12/02/2013

#27 Sneaking Talent Past HR (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

From 1976 to 1995 all of my job titles contained the word "engineer." Through that period, I did an electrical engineer's job without an engineering BS, MS, Ph.D., or any other disabling affliction. In fact, for all but the few years of my engineering career I had no more than an associates degree from a fairly awful Midwestern "Engineering Technology" program. However, for part of that period, I was an engineering manager so I was constantly exposed to plenty of BS, mostly generated by company executives.

During my engineering years, mostly surrounded by boys and girls with degrees from high-priced schools, I was exposed to an incredible variety of "skills." A large part of my general purpose disdain for the output of MBA programs and engineering schools comes from my experiences working with folks who owned those misbegotten and overrated credentials. The rest of that impression was gathered during my own 25 year struggle to earn an engineering degree as a part-time, "non-traditional student."

I've worked alongside E.E. Phuds who couldn't bias a transistor, flip a flip-flop, or complete a two component circuit if their existence depended on it. I've been saddled with BS, MS, and Phud types who brought the show to a halt while they struggled with comprehending the project design well enough so that they could explain what we were doing to management, who only needed a broad concept description to justify our budget.

The hands-down best engineer I ever worked with got his education from the U.S. Air Force, as a repair technician. He made a good living re-engineering incredibly complex and incompetently designed electronic measurement and control equipment. When faced with an technical obstacle, he never considered the possibility that his lack of formal education limited his ability to solve problems. He just waded in and fixed things faster than normal engineers can screw them up.

In my college engineering classes, I was regularly disappointed by the poor quality of the technical "education" provided. On the other hand, once I stumbled on the title of "engineer," I was regularly impressed with the much higher quality of the education I received on the job. Technicians never get the educational perks that are tossed at engineers. Technical support from component manufacturers and suppliers. Hands-on component application seminars and software training. Most important, the time to study problems and research their solutions. If these resources were spread around among technicians and engineers, alike, it would be hard to tell one from the other. It seemed to me that companies could save a lot of money and time by identifying uncredentialed talent and grooming those people into experienced engineers. I had an opportunity to test that theory a few years later and found that it proved to be true.

Of the collection of people I've known who were called "engineers," my experience splits the good from the bad at about 50-50, degreed and undegreed. On the other hand, the number of degreed and incompetent engineers vs. the undegreed and incompetent is a divide by zero insolvable. You can be awful and still employable, if you have a degree. Without the credential, you must have talent.

What I also learned, in a better time and place when a few companies weren't ruled by the idiot iron hand of HR departments, was that many of the best engineers from other industries were degree-less. In fact, I suspect that if you grouped degreed and non-degreed engineers and measured their competency you'd find that the non-degreed folks are, on average, considerably more talented than the other boys and girls. They're also cheaper to employ; no tuition debt to pay off and less ego to coddle.

There's a reason for that, a degree is a passkey into a world where you don't necessarily belong. Getting through that door without the passkey requires actual, hard earned, talent. Getting the passkey is a lot easier than earning skills and experience, especially if your parents are willing to pay for it. A degree provides absolutely no evidence of actual talent or inclination for the work.

The hardest aspect of finding and hiring uncredentialed talent is getting them past the HR obstacle course. Once they are in, their abilities will take them the rest of the way. The real trick is figuring out where the door is, when you don't have a degree.

On the large scale, the examples of men like Steve Wozinak, Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and hundreds of other famous engineers and inventors ought to have taught us that universities are not the only place people learn creativity. In fact, we see examples, every day, of where designs executed by companies full of degreed engineers and scientists are complete failures. They're called "product recalls."

Usually, the door the best of these talents go through is the one they create themselves. Steve Wozinak couldn't get an engineering position at Hewlet Packard, so he started Apple Corp. in his garage and went on to riches and fame. In the meantime, HP has failed, multiple times, at selling their mediocre computer products to the PC market. What computer products they do sell are to frat-brat engineers who grew up on RPN calculators and other academic relics. HP is a large and, intermittently, successful company, but one that never made a dent into the personal computer business when they introduced their "me too" products late in the history of PC's. Even HP executives have wonder where the company would be if it had realized the value of talent over degrees. Their most successful products, laser and jet printers, were purchased from Canon. I guess we should be impressed that they were able to recognize an engineering feat, if they weren't able to create one.

Small and start-up companies, usually, don't dither over unimportant stuff. When talent is more important than credentials, a lot of doors open up with incredible efficiency. I've seen excellent examples of this sort of company with a dozen or more engineers and not a degree in sight. Not even in management. In the early days, software companies were mostly staffed with geeks who thrived on uncovering obscure programming tricks. The early conversion stage of technology, when a concept is turned into a product, is when academia is rarely useful. Even today, the majority of leading edge software companies skip lightly over the academic credentials to get to the applicant's experience and personality. They know that if you're good, you'll be doing it, and if you're not, you'll get a degree to compensate.

Established companies are much harder to break into. Incredibly hard, more often than not. Once the corporate arteries harden enough that the HR department has grown teeth, the backdoor is the only way in. You either have to plan on putting in some years working up from a technician position or you have to know someone. Someone with power.

Getting a couple of years experience on the tech bench, preferably in the engineering department, of a large brain-dead company can often be a credential to an engineering position in a smaller, faster moving company. I know a tech who was always referred to as "brilliant and indispensable to our department, but not a real engineer because he doesn't have a degree." After a couple years of being indispensable, he took an engineering management and partial ownership position at a start-up competitor of his previous employer. After a few years, he made life so difficult for those who once believed he wasn't a "real engineer" that they filed for Chapter 11 protection and may never resurface.

The two places that credentialed talent can't enter are the halls of corporate welfare businesses and government. Credentials are everything where performance means nothing. If you invented a mechanical heart that ran for three years on two AA batteries and turned grandpa into Ben Johnson (without steroids), it wouldn't buy you a work bench in the smallest medical devices or aerospace companies. While technicians often do the actual work in in these places, degrees rule both the salary scale and the patents-applied-for lists. There are some rare examples where incredible, unstoppable talent rose above this brick wall of academic segregation, but not many.

Too bad. Since the Fortune 500 won't come to them, Bill Gates and others like him will be bringing new rules to technology and we'll be seeing some new company names on that list in the future. As information becomes easier to get and the cost of developing technology is driven down by international competition and capacity, just about anyone can make just about anything if their idea is good enough.

Consumers don't care where the inventor went to school. They just want to get the best product for the best price. Cutting out useless overhead is how that standard gets met. So tell me, what did your degree contribute to the work you did today?

September 1999

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