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The Engineer Personality

Sufficient engineers have substantially the same traits that a stereotype personality has evolved depicting them - they are thought of as intelligent, logical, introverted but with poor communication skills and dress sense.

Is that characterisation justified? Well er, yes - pretty well, since it's not hard to find examples of the 'nerdy' engineer. Naturally there are exceptions, the boundary between different personality types is fluid, but a good engineer is likely to have certain basic traits.

  • Engineers are curious and enjoy discovering how things work and solving problems.

  • Engineers use logic to examine ideas and develop theories and explanations.

  • Engineers like science.

  • Engineers are able to concentrate intently on a subject.

  • Engineers are perfectionists who are always looking for better ways of doing things.

  • Engineers want order and structure at work and in their personal life.

  • Engineers enjoy discussion, debate (and arguing), about their topic.

  • Engineers appreciate and respect intelligence in others.

  • They often have a good sense of humour.

  • Engineers commonly want to help solve the world's problems.

But along with these laudable engineer qualities, comes an assortment of characteristics which are less easy to like.

  • Engineers can be dogmatic.

  • Engineers may be unimaginative outside their own field, (so-called tunnel-vision).

  • Engineers are uncomfortable with vagueness and ambiguity.

  • Engineers dislike change.

  • The engineer's attachment to structure may lead to an authoritarian approach. 

  • Engineers may focus on theories and be reluctant to consider conflicting data.

  • Engineers can be impersonal and reserved and may take little interest in other people.

  • Engineers may have poor social skills and be insensitive to the feelings of others. Diplomacy does not come to them naturally.

  • Engineers may have little commercial awareness and dislike making decisions in business.

How many Engineering Directors does it take to
change a light bulb?

A: Just one. He holds the light bulb still and expects the world to revolve around him.

Arguing with an Engineer

 . . . is a lot like wrestling in the mud with a pig.      After a few hours, you realize that he likes it.      

                    More engineer jokes

Before it's too late, I will say that through the 17 years that I have been running Selling for Engineers seminars, I have met around 6,000 engineers and liked nearly all of them, (though there was once a guy I had to eject from an event near Hull :-). Part of the reason that I enjoyed meeting them is that under the surface I'm an engineer myself.

In the seminar I show a simplified psychometric personality assessment. It becomes a group exercise to identify the characteristics of three strongly differing types. One is the CEO, boss type, another the lab tech type and the third the friendly-but-dim, salt-of-the-earth-type.

What emerges after a lot of humorous banter is that all types have 'good' and 'bad' characteristics, yet each of the 'bad' characteristics can be seen as a positive in certain, necessary situations. For example, most people if asked out of context whether being 'dogmatic' is good, will say that it isn't. Yet if you ask them whether being 'focused and determined' is good, they will say that these qualities are. Seen with this perspective, 'dogmatism' = 'determined and focused'.

From this you can infer that according to the circumstance, any personality trait can be either 'good' or 'bad' and that problems occur when the 'bad' characteristic is inappropriate for the context. The trick for good 'job-fit' is matching the person to the niche where their characteristics are valuable.

All of which is to say that the list of less attractive engineer qualities half a screen above is what you get when you want someone who can invent solutions to big problems and make things that work and are safe.

A perennial difficulty in the science and technology sectors is that 'engineer types' are generally not commercially minded. This doesn't matter too much if there's someone else to deal with the business of finding work and selling your services. But in a small company and sometimes even in larger ones, it's an 'engineer type' who has that role. One for which his or her personality is not very appropriate.

Of course there are some exceptions, but if you look at a psychometric evaluation of the traits that make a good engineer and those of successful entrepreneurs the differences are significant. Consequent on the personality gap, their life experiences are dissimilar. Entrepreneurs want success and accept that risk is involved in achieving it. You can't say that about the average engineer, who prefers to play it safe, which of course is a good thing for the rest of us who use their products.

From presenting business skills courses to engineers I have seen that only about 3 people from groups of 12 show natural business aptitude, and of them only half have ever had any formal business education.

The remainder don't know that they don't know. I've talked to universities about including sales / marketing topics in engineering courses, but this has never gone beyond an initial show of interest.

I think that's a problem because, ultimately, lack of commercial awareness translates into wasted opportunity, effort invested in projects which don't reach a viable market.

UPDATE June 2015 - things are finally beginning to change and several universities have engaged me to run introductory courses, but this is still a drop in the ocean. If you are a student or a member of staff at a technical university or institute contact me if you are interested in attending or presenting a 'Sales Skills Workshop' which I offer worldwide either without charge or at a reduced fee, depending on location.

But to finish on a brighter note, read my piece on why I think being a sales engineer is a great job.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at my book.

The Selling for Engineers manual

About the Selling for Engineers Manual


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