My career path is almost identical to many of the the engineers I know. Upon graduating from engineering school I had little idea what I really wanted to do. What I did know was I needed a job and everyone was demanding I have experience to hire me, but how do you get experience when you don’t have a job? I was fortunate enough to not only find a job, via a form letter sent via snail mail, but to land a job I had interest in. My interest has always been in water resources, specifically rivers and streams and stormwater. When I was in college my thought was, “I enjoy being outdoors and rivers and streams almost always are one of the most beautiful places to be when outside so I should focus on that.” I know, what a breakthrough conclusion. But it was practical and real. In other words, I landed a job I was interested in. That first job was at a small engineering firm where I worked quite often 10 to 12 hours a day, often on menial tasks. I was simply a project engineer. When I switched jobs I continued in that project engineer role until eventually easing into some project management, typically managing as a deputy project manager. I wasn’t necessarily trained for project management as much as I eased into it and learned what was important based on what the company told me was important, i.e. staying under budget and keeping the client happy. Eventually, I began managing projects which meant that I was now responsible for communication with the client, managing a team of experts, ensuring that schedule and budget were adhered to, and also performing technical work. I now had what could have been two full-time jobs; project management and project engineer.
My story, like that of many others continues down a familiar path. As a project manager you are not simply handed projects, but you are expected to develop relationships with potential clients, find out what their future needs will be, pre-market upcoming projects, and finally write proposals and prepare for selection interviews to bring work into the company you work for all so you can have billable work to do, keeping you and your team busy and chargeable, i.e profitable. Training for this new endeavor was never seriously provided to me, nor were there really any tried and true business practices at the company I worked for that I could implement. I was on my own. Business development isn’t even a course engineers are required to take at engineering school. Honestly, I think business development could be something that could easily consume up to two semesters of coursework in an extended engineering program.
Regardless of my lack of training, I was successful at winning projects. What I learned, and what many of us in the engineering profession know, is that performance and delivery on existing projects is the best bang for your buck when it comes to business development. Perform, deliver, and on occasion wow your clients and more than likely they’ll keep hiring you. However, stumble once, on one project, and your competitor is right there waiting in the wings to get the next opportunity and you’re back in the pack of potential suitors. It’s a brutal business, but it’s the reality of the industry.
If you are lucky enough to have navigated project engineering and project management, with a secondary career in business development, you often are moved up the food chain to the group manager position. I made my move into that world after 10-years in the business. I felt I was ready to move up the food-chain and I was incredibly excited to be able to lead a group of engineers, set the tone for my part of the company, and build a team that was second-to-none. What one learns when they get into this role is that their other jobs are not removed from their job description. In other words I now had the additional responsibility of operations management, budgeting, strategy, personnel management, coordination with other business units, and overarching responsibility for success of the group, i.e. successful projects, profitability, and winning enough work to keep my team busy and also for growth. However, project engineering and project management did not drop off my list of responsibilities. In fact, my chargeable goal was still at 60%. Honestly, that was considered an extremely reasonable goal within the organization, but what I realized was if I was going to be successful, perform 24 hours of billable work in a week, meet clients, manage operations, prepare proposals, etc. I was going to have a week that looked more like 50 hours as a baseline minimum. I was up for the challenge and I was excited about my new opportunity. I figured this was one more step in my career to get to the next level.
What I didn’t realize, and what many learn, is that there isn’t really a lot of opportunity to step-up from the group manager role. And even when there are opportunities to move up in the organization you are moving up into a roll with just slightly lower chargeable goals, e.g. 40 percent, and that your position is first on the chopping block when an organization is looking at cutting costs and increasing profitability. Overhead time (non-billable time) costs money and is not often perceived as valuable. So I found myself in the position of working 50 hours a week and still being responsible for what could essentially be four full-time roles; technical work, project management, business development, and operations management. Of course my pay was higher and to that end I was content. I felt like I was well rewarded for my work. However, what I experienced was that I was not being successful in any of the roles I was required to fill. I couldn’t focus long enough on technical work to be efficient. My project management efforts seemed to be focused on monthly invoicing and spreadsheet updates. My business development was inconsistent and I wasn’t really developing or implementing a long term strategy and I felt I was still playing catch-up when request for proposals were released by clients. And finally, my operations management seemed like a balancing act between keeping my employees happy and towing the corporate line; those two objectives rarely line up with one another.
After four years in the position I was burned out and exhausted. In talking with many of my peers this is a common experience within the industry. Many step down from the group management role and return to project management to reduce their responsibilities and find project management can be nearly as financially rewarding and brings many less uncomfortable encounters with corporate management. At the time I felt like I was failing my clients, the most critical and important part of my business. I had a project that was long overdue and significantly over budget. Again, a corporate conflict of interest. Meet the expectations of the client and don’t lose money for the corporation. How do you achieve that? Have any of you gotten the line, “you’re smart people, you’ll figure it out,”? Do you know what that means? “Work on it in on your own time.” If it’s not already, that should be something covered in a Dilbert cartoon strip.
I quit my position as a group manager and stayed on part-time with the company to finish that problem project and hopefully salvage my reputation and to rebuild my relationships with my clients via having my own engineering company. The project was successfully completed and I learned another valuable lesson; getting the job done and staying committed, no matter what the pain you feel, will pay off in the long run. In other words, don’t cut and run when it comes to taking care of your client. I have never left a job hanging, even when switching companies. It’s something I am proud of and I hope to be able to say that I have never walked away from a project or a client until the day I retire.
I started Enginuity in 2008 with high energy and vision that the company would change the industry. A lofty ideal to be sure. The reality is that I have actually managed to add to the list of jobs I currently hold. I’m now project engineer, project manager, business development, group manager, and also chief operations officer and chief financial officer. And yes, burn-out is still a problem. If you’ve read this far you’re probably hoping I can finally provide the answer to the burn-out problem. While I do feel like I have the answer, I’m not sure there are many corporations who have the vision, the resources, or the patience to make the conversion. In fact, I’m not sure the industry itself is ready for the change. So what would I do if I had my own company (which I do), but also had the vision (which I do), and the resources (which I do not) to make it happen? The answer is twofold; clear job role definition and thorough training via succession planning and corporate training programs. Parts three and four of this blog will cover these items.