In a World of Talented Engineers, Where Are All the Leaders?

January 13, 2015

For most technology companies, finding talented engineers isn’t a problem. The challenge is finding engineers with the business acumen and management ability to lead teams of engineers and scientists in tech ventures.

According to the American Society for Engineering Education, universities conferred 93,360 engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2013, up 6 percent from 2012. Those engineering grads come to market with plenty of technical skills.

Nathan Furr, entrepreneurship professor at Brigham Young University and author of The Innovator’s Method, argues that today’s shift in the competitive environment makes sustainable innovation in technology imperative. Technology companies sorely need engineering leaders to guide their companies through a world of increasing uncertainty.

Where are these new leaders in technology?

The Skills a Leader Needs

The undergraduate engineering curriculum doesn’t cultivate the skills a leader needs: empathy, communication, deep knowledge of business process, and the capacity to recognize and capitalize on entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial opportunities.

Da Vinci Surgical Robot Engineer Jobs Fort Belvoir Community Hospital

Credit: Fort Belvoir Community Hospital

Kendall Fargo is a startup entrepreneur who has founded tech ventures, including Cybersource and Stepup Commerce, and held executive roles at companies like Handspring and Intuit. Fargo has seen the gap between what tech ventures want in their leaders and what traditional education produces.

“Most engineers are good at developing features and functionality, but they don’t necessarily understand how or why it connects to the business,” he says. “It can be hard for them to envision where things are going to evolve.”

The contrast between skills you need to be an expert in engineering and an expert in leadership is dramatic. Marc Fields, Director of Human Resources at biopharmaceutical company Amgen, sees the transition as a fundamental shift in thinking. He seeks scientists and engineers who can break out of purely technical thinking and consider people, engagement and communication as they relate to the goals of the organization.

“Leadership requires a different way of approaching problems,” he says. “It’s often a right brain versus left brain challenge, and good leadership often involves right brain qualities like creativity, effective communication, and nuanced decision-making. In my experience, scientists and engineers can struggle with that.”

Brian Miller, Vice President of Systems Engineering at Intuitive Surgical, knows this firsthand. Intuitive Surgical divides teams into technical groups and program management groups. Finding engineers to lead the technical groups is relatively easy, but hiring program managers with the right skills is a different story.

These engineers need both technical knowledge and business skills. The product development cycle of state-of-the-art medical devices, such as the da Vinci Surgical System, involves coordinating input from regulatory experts and global supply chains. Miller needs people who can anticipate the challenges that arise throughout product development and help the teams successfully negotiate the obstacles.

Miller remembers his light bulb moment when he finally understood the importance of leadership skills. “We were developing an endoscope that pushed the envelope, both in terms of technology and production,” he said. “It involved a complex supply chain from the wafer our engineers developed to final assembly in an off-site factory.”

The project stalled, until Miller brought in a leader who had good technical skills and a broad base of business knowledge.

“He was able to ask the right questions and pull the right team together. And he was able to provide just the right amount of detail to the regulatory departments,” Miller said. Intuitive Surgical, Miller realized, could progress more quickly across a variety of initiatives with leaders like him in program management roles.

Still, realizing the need is only half the battle. Finding those people, Miller says, remains elusive.

An Accelerated Path to Leadership

What the technology sector needs is a program that will catapult exceptional engineers toward management positions by cultivating the complementary skills in which true leadership is rooted.

Developed around insights from industry leaders like Miller, Fields, and Fargo, the new Master of Technology Management (MTM) degree at UC Santa Barbara takes engineers with exceptional technical ability and helps them develop the business and communication skills they need to become exceptional leaders.

“You learned how to be a scientist, or an engineer,” Fields says. “You have to learn how to be a leader, as well.”

Through a curriculum blending classroom instruction and real-world experience, MTM students learn first-hand not only the challenges they face but the mindset required to lead technical teams. They learn how to generate ideas, budget, manage risk, and communicate effectively. They gain exposure to executives and entrepreneurs through company visits, brown bag lunches, and lectures.

UCSB Engineer Jobs Jonathan Pfeiffer

Credit: Jonathan Pfeiffer

In nine months, MTM students can walk directly from graduation into leadership roles.

Each class moves through the program together as a cohort, a model that promotes shared learning experiences and creates an instant network engineers can rely on throughout their career. Plus, as alumni of UC Santa Barbara’s College of Engineering, students can draw upon the College’s alumni and industry contacts to instantly grow their professional networks.

Ultimately, the MTM is precisely the accelerated path to leadership that executives and aspiring engineers have been seeking.

“There’s definitely a gap in the market,” Fargo says. “There’s a need for programs that can develop leadership, management and business experience in technical people. A Master’s of Technology Management, tailored to engineers, could be the solution.”