Engineering success consists of applying technology, science, and process to transform materials (or ingredients or computing power) into something more useful as defined by customer needs. Until recently, the only global aspects of product engineering had to do with the transportation of input materials or final product from or to a remote location.
A series of rapid changes in the 1990s led to a rapid rise of what we call Global Engineering, with its unique disciplines, challenges and attributes. Communication costs plummeted while bandwidth improved dramatically. Telephone calls, emails, instant messaging and now video conferencing have become virtually free relative to the cost of most engineering projects. This means that engineers in Boston can consider collaborating with their counterparts in Beijing or Bangalore without worrying about incremental telecommunication costs. At the same time, files containing gigabytes of drawing, model or other data can be transferred using the undersea optical fiber cable for minimal costs.
The rise of large container ships and of overnight air services enable the shipping not only of tradable goods but also of engineering samples, tools, and supplies between most major city pairs in less than 72 hours.
The use of standard components and subsystems as well as the development of techniques such as Design For Six Sigma and Object-Oriented Programming has enabled large engineering projects to become modularized and parseable.
Bright young people in the West have turned away from engineering and technical careers as society has not valued or rewarded such disciplines. In countries such as India an engineering degree is treated on par with medicine or law in the West and so the best minds have continued to be attracted to technical disciplines.
Financial experts at large companies and venture funds, who long understood the concept of cost arbitrage, encouraged Chief Technology Officers to apply labor arbitrage to their engineering workforce.
Finally, the advanced first world economies of North America, Europe, and Japan have started to stagnate while emerging countries have continued to experience rapid growth in their GDPs, in the size of their middle class, and in their aspirations of the “good life”.
Recipes for Global Engineering
Some Chief Technology Officers chose to set up beachheads of localization to tailor their products to different markets. Some chose to partner with merchant providers of R&D services. In Taiwan and other countries, we saw the rise of the “ODM” the “original design and manufacture” merchants such as FoxConn who would design, manufacture, and service a product for a western brand, while letting them market and own the intellectual property. We have also seen the rise of research labs and universities in India, China, and elsewhere where Western trained professors continue to practice world class research.
As a result, a successful Chief Technology Officer and her managers must now know how to manage global engineering initiatives. This trend continues to sweep through industry after industry, creating a significant impact on the careers and futures of companies and managers who resist.
What makes for a competent Global Engineer?
Basic engineering prowess is a requirement before someone can work globally. But it is seldom sufficient.
A global engineer must have superior written communication skills since she or he may often be required to convey ideas and progress reports to peers and superiors who work in vastly different time zones.
In order to innovate, knowledge workers must be able to share ideas and brainstorm effectively. When engineering teams are separated not only by geographical and time zone factors but also by cultures and heritage, it takes some training and stretching to reach out to a colleague whose life experiences may be completely different. Some people ask, can you design a better steering wheel for a roadster if you don’t own or drive a car? Alternatively, can you engineer a solar stove for a rural Indian housewife if you haven’t ventured outside Silicon Valley?
Middle managers in a global company must know how to develop talent that can rise and move between countries and locations. In dual career households, there are personal challenges to make it happen. In addition, many managers are not eager for their children’s schooling to be disrupted as career opportunities in new geographies arise.
The most successful global engineering managers are experts at cross cultural communication. They realize that their successor may come from Shanghai or Surat. They know how to motivate engineers in diverse cultures and how to resolve conflict across boundaries.