Technical Honors

Why do some technical honor recipients – e.g. Distinguished Engineer, Fellow – seem to fall off the face of the earth after they are honored? Why do they lose relevance and become part of a larger “how can we get more out of that community?” discussion? While clearly a good thing, receiving a technical honor can sabotage your career (pitfalls are everywhere!), so it’s important to understand how to handle it.

With that ominous introduction, we’ve created the Technical Director honor to recognize engineers in EMC’s Core Technologies Division. Technical Director is the first recognition in the honors path, preceding the EMC-wide recognitions of Distinguished Engineer and Fellow. This time we’ll talk about the value and danger in technical honors, and how we’ve structured the Technical Director honor to help the recipients avoid the trap of becoming “somebody who used to matter”.

Value from Technical Honors – Individual

Why have technical honors? Other job roles in technical companies don’t have similar awards. Some claim that it augments the muddled and limited technical career path. Others point out that things like Sales Club are “honors”. To the first argument, we’ll talk about the disastrous effects of confusing honors with job roles. To the second argument, Sales Club is an award that has to be earned yearly, not a permanent recognition.

We have technical honors for the same reason that Hollywood has the Academy Awards. We’re the talent, and talented people want to be recognized by those they respect. That means peer recognition (through honors) often matters more than management recognition (through promotion).

Receiving a technical honor can be deeply fulfilling. First, if the recognition comes from peers whom you admire, then it demonstrates that you have their respect. Second, it signifies to the outside world that you’re considered by your peers to be at the top of your profession. Those honors help open the doors when you’re looking for a job, funding for a startup, or credibility with a customer, partner, or academic institution. (Of course, it just opens the door once. From there, it’s up to you to take advantage of it.)

Value from Technical Honors – Company

Granting technical honors can also help a company. First, it shows that you have a thriving technical community. Engineers want to work where they will be valued. They also want to work with other great engineers. It’s the only way that they can build things that matter. Technical honors are one way for a company to signal that it values its technical team. Second, it enables a company to establish its “heroes”. Companies can encourage their teams to exhibit desired behaviors by rewarding those who best display them. By recognizing the engineers who best embody the technical ideal, the rest of the organization will respond accordingly.

When I was first interviewing for jobs, I had two striking interviews. First, I met with a technically advanced Wall Street financial firm. My first interviewer said, “Get out of here. You’ll always be treated as a second class citizen behind the traders. Here you’re the help. Go somewhere where you’ll be the talent.” Second, I met with an application company in Redwood Shores. One engineer bragged that the job gave him time to his plan raves in San Francisco. Another said that the best part of the job was unlimited free orange juice. Neither of them talked about their career goals, the technical community, or what they wanted to achieve at work. And the orange juice was canned, not fresh squeezed.

Work where engineers are the talent, and where you can aspire to more than avoiding scurvy. A strong technical honors program can be one signal for that.

Danger from Technical Honors – Individual

“If you see one Distinguished Engineer, start a conversation. If you see two, eavesdrop. If you see three, run the other way”- Longstanding internal joke

How can a technical honor sabotage your career?

  • You think you should be doing something different.
  • You think others should treat you differently.

A technical honor is not a new job role. It doesn’t dramatically change your responsibilities. It doesn’t dictate that you should only think “big thoughts”. A technical honor doesn’t make your ideas better. Other people won’t blindly follow you because you have an honorific behind your name. In fact, if you behave as if they should, most people will refuse to work with you. As a result, you’ll find yourself ignored and frustrated wondering where everything went wrong.

A technical honor is recognition that you have done consistently valuable, meaningful work – a confirmation that you’ve been doing the right things. It tells the rest of the organization (and you) that it wants more of what you have done. So keep doing them!

If you’d like to take on new responsibilities and grow into a new job role, that’s wonderful. Have that conversation with your manager and mentor. Keep it separate from the technical honors.

Danger from Technical Honors – Company

There are three ways that technical honors can derail a company’s technical community:

  • Giving out technical honors based on the wrong criteria. Companies overthink their technical honors process. Instead of recognizing engineers who make a substantial impact on the business, they create a byzantine evaluation processes that leads to decisions that defy common sense. Keep it simple. Technical honors should be obvious and the people who receive them should embody the values you want.
  • Honors become political. Managers use honors to try to keep an unhappy engineer – often bypassing the process. Groups will demand a “quota” for honorees. The complex evaluation process means that results are more tied to the nominator’s skill than to the nominee’s contribution. As the engineering community sees the wrong people being recognized, the honor becomes almost worthless.
  • Management confuses honors with job roles. They expect the honoree to take on a role that they’re not interested in or suited for. Even worse, they expect these honorees, who lack authority or control, to form a “community” that transforms the business. Nobody expects athletes who make the Hall of Fame to do things as a group; why would a technical hall of fame be any different?

Introducing the Technical Director Honor

In the face of all the danger, EMC’s Core Technologies Division is introducing a new technical honor – Technical Director – as the first step of technical honors followed by Distinguished Engineer and Fellow.

Why introduce a new honor?

As EMC has grown larger (and Dell-EMC larger still), it’s increasingly difficult to make a contribution that registers at a cross-corporate level. Therefore, it is helpful to be able to recognize engineers closer to their peer groups. Furthermore, it helps create a pipeline of engineers who may be in line for corporate honors in the future.

What do we expect of these honorees? What behavior are we trying to recognize?

  • Sustained Business Impact – Over the course of a 4 year period, the honoree should have done work that led to at least (US) $100M per year.
  • Technical Contributions – Hands-on work on products or solutions (architecture, development, test, or deployment) that demonstrate innovation and execution. The contributions should lead to the Business Impact.
  • Technical Leadership – Recognized as the “go-to” person for the projects that drove the Business Impact.

We want to recognize senior engineers who delivered technical work that resulted in a significant benefit to the business.

How does the process work?

A business (or product) unit agrees on a nominee. They submit 10 bullet items or fewer on why the individual deserves the honor. It’s either obvious in 10 lines or the engineer doesn’t yet deserve the honor. That’s it.

What does a Technical Director get?

Technical Directors get the recognition of excellence from their peers. They get more access to the leaders who can explain the significant business and technical challenges that face the organization. They also get opportunities to interact with one another to exchange ideas on how to better influence and move the organization. They’re then tracked for the next stage of honors – Distinguished Engineer. And, of course, TDs get a fun and business-relevant celebration every year to honor their achievements.

It’s not a promotion. It’s not a new job role. There’s no new responsibilities. There’s no expectation that the “community” will solve the world’s great problems.

We’re simply honoring engineers who have done great work to help the business.

Conclusion

Technical honors can be a wonderful recognition of an engineer’s contributions to a company. Done properly, it sets the model for other engineers to emulate and demonstrates that an organization truly values its technical talent. Unfortunately, technical honors often fall into a quagmire of politics, complexity, and improperly set expectations. Like any recognition, a technical honor shouldn’t drive an engineer’s behavior. Instead, it should be a result of doing the right things for the business and their career.

If you meet a Technical Director from EMC’s Core Technologies Division, you can be sure of one thing – that person is a hands-on technical leader that made and continues to make an obvious and meaningful business impact.

Congratulations to: Bhimsen Bhanjois, Ravi Chitloor, Rob Fair, Mahesh Kamat, George Mathew, Naveen Rastogi, Udi Shemer, and Doug Wilson… with more to come!

Stephen Manley @makitadremel

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