Engineering route to accounting

In a discussion on Google+, Daniel Lemire argues that engineers end up essentially being accountants.

Engineering, at least how it is practiced in North America, is hardly very exciting. … By the time you have your degree, you have 5–10 years to go before, if you have any ambition, you end up a manager of some kind, doing more or less what your friends who went into accounting do. … No, you don’t get to build anything, technicians do that … you only approve their expense reports …

Of course there are exceptions, but the career path Daniel describes is common. And it’s not unique to engineering. It’s a sort of variation on the Peter Principle. Many people find themselves approving expense reports for people who do the work they enjoy doing, or used to enjoy doing.

What can you do if you want to avoid going into management/accounting? Here are a few ideas.

  • Be content with a lower salary.
  • Work for smaller companies.
  • Work for specialized companies, e.g. an engineering firm.
  • Go out on your own (but watch out for the e-myth).
  • Spend a lot of time searching for a job.

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18 thoughts on “Engineering route to accounting

  1. Point one on your list is excellent: the best way to get to do the work you love is to satisfy yourself with the money it brings. Restated: don’t sell your happiness for a larger paycheck.

  2. I don’t think it’s the Peter Principle, which maintains that people are promoted until they are promoted one level too high for their abilities.

    My view, from living in Corporate America for 15 or so years, is that the engineering career path ends before the engineer’s career does. So a company promotes the engineer, but the engineer’s salary is too high for doing “just” engineering, and the company makes the engineer into a manager to justify the salary.

  3. I’ve just noticed a somewhat similar thing regarding my own programming career. In addition to the individual-contributor -> manager path, there’s also the detail level: the programming that I do is much more concerned with the nitty-gritty of company finance/accounting than it used to be. Used to be much more “we need a shiny new app to do XYZ” stuff.

    (shrug) People grow up, I guess.

  4. A similar process affects scientists – many of the brilliant senior scientists I work with spend their days in meetings or doing the paperwork required to hire the junior scientists who will do the interesting work of deep literature searches and data exploration.

    If I were to add another point to you list it would be to keep sufficient slack in project proposals that you will have time to delve into the interesting work yourself .

  5. There are companies that have true technical career paths. Some just give the concept lip service but others manage to pull it off, avoiding using it just as a PR/hiring stunt. After 25 years, I remain an “individual contributor” but I make more than two of my last three managers because I am higher on the parallel paths than they are. The third one has ~5 more years experience than I do so we get paid about the same.

  6. Voice of 30 years engineering experience here. What I have seen in my own career is that if you do a good job, your number of customers tends to increase to the point where you physically can’t do all the work anymore. You could turn customers away, but management tends to frown on that. So, you have to become a manager yourself, and direct a team of individuals so that you can keep all your customers (and your upper management) happy. Unfortunately, you do then wind up spending more time on things like performance appraisals, invoice approvals, etc. The way out of that is to get good administrative support.

  7. @Jason

    Personally, I disagree. I see it as two choices — do something you love, or earn enough money and free time to do it in your leisure hours. If this means you need to be content as a manager while you are building robots in your garage, so be it. Loving work is not the end all and be all, it is merely one option of many.

  8. There are actually higher paying hands-on engineering jobs but it gets to the point where you need to really kick your raw technical skills up another level. A lot of people slow down their technical learning as they get into their 30s and 40s – or perhaps they keep broadening their skills horizontally to keep up with new technology, but they don’t actually make the leap to more difficult and specialized technical challenges. Businesses tend to be good at providing ‘more experience’ for their employees but not so good at really ramping up peoples raw talent. So people eventually plateau where they appear to be learning new things, but all they are really doing is keeping up. Thus their pay stops rising and they move into management.

  9. This is different from my experience. Agree with above who said engineers often get promoted into management to justify the salary. In my chain of command are 3 layers of engineers turned management. All of them use their new clout to stay highly involved in the projects they want to, down to nitpicky design details. My boss will skip his office for a whole day to play hands on in the test lab thinking he’s really more qualified than the technician who could be doing the work. While he is more qualified, an engineer is not a technician. Many engineers start their careers this way but many underestimate the skills of technicians. Agree with the suggestions but I know many managers can use their authority to do what they want. Doesn’t make them great managers but then that’s life.

  10. Great post, thanks,

    I chair the Accounting Department at Seton Hall University. A few engineering students join our graduate programs every year, and they do very well in their coursework, and also on the job market. They have a strong aptitude for accounting.

    There are tremendous opportunities in cost and managerial accounting for professionals who acquire expertise in both accounting and engineering. Many of these jobs involve product design and manufacture, and go far beyond approving expense reports. I think that engineers should think of accounting as one more area of expertise that they can use to advance their careers and meet their professional goals.

    Furthermore, I have found engineers to be very successful in both taxation and financial engineering. These are mathematically-intense areas that are financially rewarding and (believe it or not) require some creativity.

