Responsibilities of Engineering Leaders

Subhendu Chattopadhyay, Group Director, Tejas NetworksWith a degree in Master of Computer Science from the University of Calagary, Subhendu comes with an experienece of over 20 years in research and development of computer networks and fault tolerant distributed systems

For us, the midlevel engineering leaders, it is a tough world. Most of us started our career at the start of the IT boom in India. So most of the brilliant people who started their career at that time are crowding for the next step in their career. To advance to the next step in your career, you must excel at your work. For most middle level leaders, there are two primary responsibilities.
1) Executing the company's release plan
2) Building a strong team But meeting these goals is taken for granted. You cannot get far by just doing these. You have to have an edge.

In this article I describe a few secondary responsibilities of a midlevel engineering lead. These will help you to get an edge in your career. Also, as you grow in your career, some of these secondary goals become primary goals.

The secondary responsibilities I describe here are the following.
1) Customer focus
2) Fiscal discipline
3) Organizational improvements

Customer Focus:
Mahatma Gandhi was a great leader. But he was also an amazing businessman. Here is what he said about customers.

A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption of our work. He is the purpose of it.

"Every business should follow this. And as engineering leads, we must demonstrate by our actions that we follow them in letter and spirit.

As engineering leads, we get to meet customer when the damage is done, that is when we get a field issue! But even then, we can demonstrate customer focus. When you get a field issue, jump on it. Give your 100% to fix it. All systems have bugs. That is not a crime. Lying about them or disowning them or giving excuses is. So instead of treating field issues as problems treat them as potential opportunities to show how well you take care of your customer. I have seen delightful repeat business of a couple of million dollars from an irate customer, after we took good care of his problem!

Customer focus does not stop at the field issues. It should be every where.
When you review product requirements, release content, feature prioritization, push back on PLM if you feel that the requirements fail to meet the customer need, or they are just put in there as bullet points as opposed to solving customer's problems. When you make design decision, every time ask, will this help my customer to earn more business or reduce cost.

Fiscal Discipline:
A business exists to make a profit. There is no other purpose to a business. A company may do great innovation, make have revolutionary work culture, have incredible engineering prowess. All of them are great enablers to that one purpose, profit. We must hammer this point in our head, particularly in the tech industry. Because many a times with the excitement of doing great technology, we miss this fundamental Point. So there are two ways to make more profit, increasing revenue or reducing expenses. As engineering leaders, we can influence revenue by making high quality products or providing good customer service, but we cannot control it. But we can control expenses.

If you are designing a board, use the cheapest component that meets the requirement. If you are developing a SW module, check if there is an open source version available. Before ordering a prototype, see if you can manage using a simulator. Instead of buying an expensive test set, try time sharing existing equipment. Be selfish. In most cases your salary hike and bonus payout is directly tied to the company's bottom line. So the more money you save for the company, the more bonus you earn for yourself and your team.

Instead of treating field issues as problems, treat them as potential opportunities to show how well you take care of your customer

Organizational improvements:
Because organizational problem a shared responsibility, no one owns it and it rarely gets done. But their impact is big. All organizations grow as business grows. So they do not get time to fix existing problems. Plus there is always resistance to change. Add to that lack of ownership and you have to live with the problems forever. Here are some typical changes that organizations need to go through, but a few actually does.

1)Adopting agile. I have been to three companies in the last 15 years, led five teams. Only in one case I could push agile, that too in an isolated and limited way. It is very hard to actually adapt agile, in process and in spirit. But if you can actually do it, you will be a star.

2) Adjusting product life cycle. Product life cycle is generally age old. In many cases they do not exactly fit the environment. Some gates are obsolete, others nonexistent. Take a hard look at the part that affects you, from requirement to the manufacturing and make changes to suite your need.

3) Change in organizational structure. Just because you inherited some teams when you joined or promoted, does not mean you have to continue with the same structure. Align them based on the modules that you own and the products that you are developing. This is again a hard thing, because it involves people, their ego and their feelings. So you have to do it very carefully. But this is something you must do to be more productive.

4) Work from remote policy.This is a tricky subject. And very few organizations provide a clear policy. I my self find it difficult to work from remote. I need face time with my team. But be flexible. If it is more productive to let people work from remote, so be it. Therefore to advance from middle level to top leadership roles you must adopt a more comprehensive approach to the well being of your company rather than just doing your assigned work. The sooner you start the better for you.