Saying ‘No’ to a Hobson’s Choice

Geoff Langos By Geoff Langos
Vice President of Information
Technology, Vonage

December 22, 2009

In 2001 I was working for a large telecommunications company. Starting with a mere handful of engineers, I built a team that had grown to 60, was supporting thousands of end-users, and was integral to launching a new business line. The company’s management, impressed by the team’s performance, came to me and asked if I wanted to stay close to the technology or to manage people.

My answer "was yes to both."

I was being given the classic Hobson’s Choice offered to many engineers who enjoy both building things that work and managing the people who do the work: Stay in technology or hop aboard the management train and leave the bench (and their fellow engineers) behind.

I didn’t believe the choice should have to be binary, but when I looked at classic MBA programs to develop management skills I found that although some had courses on engineering management (but didn’t focus on it), most were trying to attract engineers who needed to retool and leave engineering—which I most definitely did not want to do.

For me, the answer was the System Design and Management (SDM) program at MIT, which I completed in 2004. One of the mottos at SDM is to train engineers to lead, not leave engineering.

I believe that the stereotype of the stubborn engineer who cares only about the problem he or she is trying to solve at any given moment may be exaggerated, but is nonetheless grounded in a reality that people who propose to manage them must learn to address. At SDM, the cases studied are about facing the challenge of both the technical problem plus the business problem. In other words, SDM, as opposed to the traditional MBA program, focuses on those unique problems that engineers will have to address while at the same time broadening their perspective to include such business elements as marketing, sales, and finance.

For example, one case I studied concerned a company that made pads designed to go in between machines that drove concrete pylons into the ground. The pad was designed to save wear on the machines and drive the pylons faster. The business problem was how to price and market the pad.

The average or naïve engineer might say, ‘Who cares? The pad works.’ But in business, as in life, there isn’t just one answer. (In fact, the pad didn’t improve performance well enough to justify a price that would ensure profitability.) You have to learn how management is going to think and how engineers are going to think.

At Vonage, one of the IT systems failed recently and I struggled to explain that it really wasn’t a technical failure as much a process and prioritization problem in getting the system upgraded to a new one. Then I remembered SDM’s accident sequence diagram, used in the System Engineering course, and returned to management able to illustrate what had happened organizationally and technically, demonstrating that the failure was not simply an IT problem. If you can’t do that, you lose credibility with the business.

Today, with my business credibility intact, I’m able to stay close to the technology and lead engineers, proving that, thanks to SDM, the Hobson’s Choice presented to engineers—technology or people—is fallacious.