Engineers gonna engineer

“What ees ‘wee-jeet?'”

A few years ago, I went to a training about how to become a product manager. It was for engineers and I was one of the very few non-engineers in the room, but my boss wanted me to go because all the product managers I supported were going and he wanted me to speak their language.

We broke into teams to do an exercise – to take an assigned persona and figure out what she might care about and how to convert the product technical attributes into benefits that would appeal to her.

Our persona was John, a VP of sales.

(Yes I know I used “she” – I use “she” as my default pronoun these days.)

That was all the information we had. We were supposed to make up the rest.

Making stuff up is stressful for engineers, as it requires operating in ambiguity.

Most of the team wanted to figure out who John was and what John’s company made.

“College graduate?” they asked.


I nodded as I noted their comments, thinking to myself that none of that was really relevant. But when one is on a team and one is not the boss of the team, one tends to go along, especially when it’s a team of strangers.

“How old is he?” they asked.

We agreed that as a VP, he was at least in his early 40s.

Bob looked at his phone and said, “We have only ten minutes to finish.”

“Let’s figure out what John’s concerns are,” I suggested. “Sales pipeline? Conversion rates? Data quality? None of those have anything to do with the product.”

No! “What does the company make?” they wanted to know.

“I don’t think John’s product really matters,” I said.

Bob, the other non engineer on my team, nodded in agreement.

But another person on the team said, “iPhones!”

A second person said, “No, software!”

I tried again. “I don’t think it really matters! John’s concerns are about the process!”

Bob agreed. “It doesn’t matter what the company makes. All sales VPs have similar issues, regardless of what they are selling.”

The team fell silent.

Bob and I tried to explain about Big Picture Thinking to engineers.

No insult to engineers. Mr T is an engineer. His ability to focus on and resolve the tiny details means we almost never have to pay repairpeople, including the Microwave Replacement Project of July 2014 Over Which We Nearly Divorced.

If there is a discrepancy in a bill, he will find it and resolve it. He plans all of our amazing trips, including finding the best airline deals, finding the hotels and making reservations, planning the in-country transportation, and in general, doing every single bit of the kind of work I hate so that all I have to do is follow him on our adventures.

We have engineers to thank for airplanes that fly without crashing and for other machines that don’t kill us.

Engineers do great work!

But – the Big Picture – abstract thinking – is not their favorite thing.

Bob and I tried again to explain that no matter what John is selling, he faces issues common to all sales VPs. Things like, “Are my people seeing enough prospects? How many prospects turn into customers? What does my sales pipeline even look like? Do I have a clear view of who is in which stage? What is our online presence? Is it effective?”

We finally convinced them that we did not have to define the product to understand John’s concerns.

We finally convinced them that we did not have to nail down every single little detail to solve this problem.

We finally convinced them that we should be figuring out what John cares about as opposed to his background and the company’s products.

Exhale. Bob and I exhaled.

“But -” asked one engineer. “What do they make?”

Bob and I stared at him. Hadn’t we just gone through all this?

The engineer stared back.

“Widgets,” Bob answered wearily. “Widgets. They make widgets.”

The French Canadian on our team – the handsome guy with the two-day stubble and a light-blue scarf looped jauntily around his neck in that European way where you fold the scarf in half and then pull the two loose ends through the loop, the guy who spent every break standing just outside the doors smoking, leaned forward, frowned, and asked, “But – what ees ‘wee-jeet?'”

We – did not complete the exercise before time was up.

But then, neither did any of the other teams.

2 thoughts on “Engineers gonna engineer

  1. Oh Gods, engineers…

    One of my BFFs is a multiple PE Engineer. I love her dearly, but sometimes I just want to hold her down to make her focus on the big picture.


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