Earlier this summer at a conference I met up with my first supervisor out of college.
I say supervisor because he hated the term “boss” and worked hard to be a good leader.
He was super-sharp, very driven, and very focused on his long-term goals. I admire all those things about him. Sidenote: he doesn’t know this blog exists, so don’t spill the beans : )
He gave me advice when I was a few years in that I still am extremely thankful he offered.
He told me to not leave design too early.
There’s a natural career path for talented professionals that points to management. It can happen quickly and naturally. If we're not careful, the jump can go right into a role where we are no longer growing our technical depth.
A great entry-level designer is one that is eager to learn and mature.
In time, that designer will work more complex projects, collect some credentials, and serve clients & managers well.
A promotion (informal or formal) can lead to more interaction with customers and project management.
The shift happens slowly, but it's real. It can be easy to get caught up in proposals, mentoring, estimating, business development, managing people, or in a myriad of other tasks.
This is not a bad way to go. It's just not in design.
Great designers can become great project managers and great leaders of companies. The world needs great leaders.
The point my supervisor made was that if I’m not careful, the “blessing” of getting into management early in my career could lead to a shallow technical foundation.
Our value as designers and engineers is based on our ability to serve others with quality, timely help. Once someone shifts from a technical-first role and into a management-first role that technical depth is hard to maintain.
It was timely and important advice.
For some time I debated pursuing an MBA degree. I chose graduate study in fire protection engineering instead. What I began to recognize was that there is a tremendous and unique value to having a technical skillset.
I switched to a new company in 2016 and since then have dabbled in mid-level management. My role has been to grow a small team in fire protection by mentoring and teaching what I know.
I learned that I am terrible at it.
All through high school and college, it seemed that every target was pointed towards the C-Suite. Leadership organizations in particular placed the prized goal as “executive” status with a company.
I think my parents and their generation sees the “executive” concept as having the most glory. I found management to be closer to a mix of babysitting and life coaching than the glamour of Don Draper in Mad Men.
Leadership involves a lot of things that don’t come naturally to me.
I don’t particularly like rules or accepting past practices at face value. I tend to enjoy operating independently and challenging standards. I really don’t like standards. To clarify - I don't mean NFPA 13 or building codes. I love those little guys. I mean company standards. I tend to not give directions well and I’m also terrible at taking the time I should to help champion others.
These things don’t lend to great management.
What I also learned was that every hour spent managing, proposal writing, or sitting in meetings was an hour I didn’t spend learning.
After some time I made a choice.
I chose to be deliberate about staying in design.
I want to be in the weeds. I want to come across questions that stump me. I want to ask questions. I want to model systems and stocklist and do seismic calculations. I enjoy those things.
The unique value we have as fire protection designers & engineers is the technical understanding we have. We understand systems that help save lives. There’s a real and unique value in that.
If a company is looking for management material, they have options. There are six-hundred US MBA graduates for every one Fire Protection Engineer. Six hundred for every one.
When I first heard the advice, I didn’t know the value that a graduate degree in fire protection would bring to my career. I didn’t realize the wild demand that this industry would have for great designers & engineers. I also didn’t know that I’m pretty awful at managing.
My only advice I can pass forward is to always be sure you’re deliberate about the path you want to pursue.
It is a great goal if you want to pursue management.
A very close friend of mine wants to be CEO of a particular major corporation. I’m pretty sure he’s dreamed about it since he was a kid the way my sister pretend-played weddings. That’s a great and noble goal.
It’s also great if you choose to stick to design and be an expert in it.
We need leaders that can grow and share their technical understanding.
Just be deliberate about the path you take. It’s far too easy to drift and find yourself in a role where you no longer share your greatest talent with the world.
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Joseph Meyer, PE, is a Fire Protection Engineer in St. Louis, Missouri. See bio on About page.