Developing Engineers at Every Level

There are often significant gaps, at key stages of an engineer’s career

By now, everyone understands both, the value of talented technologists, and the challenges of attracting and retaining them. However, many organisations aren’t doing enough to engage their talent and unlock their potential through developing them and supporting their growth at every stage of their career. 

We have seen almost an arms race across our Financial Services clients around initiatives to offer attractive career paths and develop their best engineers, but most are still playing catch up to their technology firm peers. We see three main issues: 

  1. Whilst there are increasing numbers of development programmes available to support the growth of engineers, there are often significant gaps, at key stages of an engineer’s career, of opportunities to learn and practice the skills that will enable them to get to the next stage. 
  2. The engineering career path is still not at parity with the management career path, and thus engineers are still often frustrated in their attempts to move upwards in an individual contributor, engineering journey. 
  3. Development Programmes are often treated as ‘point in time’ learning, as opposed to a way of building skills and then during and post the programme providing opportunities to practice and apply the learning so that it doesn’t ‘fizzle out’ over time. 

In practice, the first two issues are often linked, or at least can be addressed together. Both the engineering career path and developmental support at each stage can be seen together in Figure 1. 

Figure 1. Engineer Career Path and Development Support

In the Financial Services Industry, for this career path, we typically see well-established Graduate programmes, often Enterprise Engineer Programmes at the mid-career level, and increasingly Distinguished Engineer (or Tech Fellow) programmes at the senior end.   

In particular, we observe a gap in the early (3-5 years) and established (10-12 years) career stages, where we have programmes known as Specialist Engineer and Principal Engineer. Of course, development opportunities at every stage of a career are important, but we’ve seen the following specific issues at these two levels: 

  1. Lack of development opportunities for Specialist Engineers: Having made significant investments in your engineers through a graduate programme, potentially a series of rotations, and tailored technical training you should be seeing increased productivity and effectiveness. There is a significant time gap before such an engineer could attend an Enterprise Engineer Programme, so without further development opportunities, they might consider leaving. This can result in a poor return on investment plus a gap in the ‘engine room’ of engineering delivery, meaning overloading more senior engineers or taking a risk on recent graduates for delivery. 
  2. Lack of development opportunities for Principal Engineers: At this level, you should be seeing a significant business impact from senior VP/Director/Executive Director Engineers, in terms of driving strategy and innovation. Again, without a development opportunity at this level, there is a large time gap between Enterprise and Distinguished Engineer. A loss of engineers at this level can have a significant impact on achieving strategic outcomes, as well as a risk of much in-house knowledge being taken to competitors. 

Many organisations might counter our view on needing all these programs by demonstrating the investment they have made in online learning such as Pluralsight and Coursera. This is a valuable investment and absolutely has its place. However, Technology Organisations often only invest in technology training and not behavioural training which creates a leading engineering culture by unlocking engineers’ expertise. Additionally, online learning on its own does not provide engineers with opportunities to practice new skills in a safe environment, unlike the case studies, business scenarios, projects, ongoing communities of practice, and coaching circles that are used in our development programmes.

This means the training does not fully translate into improved capability and performance. As per the third issue raised at the beginning of this paper, development programmes are often just ‘point in time’ learning. Our approach enables new skills and then provides the support to amplify this capability in the day job so that businesses get more value from their investment in people development. Our approach and the elements used can be seen in Figure 2 below – the practice, retrospect, apply and review elements of the journey provide the opportunity to amplify the capability. 

Figure 2. Typical Sionic Development Programme Learning Journey

The value of providing structured development programmes at each engineering career stage is clear, but the programme structures vary at each level.  They must be tailored to the level of the audience in terms of content but also in terms of how much autonomy and ownership participants have in driving their own learning and demonstrating how they are amplifying their capability and adding value.  Early career programmes focus on knowledge acquisition, especially technical. Later career programmes focus more on application and adding value through delivering projects and ‘giving back’ to the organisation, developing others and driving engineering strategy and innovation. 

Figure 3. Engineering Development Programme Structure and Composition 

This structure and composition reflect the increased capability and impact that is expected at different career stages. There is a ‘tipping point’ around the Enterprise Engineer Programme level, where you should expect to get more out of the programme participant than you put in. By this we mean that participants should be generating more business value than the cost incurred for putting them through training programmes at Enterprise Engineer, Principal Engineer and Distinguished Engineer.   Activities that support amplification of their capability across the organisation are: 

  1. A project, which will innovate or solve organisational or engineering challenges. 
  2. Group coaching activities, where participants share expertise and support each other to develop. 
  3. Organisational engagement, such as coaching and mentoring others, getting involved in Engineering Communities, and ‘giving back’ to the next set of participants in these programmes, for example becoming Faculty members for these programmes. 

This is understandable in principle but can be challenging to achieve in practice. Over many years we have developed programmes with the right approach to realise this impact, working with our clients and being able to demonstrate the ‘win-win’ for both the participant’s career growth and organisational value.  

Offering development opportunities across the entire engineering career path is not only the right strategy for individual engineers but also for the organisation. This is because the cost-benefit ratio quickly becomes skewed towards a very positive payback if these development programmes are structured correctly and engage and motivate the participants to perform at high levels. 

If you’d like to discuss our experience and how we could help you achieve the same impact in your organisation, please contact us.

About the author

I help organisations and the individuals within them change and develop; to be better, more effective and have a positive impact on the clients and society they serve.