I firmly believe that this is true. Having completed a Smurfit MBA in order to get away from being “just an engineer”, I found that my transferrable skills were virtually unknown in the working world. Those engineers on my MBA course who wanted to stay in the engineering arena found jobs fairly quickly. However, those that wanted to get away from the “pure” engineering field were destined for a longer job search.
People talk about arts and commerce as “good, general degrees” (which they are), but that is rarely said about engineering. However, the critical thinking and problem-solving skills developed with engineering are applicable anywhere. Moreover, the ability to understand other people’s complex ideas that any engineer must have in order to get the degree is directly relevant to needs-identification in sales and marketing.
Furthermore, while not considered a “creative” discipline, engineering requires more creativity than people generally realise. The ability to break down a problem and then figure out a way to solve that problem is well understood, and the phrase “problem solver” is on everyone’s CV these days. But there is a difference between someone who solves a problem by going through a prescribed approach, and someone who solves a problem in a “creative” manner.
What separates a “creative” problem solver from a “by-rote” problem solver is a deep understanding of the underlying system (usually a very complex system). This understanding is a central point in coming up with novel (“new to world”) or creative solutions that have never been used before. Engineers spend a lot of time examining systems, so the interaction between elements is something that we don’t take for granted.
Coming from an electronic engineering background, one system that I would be used to are circuits. At the digital level, every element does a specific job, has at least one input (1 or 0) coming from another element, at least one output that goes to another element…and the whole thing creates a system. At a digital level, things can have quite simple causal relationships. But beyond that, an electronic engineer must take into account the real world. Signals that are analogue are not simply 1 or 0. Current flows around a circuit board following certain paths, which can interfere with the inputs and outputs of other elements if care is not taken.
At a Toastmasters meeting yesterday, one of the topics presented was, “Does the pressure on companies to reduce price also reduce quality?”. The answers given were all given by those who thought “Yes – a price decrease must equal a quality decrease”. We’ve all seen the “Project Triangle” at some point. This clearly shows us that it is possible to produce something a low cost and of good quality if we sacrifice time. The time element can, however, be minimised by having good problem-solvers involved, allowing for good, low-cost solutions with a low time-to-market (or at least lower than that of the competition).
In conclusion, the M.O. of an engineer’s brain can be useful in so many non-engineering arenas: CRM – a network of customers is a system; Sales – understanding of customer needs boosts credibility; Strategy – the market is also a system, with cause and effect; Marketing – a campaign is a series of linked occurrences, like a system; Project Management – a project is a system; etc.
Please remember that just because we’re engineers does not make us emotionally unintelligent Dilberts. Additionally, anyone with an MBA has fundamental business/economic/strategy understanding.
And, as I’ve mentioned above, the fundamentals are what really count.
Edit (14th March 2012): This article from the Globe and Mail tells of how engineers have overtaken MBAs in leadership positions. So just imagine what an engineer with an MBA can do. (thanks to Fergus for the link)