    This is not to say that engineers should ditch their dreams and pursue accounting so that they can make more money. Rather, it’s kind of like the cheap cologne that they sell in the drug store: If you like Ralph Lauren Polo, then you’ll love “Rolf Loren Pollo.” If you like and enjoy engineering, you might also like accounting and taxation.

  11. I’ve moved into management and then back into engineering (for now). I find that:

    – I have to be much more selective about jobs. Only a small fractions of companies out there will pay top-dollar for top-performing engineers.

    – Management and product management experience helps me earn my pay. When I’m working on the architecture for a product, I’m not just designing nuggets of software/hardware, I’m designing a part of the company’s product line.

    To emphasize @cpb’s point, the top-pay-scale engineer needs to keep learning, both on the technical side but also the business side. I highly recommend Chad Fowler’s book “The Passionate Programmer” for more info on how engineers can advance their career by advancing their business and domain expertise.

  12. OK, I _somewhat_ agree that “by the time you have your degree, you have 5–10 years to go before, if you have any ambition, you end up a manager of some kind” – I would swap the word “any” for “a good amount of”, and I would add to the word “ambition” the words “competence”, “enthusiasm”, “empathy”, “confidence”, “integrity”, etc,. Not everyone is asked to lead, or manage.

    I do not agree that “you don’t get to build anything, technicians do that … you only approve their expense reports …”. I think as a manager/leader, you are still building things, maybe just not in the same way an engineer would. Would Steve Jobs say he didn’t build the iPhone? Would Bill Gates say he didn’t build the Microsoft Corporation?

    Currently, I am effectively a relatively hands-off development manager. I am passionate about software development (among other things); I do it in my spare time and have done so for many years. For several years following graduation, I was privileged enough to be able to work as a software developer professionally; I enjoyed that. Many grads don’t get to work as engineers. Eventually, I found myself in a position where I was regarded as having enough experience and maturity that the organization I work with looked to me to take the lead. I took the opportunity gladly, why wouldn’t I? Opportunity came knocking – it doesn’t come to everyone and it doesn’t come often. I like challenges and I like solving complex problems – this is partly why software development appeals to me. My current role has many, many interesting challenges, and many complex, multifaceted problems to solve. I enjoy managing software developers; I enjoy watching them and the systems they develop evolve, mature, and prosper. I enjoy contributing to my organization by assisting with strategic software development direction.

    I think that just like when I was doing software development, the thrill I get out of leadership and management is in the belief that when I do my job well, my efforts may help to improve peoples lives. Hmm, yeah, actually I had better get back to work 😉

  13. An afterthought – my comment may come across as quite complacent.

    So I should say that I agree leadership/development is not for everyone; it can be a burden, and it can be misused terribly.

    I think your list of “What can you do if you want to avoid going into management/accounting?” is pretty spot-on John, nice one.

  14. Just because you have been promoted to a manager does not mean you are no longer capable of creation, merely that you are now permitted to do it on your own terms rather than someone else’s.

    Engineers in general and software engineers in particular tend to enjoy their jobs so much that we lose sight of what many in other professions have known all along: no matter how much you love what you do, you will love it even more when nobody but you is telling you to do it. This may mean freelancing, startup work, volunteering services for a nonprofit, personal side projects, or something entirely different, but characterizing a promotion to manager level as a removal of all creative energies indicates an attitude too steeped in corporate culture to embrace or even consider the possibility of moving the act of creation from the corporate realm to the personal.

  15. Or you might become a consultant.

    That’s what my my dad’s best friend did. But of course, he was very good (got his first degree aged 20, did a PhD, ended up as a professor, etc).

  16. Hi. I’m having to retrain. I have a Physic Degree, many years exp in Blue chip engineering and have a recent background in business accounts and operational management for an SME (my own). I have lots of experience but now I’m unemployed and trying to strike out in a new direction, namely Management Accounting and Finance.

    There are lots of qualification out there – but which are the best/most highly regarded by employers and industry?

    I’m considering doing the CIMA certificate. My reasoning is that I can study via distance learning and self study and accellerate the process. I then would like to have a go at the CIMA Prpfessional qualifiaction, for which there would appear to be no short cut – 3 years experience is manadatory.

    Could you recommend a qucker route or an alternative qualifiaction better suited to my objectives.

    Many thanks

    LT

  17. LT-
    First of all, I think you mean CMA, not CIMA. CMA is for management accountants, while CIMA is for investment analysts.

    That said, the most marketable credential is a CPA. There are many distance learning programs for this, and you should be able to find a one-year program. (try Kaplan U., Devry, or Phoenix). Also look for less expensive programs in your state (local state colleges, etc.)

    Education and experience requirements are different in every state. They are indexed here: http://www.nasba.org.

    Mark

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