Unhappy Engineer

The unhappy engineer

Gavin Christie

Gavin Christie
Nov 13, 2016 11:00

We are constantly receiving feedback from engineers who register to offer freelance engineering services on kkooee: many are feeling disenfranchised or disillusioned with their current employer. Some feel like opportunities are passing them by. In the most unfortunate cases, these engineers have been let go from the very firm they helped to build.

Don’t believe me? Check out Glassdoor. You’ll find candid reviews of companies from engineers who have worked there. It’s quite compelling reading if you have the time. I’m not saying every engineering consulting firm is inherently bad, but the high level of dissatisfaction doesn’t paint a good picture for the senior leadership of large engineering firms. I’d certainly be a bit worried.

Sure, some of the negative sentiment is just sour grapes, but a real divergence is occurring between company direction (or sometimes lack thereof) and the personal and professional aspirations of working engineers. 

I won’t single out an individual firm (you know the major players) but I had a look into the Glassdoor comments of five major engineering consulting firms and drew a number of conclusions. If you’re anything like some of the disenfranchised engineers who have already used kkooee for consulting work, you’ll relate to much of this. If you’re a senior leader in a consulting firm, you may want to pour yourself a stiff drink before reading.

50-60% satisfaction is not the exception, it’s the norm

You’d be quite worried if 50-60% of your workforce were unhappy or disillusioned. I know I’d start questioning myself. My conclusion is that 50-60% engineer satisfaction is the norm for most engineering consulting firms.

You’ll often hear engineering leaders say “our people are our greatest asset.” I wonder If they know that only half of their ‘greatest assets’ are operationally optimal. If half of your workforce is likely looking elsewhere, business stability is at risk.

Communication is a key leadership strength...right?

Looking at the feedback, one of the most common critiques is a lack of communication to the consulting engineers delivering projects that matter. I don’t think these engineers are calling for more communication, but rather quality communication. It’s engagement and a sense of purpose that’s missing: leaders engaging with engineers about company strategy, current direction, and opportunities.

I know you hear me, but are you listening?

I believe that listening is as powerful as speaking. The comments make it clear that engineers are screaming out, not just to be heard, but to be listened to. Engineers, the ones responsible for revenue generation, have ideas. They’re smart and eager, but they’re disillusioned. They want leadership to listen and, once in awhile, act on a request. And when that doesn’t happen, they stop feeling like their firm’s “greatest assets.”

Strategy? What strategy?

I have noticed that precious few engineering firms clearly articulate their company strategy. I’m not just talking about aspirations. I’m talking about targets, performance indicators, actions, resources, and timeframes. It’s the lack of a clearly articulated strategy that frequently frustrates engineers.

Engineers who feel powerless to influence the direction of a ship they perceive as rudderless will not want to get on board. Worse, those already on board will want to jump ship. For senior leadership in engineering firms, it’s as simple as talking openly to your engineers about company strategy. That is, if you have one.

Opportunity is a key determinant of satisfaction

Engineers love opportunity. They love opportunities to work on great projects with great people. My perception of the comments I read is that the availability of tangible opportunity is more important than salary in determining the level of satisfaction within an firm. To me, the opportunities are one of the best parts of working with an engineering consulting firm.

Just being transparent, making opportunities known, is likely enough. Engineers will thrive if they see credible opportunities ahead.

Mentoring and teamwork build satisfaction

Engineers are naturally smart people and great problem solvers, and they love working with other engineers. A frequent positive comment on Glassdoor is that engineers are most satisfied when they can work within a great team of highly regarded engineers and have the ability to learn from more experienced engineers.

In workshops on company culture, I often ask people to think about the most successful engineering project they’ve ever worked on. What made it so successful?

The engineers rarely mention the client or the size of the project. It’s the people involved that they most often cite as the most critical factor in determining success. Their answers are filled with high levels of enthusiasm and pride.

To me, it’s obvious: developing a culture supported by mentoring, teamwork, and frequent learning opportunities results in a productive, motivated, and – most importantly – satisfied workforce.

I’m accountable, why aren’t our leaders?

Many engineers are expressing frustration at the extent to which poor decisions, poor performance and poor behavior – especially among senior leadership – are tolerated at their firms. And this visible tolerance leads to much dismay among engineers; it erodes their confidence. If you’re not enforcing accountability all the way up the ladder, you’re fueling dissent on the lower rungs.

The work-life imbalance

Engineers love to work. Another frequently echoed sentiment on Glassdoor is that consulting engineers don’t actually mind pulling long hours when required, particularly on a great project.

But they aren’t stupid; they know when they’re being exploited. When long hours become the norm rather than the exception for great performers, but not necessarily for everyone, those great performers expect to be incentivized. If they’re not, they feel unappreciated.

This isn’t specific to engineering jobs; if I were a senior leader at any company and my top performers were asking themselves why they bother working so hard, I’d panic.

Engineering firms: are you panicking yet?

You’re strangling me in red tape

If in doubt, make a policy. If in more doubt, make a procedure. Still in doubt, hire people to implement it.

Red tape strangles engineers in many firms. It’s one of the most frequent sources of frustration and dissatisfaction of engineers.  Red tape impacts a company on three fronts: innovation, initiative, and efficiency. If a firm isn’t serious about striking a balance between the necessary amount of policy and the freedom to innovate, it’s impacting the ability of its engineers to be successful.

Intentionally, I haven’t quoted specific reviews or singled out any individual firms. This isn’t a witch hunt. The reason I feel compelled to share this is because it highlights the divergence between company culture, conditions, and values and the personal and professional aspirations of engineers.

To be honest, whether an individual firm chooses to make better choices to keep their workforce engaged doesn’t matter to me. Ultimately, the more important question is whether engineers will increasingly seek independence as a professional goal, because kkooee is now able to make that goal more achievable. It’s an interesting market out there. Beware of the unhappy engineer! 


Brilliant piece! I think its been a long time since I enjoyed any blog article quite as much as I enjoyed that one! You have truly hit the nail on the head

Most consulting firms die with the senior consultants for this reason.