I’ve always wondered why the myth of engineers as lacking business acumen skills still prevails today. As the “geeks” of the world, engineers have endured this stereotype since the early days of computing. Engineering celebrities like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Paul Allen have contributed to changing this perception but it still prevails among business communities today, sometimes resulting in lost opportunities for individuals pursuing promotions in organizations. I recall battling the myth in 2006 as I pitched to attract seed investment capital and it felt I was fighting the stereotype of a “geek” becoming a business man. To be fair, I also encountered people willing to listen with a fair mind but there was no question the myth prevailed.
It may be difficult to assess the reasons for the myth propagation but I believe there are certain areas of personal development that engineers can enhance so they are viewed in a better business acumen light. It was my time at the Rady School that guided my transition from “geek hood” to an entrepreneur with a business mindset. So what are these critical skills? Although the world of business has many facets, it is critical for engineers to have a firm understanding of some of the pillars that make up the business world.
- Understanding of Finance. It’s always been said that finance and accounting are an art as well as a science. In many cases engineers see it as a science without consideration to it being art. It is the idea of quantifying what can’t always be quantified and relying on rules, estimates and assumptions. As engineers this style of thinking may be alien but necessary to succeed in business.
- Sales Communication Skills. Notice I emphasized communication skills related to sales and not general communication skills. Despite another myth that engineers lack communication skills, I am of the understanding that most have great communication skills but need improvement in selling themselves. Understanding and communicating strengths is what great business people do well.
- Management. Engineers sometimes approach management in the same way they approach solving a problem in a lab by becoming involved in the smallest details of their employee’s jobs. While micromanaging ensures that everything is done the way an engineer would approach a problem, employees can resent the lack of responsibility and autonomy. My advice is to approach management with a subjective sense keeping in mind empowerment is best achieved with subtlety.
- Basics of Starting a Business. Engineers have a tendency to start doing before putting a plan together. They see writing a business plan as a chore but it’s critical to any successful business. Engineers need to think of the process as a way to better understand the business opportunity and the risks involved.
- Network Diversity. Engineers often have a social network composed of other engineers. On the other side, great business people have a diverse network of people spanning many professional areas. If you feel a lack of diversity in your social circle then make an effort to meet other kinds of people. Personally I’ve always enjoyed dance classes and playing tennis which helped in meeting others who are unlike me.
Being a part of the first Rady School MBA class, I lived through the early development of the school and experienced firsthand its commitment to tackling the gaps that exist to make people great business leaders. As an engineer this gap may have been wider than most, but it has been filled by my experience at the Rady School through today.
Haytham Allos (FlexWeekend ’06) is a Rady School MBA alumni and the Chief Technology Officer at Realstir. Outside of creating complex technologies to connect people and businesses, he is an avid player of strategy games with a special interest in backgammon.