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Observation: Engineers Like Working on the 6th Decimal Place

In Execution, Anecdotes by Steve Sliwa

I think some generalizations and stereotypes about engineers, of which I am one, have some validity. For example, engineers tend to have an easy time understanding the concept of local optimization vs global optimization as illustrated in An Aviation Case Study. However, I find that they tend to be some of the biggest offenders while in the pursuit of their own work. As a former engineer, I can identify with my own programming projects I do for recreation.

[pullquote cite=”Steve Sliwa” type=”right”]Engineers like working on the sixth decimal place of a problem.[/pullquote]

My claim is that many engineers are just as willing to work on a problem or project for which the solution is likely to improve the sixth decimal place in performance, i.e., have a very tiny impact, as they are working on a problem or project for which the solution improves the 1st decimal place in performance, i.e., the big impact. In fact, engineers frequently enjoy the former more than the latter since they have to be [extra title=”This is humor!” info=”tooltip” info_trigger=”hover”  info_place=”top”]extremely clever to even measure the improvement[/extra].

Clearly, one of a manager’s key jobs is to ensure that the engineers and engineering teams are enthusiastically working on 1st-order problems rather than 6th-decimal-place problems because the 1st-order problems have the greatest impact on the outcomes. One method of keeping the correct focus is to always challenge the engineering team to define the metrics of problem improvement and ensure that resources and efforts are focused on those with the highest likely payout. This is merely a variation on the theme of global vision versus tactical execution.

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