Effective Engineering e-Newsletter – 3/13/2003
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Move the Rocks and People
Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [firstname.lastname@example.org]
The last time I was working on a project as an
individual contributor (yeah, OK, it was some time ago), my assignment was to
design and develop some hardware and firmware for a project with a critical
delivery date. The development
effort was challenging, but doable, as long as I could concentrate on getting
it done. In addition to the
development effort itself, I also had to submit a weekly status report. This
was reasonable, since I was the one who primarily knew what I was working on,
and it really didn’t take much time. However,
in addition, I was also assigned tasks such as writing a white paper on a
previous product we had developed for publication in an internal technical
journal, mentoring a young engineer, conducting an inventory of equipment,
soliciting people to contribute to the United Way campaign going on,
interviewing a lot of job candidates (yes, we were actually hiring at that
time), organizing a luncheon for a friend who was leaving, and many other
non-project related tasks. At the
proper points in time, all of these many ancillary tasks were probably
reasonable and worthwhile, and would help to broaden my base of experience and
my general knowledge of the business. However,
when these tasks were expected to be done during a period of intense
development activity to get a project done quickly and well, they turned what
was a challenging but achievable development effort into an all-out
long-nights-and-weekends effort to get the project completed on time.
These ancillary efforts, at that time, squeezed the joy out of the job
and made my life a living nightmare. Of
course, at the time, my reaction was that of a good soldier saying, “Thank
you sir, may I have another!”, but the reality was that I was drowning, and
needed help, and that I refused to admit it.
The project got done (barely), and the quality was fairly good
(although I really would have liked more time to test and verify), but this is
not the way complete a project or to live your life.
My personal and family life suffered badly.
I certainly did not view this as a time where I was being nurtured and
helped to grow in my career. Instead
it seemed to be a case of dumping as much stuff on me as was humanly possible,
and then adding more stuff on top of that.
Unfortunately, this was not a one-time exceptional period of my career,
but all too often became a continuing way of life, as is often the case for
It is simply amazing how much progress can be made when the obstacles that
impede or block progress are eliminated or significantly reduced.
When people can spend their time actually doing their jobs, rather than
being mired in “administrivia”, they are far happier and far more
effective. Yet far too often,
people find their path strewn with “rocks” of varying sizes that delay
them, divert their attention, sidetrack them, or overtake them, and the
consequences can be devastating. Moving
these “rocks” out of the way is one of the most critical roles of
management, but unfortunately one that management often does not step up to.
It is often too easy for managers to look at all the work on their
plate and “delegate” some of the tasks to others.
When they delegate the right tasks that make the project proceed most
effectively, this is admirable and the proper thing to do.
But when they delegate tasks that take away from effective progress by
placing unnecessary burdens on their employees, they are sabotaging the very
projects they have been charged with completing.
It is imperative for managers to themselves handle the tasks that can
simply mire people down, or to utilize the efforts of people dedicated to
simplifying the work of others, and who are not involved with the detailed
How much of engineers’ time is wasted on tasks that are mundane, or trivial,
or non-technical? In today’s
“streamlined” organizations, the number of support staff (clerks,
administrative assistants, executive assistants, etc.) is often reduced to a
minimum. The number of
administrative tasks isn’t reduced, just who does them.
So instead of having a clerk earning $25K per year doing these tasks,
it now falls on engineers earning $75K and more per year to do these same
tasks. And, while the engineers
are doing this “administrivia”, they aren’t doing their technical
development jobs. What a great
way to “save” money! Organizations
need to wake up and find ways to move the “rocks” out of engineers’ (and
others) ways. If they do this,
they can watch the engineers’ morale soar, along with their respect for
With all of the downsizing going on these days, an unfair burden is often
placed on the survivors. Rather
than cutting back on what will be done after the number of people are reduced,
managers often place all of the technical tasks of those who are now gone onto
those who remain. Their already
full plates of tasks now become overflowing, and the results are typically
overwork, poor quality, and poor morale. To further compound the problem, a lot of non-technical
“administrivia” also gets piled on as well.
This is grossly unfair, and the results are not a reflection of the
capabilities of the survivors, but of the incompetence of the managers who do
As stated in an earlier e-Newsletter, “Ineffective Engineering Costs
You Time, Money, and Customers!” (see eN-021107), the sources of ineffective engineering are many.
To be effective, you have to be productive.
To be productive, you have to be able to concentrate on doing your job
and not be distracted by many unrelated tasks (technical and non-technical)
that just take away from being able to do your job.
These are the “rocks” that are in your way.
Engineers need to do their part by making management aware of the
“rocks” in their path. Management
must then start by removing the “boulders”, then the large “rocks”,
and finally the “pebbles”. This
won’t solve all of the problems that cause ineffective engineering, but it
will certainly help!
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