Why Do Engineers and Entrepreneurs Have Problems Working Together?

Marianita Uribe
May 05, 2020


When you think of engineers (and specifically data scientists), you are most likely imagining someone who works in a technology company. As a result, you would expect a perfect working relationship between engineers and entrepreneurs.

However, there is a growing struggle between engineers and entrepreneurs. There are two reasons for this impasse. 

  1. First, the demand for engineers is rapidly spreading beyond the technology industry. 
  2. Second, although non-technology companies recognize the benefits of technologies and even data-based decisions, they have little or no experience in managing technology projects. 

The combination of the need for competitive advantage in the marketplace and the lack of engineering or analytical project development creates a huge gap between entrepreneurs and engineers.

As an engineer you are on the techno-analytical side of the tug-of-war. In addition, it may have crossed your mind that entrepreneurs have no idea how to manage their companies. 

Conversely, if you are a business executive, then you often listen to the advice of software consultants or vendors outside the company. And, of course, those experts almost always promise innovative solutions that their team can't deliver. 

You wonder, in frustration, why your team often says that a simple solution is simply "not feasible. Well, this is where the gap begins to emerge.

Finding the gap

Unsplash: Sebastian Herrmann

The gap usually appears when entrepreneurs have an idea that seems simple, but are unaware that it is an incredibly complex problem from a technical point of view. 

Unlike companies with a few products (consumer goods), other companies (financial sector) can have thousands of products, with millions of transactions. 

Moreover, instead of a product with a stable price for a large part of the year (a bottle of Coca-Cola), you could find different prices for each client negotiated every minute (sports betting). 

In these companies, engineers trying to build a system that, for example, allows company entrepreneurs to estimate sales volume is hard work. 

How is that possible? Because of the availability, the volume, the accuracy of the data or the level of complexity of the resulting models. It is nothing like the profit and loss in an Excel spreadsheet.

The gap widens as the idea moves from top entrepreneurs to someone with enough programming experience to say, "Wait, that's not feasible. Then your managers have to begin the difficult task of taking bad news uphill. 

The back-and-forth between the engineering (or data) team and the entrepreneurs can last a long time. Inevitably, like any other top-down decision, there are consequences. Either the initial idea will change significantly, or the engineering team will take years to develop something that will not work as initially thought. Either way, the company loses, and you (on either side) become frustrated. 

Unfortunately, this tends to happen frequently when a company in one sector tries to copy initiatives from companies in other sectors without taking into account the differences in their operating models. Therefore, if you work in one of those companies, you may need to review the reality and manage your expectations.


The reality


Let's be honest: money is the measure of most things in business. Let's hope this doesn't come as a surprise to you. Entrepreneurs and executives tirelessly develop market strategies and make decisions at a rapid pace, so every decision must be profitable. 

From a business point of view, if an idea has the potential to achieve the company's objective, then it might be enough to implement a top-down decision, even if it is apparently not feasible. Let me give you an example of how entrepreneurs of innovative companies think:

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk sets almost impossible goals for his employees. One of Elon's engineers said:

"He'll pick the most aggressive schedule imaginable assuming everything is going well, and then accelerate it assuming everyone can work harder.

While not everyone is like Elon Musk, setting the bar high is part of every company's executive job description. It can be argued that CEOs like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs are an exception. 

Fair enough, but there is a reason for their success: they are technically savvy professionals who are aware of what their team can and cannot do. Recognizing their flaws and limitations is the first step to change.

The new mindset

Unsplash: Raul Varzar

The most mature companies in their technological evolution have a similar philosophy to that shown by Elon Musk. Entrepreneurs are increasingly educated in technology and even artificial intelligence. In addition, some companies have moved from a vertical binary division (business vs. technology) to a horizontal and gradient way of working with middle management professionals capable of translating upwards the challenges faced by the engineering team. The evolution towards a new mentality can provide the desired competitive advantage, but in different ways:

  1. New roles, such as Vice President of Engineering (or Data), will become the norm. As a consequence, the initial "simple" ideas will be intercepted or refined as a challenge or an innovation project. Companies will not waste resources in a corporate tug-of-war.
  2. External experts and technology partners will no longer jeopardize the internal working relationship between senior executives, including the marketing department, and the engineering team. Over time, company executives will be able to have more in-depth and productive conversations with technology providers. In turn, external partners will add value to both the business and the engineering team.

How could engineers reduce the gap


If you are an engineer (or a data scientist), especially if you are in a career transition, then you might consider broadening your horizons by acquiring business skills. 

Why? Similarly, entrepreneurs will become more knowledgeable about data and technology; it may be worthwhile to learn about business and marketing strategy. 

By doing so, you will not only better understand entrepreneurs, but you will also be able to create strategic data products relevant to your niche. Ironically, by acquiring these business skills you will have a competitive advantage in the job market and become a stronger professional. 

You will be able to adapt to any business environment, whether in a team meeting, in a conversation with the company's CEO, or even when creating your own business.

Conclusion

Entrepreneurs and engineering professionals have complementary skills. Technical skills have been growing and expanding in most industries. 

However, technical professionals and entrepreneurs are struggling to create a productive working relationship, which creates a huge gap. The problem lies with less technologically educated business leaders who want to implement simple ideas that from a technical perspective are simply "not feasible. 

However, making business profitable is what drives every company, and employees simply have to adapt to the business environment. That said, there is an opportunity for companies to create middle management positions between the extremes of the business. 

More importantly, engineers could fill this gap by acquiring business knowledge and evolving into a management position. So what is the key to decision making? It is neither technology nor business, but technology and business.

“Why Do Engineers and Entrepreneurs Have Problems Working Together?”
– Marianita Uribe twitter social icon Tweet


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