and it worked. I thought it was would be a relatively easy task because the process was well established. I neglected the fact that we had grown quite a bit since the process was initiated. She looked at the whole thing from start to finish and came to me to say it wasn't possible to do the job the way it was currently structured. In order to clear our line she was going to need to process one membership every 47.2 seconds in our target time. And given the budget hours from our volunteer wranglers, she was going to use up 85% of the available time just for one step in badge processing. As a result we re-engineered the process. We spent money on a DOS-like key drive interface for the registration process, did away with the lamination process, and hit all of our targets. First year we had some back end glitches on things we thought we understood but didn't. So while credit card processing wasn't a complete success, they hit our really important target which was clearing the registration line before lunch time. That wouldn't have happened with a lesser caliber person taking that job. The following year was a complete success. We've both moved on since then, and it seems that even though we handed them a solid process, they've forgotten some of the things we taught them. Line handling is slipping and I've driven by late in the afternoon only to see a registration line still wrapped half way around the building -- on Saturday not Friday.

1
0
Silver badge

You are absolutely correct. I'm firmly convinced the 'overkill' of so many jobs 'requiring' an actual, formally trained Engineer, is a function of hiring decision makers not actually understanding the work needing to be done. An extension of the 'nobody ever got fired for buying IBM' school of risk avoidance.

I've always found humor in the fact that throwing a full bore, proper Engineer into situations that don't justify doing so is 100% in opposition to everything an Engineer stands for. Too much, or too little, is never good engineering. Good engineering can be summarized as The solution to a problem using the most cost effective methods and materials available to satisfy the requirements of the task and the end user.

Overkill doesn't enhance the solution in any way, it drives up cost throughout its lifecycle and is wasteful. Three key elements that must be avoided in all Engineering Disciplines.

1
1
Silver badge

Steve Jobs

Is that bit at the end really true? I've never seen anything like that, what I've heard is that Jobs got one or two labels to agree to his pricing, and used it as leverage to pressure the others to go along. If he'd launched without agreements in place, Apple would have been sued before his iPod presentation was even complete. Those RIAA lawyers make Apple's lawyers look like paralegals by comparison!

2
0
Anonymous Coward

Yeah, stop bloody outsourcing!

0
0
Anonymous Coward

as a UK engineer

offered the then equivalent of £16K, I just left the country. Immediately tripled my salary, I'm now innovating for another EU country - there's more sunshine, the wine is cheaper and I'm still in reception zone for Astra 2E for those times when I briefly think I want to watch the BBC propaganda.

0
0
Silver badge

I don't like the global fad of outsourcing or hiring contractors as permanent staff with contractor benefits, but that's as much a function of government policies as anything else.

You can't push for highly educated entry level staff that demand pay 8-9 years beyond their level of knowledge but not teach them the requisite skills that justify their salary demands. Both the US and the UK have the worlds worst cultures of revising skill sets for any given discipline downward without reflecting those revisions in the expectations of the people who do the hiring.

For example, last year I was searching for an additional person to work in our tooling department. The person would report directly to the Tooling Manager (my 2nd in all things related to internal operations) receive our standard benefits package and a base salary of $180k plus qualify for participation in our bonus system (there's a lot of money in our bonus system, it's a big deal). The person needed a PhD in Metrology and at least five years experience in a mixed manual/automated high tolerance manufacturing environment.

We had over 100 applicants and I flew seven of them in for a, paid, week and only one fit the bill. He was Japanese, spoke no English and didn't want to learn English, but I almost hired him anyway with an interpreter to boot. I ended up hiring a Brazilian with only a masters, but his knowledge far exceeded that of the PhD's I had interviewed. Everybody from the US and Europe just sucked. The had degrees, but no knowledge. It was bad.

My Tooling Manager has already tendered his resignation and retirement for March, 2019 and there's more than a little concern that the Brazilian won't be ready to fill that vacuum when the time comes. The Tooling Manager is a seven figure position with open access to every research facility, space agency and aerospace organization on the planet, you'd think people would line up for the job, an they do, but there simply aren't enough young professionals who have the requisite skills and knowledge.

Schools are gaming the system, and governments are allowing it, simply so they can say we've seen (x growth) in STEM graduates. Thing is, they aren't STEM graduates. STEM PhD's from the US and UK are on par with pre-career students at German vocational schools. Everyone is being done a disservice by instilling false ideas in these students about what they're actually being taught. I've seen more than a couple of highly educated people reduced to tears when it became apparent they had been, tricked, basically by an educational system and their governments.

You want to stop outsourcing you need to speak to someone about straightening out the honesty issues that are destroying the educational systems in the West. An engineer or scientist is not created with a degree. As an employer it would be wholly irresponsible for me to hire 'engineers' from my own country who know nothing, but demand pay far beyond the level of their knowledge. I've got staff to look after and I can't do that as well if I'm paying 4-5x over contribution capacity when people from other countries have useful educations, understand business and are fairly priced and less whiny.

Schools send me good people, I'll pay good rates (far beyond good actually. Turnover is too expensive to deal with). But I'm not going to pay Engineer rates for vocational students. Don't go barking at the business community for outsourcing, you take that shit right back to your school system and deal with the issue where the issue lies.

But it's really important to realize, most people can't actually make the cut in good Engineering and Science programs. That's by design. It's also why proper Engineers command such good salaries. They're exceptional people with natural abilities and innate curiosity that have been refined through grueling educational programs. Expect much wailing, rending of clothes and pulling of beards when parents discover their little genius wasn't such a genius after all. He was just being awarded 'Morale Boosters' in return for tuition.

2
1
Gold badge
Meh

@Don Jefe

"But it's really important to realize, most people can't actually make the cut in good Engineering and Science programs. That's by design. It's also why proper Engineers command such good salaries. They're exceptional people with natural abilities and innate curiosity that have been refined through grueling educational programs. Expect much wailing, rending of clothes and pulling of beards when parents discover their little genius wasn't such a genius after all. He was just being awarded 'Morale Boosters' in return for tuition."

Or as the head of department put it at our introduction "We can't remember all your names, but since about 30% of you won't survive the first year that won't be a problem."

By graduation 51% of the intake didn't make it. The rest finished the course before the course finished them.

0
0
This topic is closed for new posts.

Forums