Perhaps I am a few years late with this blog, as it was over three years ago, in 2011, when Lord Sugar caused an almighty furore over this issue. The outspoken peer and one of the country’s highest profile business figures told engineer, Glenn Ward, as he fired him on BBC’s reality TV show The Apprentice:
‘I have never yet come across an engineer who can turn his hands to business.’
Immediately after this tv ‘outrage’ the press held up the likes of James Dyson, Bill Gates and Larry Page as a means of disproving, if not denouncing, Lord Sugar’s comments. The same media also pointed (correctly) to historical figures such as Brunel, Telford and Watt, demonstrating that these engineers had to develop and consistently utilise entrepreneurial skills to realise their ground-breaking projects (speaking both figuratively and literally in many cases). With the latest series of the reality tv show reminding me of this incident recently however, it also made me question whether the former Spurs chairman had a point. Do engineers make good entrepreneurs?
I think I am correct in stating that despite the exceptions referenced above, today’s society does not associate engineers with entrepreneurship in the same way we do software developers or website coders. Is this any cause for concern though? Are other professionals, such as doctors and lawyers for example ,any more synonymous with founding leading UK companies? Should the fact that Mark Whitby is not as famous a figure as Peter Jones within UK ‘celebrity’ culture be a concern to the industry? The more important question perhaps we (the engineering community) should be asking ourselves therefore is; do engineers in some way inherently lack, or struggle to develop, the necessary skills to found and grow successful companies?
Making a wide sweeping statement, based solely on my personal experience of the industry, I am of the opinion that engineers can often be characteristically risk averse. It could be seen that this professional trait stems from the fact that the consequences of failures on our profession, the collapse of a building for example, are far more serious than the failure of a boot strapped mobile application. Whilst this might be true, should this fact limit our ambition in anyway? Whether that ambition is to push design boundaries, launch a new product or set up our own practice, why aren’t more of us ‘self-starters’. Is it a inherent characteristic or do we lack the industry support, necessary insurances or funding stream to turn our ‘dreams’ in to reality.
To return to the typical (perhaps stereotypical) engineering character, do we tend to see and focus too intensely on the problems, flaws and reasons why something different won’t work. Do we see ourselves as having to play the role of reigning in the architect, designer or entrepreneur from their dream. Providing a dose of realism to the dreamers. Sometimes this is necessary of course but sometimes I wish more of us would be brave enough to push the boundaries, to be dreamers ourselves. Successful entrepreneurship surely requires having an almost a stubborn belief that all the inherently and apparent difficulties can be, and are worth overcoming.
However, I also feel this apparent aversion to risk could also be linked to the conservative and critical nature of our profession. Is it more a fear of being the engineer that does something different? The one that works outside the design code or design practice that limits us? I think we have a mind set that tells us that the engineers who decide the ‘way things should be done’ must understand the materials, forces or challenges associated with our bespoke engineering challenge, better than our own design team or capabilities. As an industry are we too quick to distance ourselves from engineers who have made a mistake or failed? Failure in entrepreneurship is expected, anticipated and in someways welcomed. Shouldn’t this also be the case in engineering?
On a similar theme, it also commonly levelled at the engineering profession that we often focus on developing and delivering a perfect product to market. Do we feel that such devotion is necessary to meet our initial brief/ obligation, or is it instead because ‘we’ like considering the detail, taking satisfaction from developing and trialling design and performance aspects to the nth degree. I am not saying this is a bad thing, though is in direct contrast to the MVP approach commonly and successfully adopted within website and software development,where developers can use fee paying customers to trial and constructively ‘break’ their product or offering. The result of our ‘procrastination’ of course can be that by time the product is delivered, or in many cases the time we perceive that it will take for the product to be delivered, the market may have moved on, it could have been captured by somebody else or the time and personal and financial sacrifice becomes too great for the engineering entrepreneur.
Another aspect that may limit our entrepreneurial desires, is that engineering organisations tend to be technocratic. We tend therefore to often be rewarded based on our technical ability, knowledge and experience. Does this then challenge us to improve our sales, marketing or other business development skills? Are we too comfortable within middle management of large scale engineering firms, or are the rewards not worth the risk of striving out on our own.
Does this then beg the question why aren’t the financial (or other life style rewards) there for engineering entrepreneurs? Do we as engineers tend to undersell our skills? Because we can produce designs and products do we undervalue our skills and offerings when setting a price for them to other companies and the general public. On the flip side of this question is, does society then drive the price of engineering design by viewing it as a commodity and equally are we too quick to under cut each other at the first sign of competition?
Of course, the other side of the argument may be that while the rewards may exist, the risk of starting your own company, or the barriers to entry that exist, may be too significant to appeal. I have first hand experience of this as I helped to establish a small scale consulting practice in 2012.
Faced with high costs associated with PI insurance, software licenses, office and staff costs, we had to find a different way to work. What allowed us to compete for some of the larger and more interesting projects was that we were able to work collaboratively with other small scale organisations, specialists and freelancers. What this meant was we we only paid for man-power, specialist software or expert knowledge when we needed it and when we had the fee to pay for it. Because we were outsourcing we could limit our overheads and delivering some exciting work very cost effectively and competitively. It worked so well we founded EngLancer on the back of the practices and philosophies we adopted. We want to do is remove as many barriers to entry that currently prevent high quality engineers draughtsmen and modellers from finding, managing and delivering great projects. We want people to go out on their own but not to be ‘on their own’.
Come and join us re-engineering the way we engineer.