Manager is Junior Engineering

by Steven M. Smith · 3 comments

My friend Mitch was telling me this morning more about how his company was losing hundreds of millions of dollars because they couldn’t execute their plans (see my earlier post Key Person Won’t Participate). He mentioned that he had a one-on-one meeting with his manager to discuss how his work would drastically alter one-third of their business systems. He probed his manager about how much the next level manager knew about his work.

I was intrigued by the answer Mitch received from his manager — the next level manager didn’t know much about his work because she was too busy working on the creation of forms for a process she was keen on creating.

Forms? What the heck was a second-level manager at a major corporation doing creating forms? The answers were revealing: She liked doing the work; she had done this kind of work earlier in her career; she believed no one else could do it as fast as she could.

Deja vu.

The word recidivism is defined as the tendency of individuals to fall back to earlier undesirable behaviors, especially crime. When that term is used in the criminal justice system, it means the percentage of former prisoners who are rearrested. You quickly find on the Internet that there is a 60% recidivism rate for released prisoners in the United States of America.

There aren’t, however, published rates for a similar management tendency — the propensity of individual managers to revert to an earlier, familiar role. Although this isn’t a crime to society, I believe it is a crime to the organization. The reverter consumes the bulk of their time doing an old, familiar role thus, unconsciously, shedding the bulk of their management role. In other words, the manager abandons the bulk of the members of their team.

I use the term Junior Engineering to refer this tendency. I learned the term while consulting at Boeing. People there used it to describe the manager who started engineering and stopped managing. It was a common occurrence, especially with the manager who was new or whose program was in trouble. They tended to return to a familiar role from earlier in their career, which they had received recognition and reward. Rather than working to ensure the overall result by managing strategy, tactics, and people, they worked on completing engineering tasks.

Junior engineering managers behavior was very visible to the Boeing veterans. Some people were empathetic. They realized the manager had confronted a crisis and didn’t know how to navigate their way through those stormy seas. But even the empathetic members who work for the manager realized that if the behavior continued, the program they were working on was doomed.

What do I recommend you do if someone in your management chain is junior engineering?

1. Be empathetic to the human being who is coping with a tough situation in the best way they can (for now).

2. Be careful. In many organizations, this behavior is undiscussable. And the undiscussability is undiscussable. If you mention the behavior without wise counsel, you could be hurt badly.

3. Seek wise counsel within your organization. Junior Engineering is common behavior. Others in your organization have experienced it and know what has worked in the past. Find these people and ask them for advice.

4. Seek wise counsel from someone outside your organization. Inside experts know about how things work inside your organization but may not be up to date on how others have effectively dealt with junior engineering outside your organization. An outside experts will offer different approaches to the dealing with the situation. Two experts that immediately come to mind are Esther Derby and Johanna Rothman.

5. If you have a personal relationship with the junior engineering manager, just tell him or her what you see, how it’s impacting your work, and what you would like to see changed. Don’t think for a second that your personal relationship enables you to skip carefully preparing your message. Write it down. Expect the person to be sensitive. Don’t generalize: Keep the scope of the discussion to your work.

6. Seek a job in another part of the organization or outside the organization. If the behavior is stopping you from doing what you seek to do, go to an organization where you can. The junior engineering manager will be eventually discovered, but I’ve seen managers junior engineer for years before someone above them did something about it. Your energy is precious. If this will interruption will sap that precious energy, leave. Once the energy is lost, you may never be able to regain it.

7. You may choose to accept that the only acceptable solution for you is to cope with the problem rather than try to solve it.

I estimate the junior engineering rate for managers is 33%. Too high? Too Low? What are your thoughts about that estimate?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Dwayne Phillips July 19, 2009 at 3:26 am

I have seen this everywhere. When in doubt, when in trouble, when tired…people go back to what they know. They stop managing and start writing software or such. I congratulate Steve on finding the word “recidivism.”


margaret October 24, 2009 at 5:19 pm

Too true.

This is exactly what happens.

In my current workplace, the managers/supervisors were previously working the welfare and child-care industries. Now they are in cultural heritage – a Museum, no less.

Nervous due to their own lack of commitment and qualifications, they speak to highly functional adults as though they are pre-schoolers, delinquents, dysfunctional families or recidivist criminals. Their staff are in fact highly educated (PhDs, etc), highly motivated, and often stepping down from management to retirement. It is an insult to our intelligence to be spoken to in language that is unfit for us. It is provocative, and then we get in trouble for being disrespectful if we respond in anything less than obsequious compliance (as though we are controllable subordinates). The incompetence of our management team is made clear every day of the week, but the atmosphere of intimidation and harassment discourages any complaints (and the nature of the work means we don’t encounter management too often).

Junior manager is possibly exposing herself as the weeks, months and years go by …


David Vydra November 7, 2009 at 9:36 pm

Pairing can be a great management technique.

In software development, when a manager pair-programs with their developers it can be a great experience for the whole team. Even though the manager is ‘junior’ to most team members in skill, the manager gathers much more accurate data as to the state of the system and true pace of development.


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