Conferences Editor's Column Events Reports

TEMSCON 2017 PANEL – CHALLENGES OF TECHNICAL MANAGEMENT

A panel of four exceptional corporate leaders opened TEMSCON 2017.  It was fascinating that each came to the discussion from a different work experience, but that they readily converged on a list of best practices and advice for young professionals.

Panelists – background and quotes

John Avery is the Group Manager of the Panasonic Automotive Innovation Center in Atlanta, GA.  He described the challenges he faced in introducing a new agile software development model to his workforce and the means by which he helped ensure a culture that was willing to take risk.  He described their process as involving continuous integration with weekly reviews.

It was very rewarding to share our experiences with others who are at the bleeding edge of bringing new technologies to the marketplace.  IEEE TEMS is in a sweet spot between the rapid change in technology and the challenges we all face in managing change.  I am going to encourage engineers and technologists in my organization to join the IEEE TEMS.

Julie Black in the COO of a rapidly scaling start-up in San Mateo, CA – Evidation Health.  She described the challenges of rapidly advancing IT technologies and recruiting personnel without subject matter expertise in healthcare.  Key insights were articulating an exciting vision and enlisting people who wanted to have a positive change in the world.

As the COO of a rapidly scaling start-up in the healthcare market, it was of great interest to share lessons learned about leadership and motivating young technical staff at this year’s TEMSCON conference.    This was an exceptional meeting and I encourage others to get involved.

Scott Fouse is a Lockheed-Martin Vice President and Director of their Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, CA.  He described the challenges they faced in bring a new environmental sensor on a satellite into use and the value of trust with their customer to navigate some difficult transition issues.  Unprecedented new technical requirements were part of the challenge.

I congratulate the IEEE TEMS on convening a conference focused on the opportunities and challenges we all face in equipping technical staff to lead next generation technical projects.  It was exciting to contribute and be part of this meeting.  My staff will be present and accounted for at next year’s TEMSCON!

 Dick Levy is the former board chair and CEO of Varian Medical Systems also in Palo Alto, CA.  He described the challenges he faced earlier in his career as a General Manager at Varian when he realized their product line for cancer treatment was becoming very popular but they were not making money.  He described the practice he put into place to ensure alignment and shared vision across functions of engineering, manufacturing, sales, marketing, and service.

While it is clear the pace of technical change is unrelenting, it is also clear that there are enduring truths about how to lead and manage change.  I was gratified by the interest and reception from a young audience of professionals at the TEMSCON conference and the great interest in lessons I shared from my experiences at Varian Medical.  I wish I had known then what we discussed in this panel.  I encourage all young professionals to become active in this society.

Context for the panel discussion

Technology and market change are occurring at ever faster rates.  While this may seem obvious, coping with and even leveraging these rates of change are crucial to success.   Whether one’s company is large or small, new or old, internet focused or in a more traditional “brick and mortar” market, the ability to anticipate and adapt to changes in one’s internal and external environments is critical for success in today’s marketplace.  This means that a company needs to continually innovate to ensure it is competitive in its market and it how work is orchestrated within the company.    This presents challenges to engineering managers, especially those who are new to their positions.  Except for TEMS, there is little discussion or guidance for the next generation.  The panelists provided excellent guidance on what one can do when faced with these types of challenges.

Summary of the panel discussion

Good engineering and strong patents were once sufficient for business success.  In today’s fast-changing competitive environment, both are still necessary, but often not sufficient.  Teamwork with other business functions, like manufacturing, customer support, marketing, et al, are also required, and requires a shared understanding by the entire team of the project requirements and value proposition.

This teamwork requires a culture characterized by the following philosophies:

  • The great things in business happen at the interfaces of functions.
  • Organization structures must change as strategies change.
  • Small cross-functional teams, projects divided into short phased milestones, and frequent review and enhancement of goals work better than big, static projects.
  • Cross-functional teams need charismatic, inspirational, action-oriented leaders and need to learn from each other within the team.
  • Teams should be motivated to shorten the time to try and fix things rather than by money.  New projects should be expected to lose money or cost money in the short term.
  • Project teams should be separated from the core business both physically and organizationally, to enable freedom to think differently.

Effective technical management and leadership are required.  Leadership skills can be learned. Key points follow.

  • Synthesis and frequent communication of an exciting and shared vision is necessary. Why are we doing this and why is it important?  People need purpose, they need to know their work means something and that it is valued.  A shared vision is key for this.
  • Delegate, don’t dictate. Learning to coach rather than being overly directive is a learnable leadership skill.  It require patience and a willingness to let someone fail and then learn from that failure.  The trick, of course, is timing – fast failure is always preferred.
  • Be open minded and curious. These two traits help create a culture that is able to “not miss the next big thing.”
  • Humor is important. Not taking oneself too seriously and being willing to admit mistakes is positive.  It does not cost anything, but it pays huge dividends.   It lowers the temperature in fast paced environment and helps drive out fear and build trust.

Final thought on forming and managing successful teams

  • Teams formed to pursue a high priority project, perhaps focused on an innovative new product, need support from the top as they often will defy the conventional wisdom of the established business units.
  • Teams thrown together and without purpose, protection, and – yes – accountability often fail.
  • Teams are often too large. They too often do not meet expectations.
  • Small teams (an earlier point above) guided by a shared vision and a sense of urgency are more likely to succeed.

 

Please feel free to direct any questions to Steve Cross, scross@ieee.org.  Steve is the Executive Vice President for Research at Georgia Tech and he serves as the TEMS “acting” president-elect.  He organized the panel and facilitated the discussion.