The royal ‘we’

Sept. 1, 2009
In the corporate world, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few
In the corporate world, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few

by Andy Wilson, editor

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Last month, I again had the pleasure of attending a very large trade show. There, as every year before, hordes of engineers demonstrated the latest machine-vision products. What makes this conference and trade show unique, however, was the fact that a large number of young engineers are present, many of whom have recently graduated from university.

At one booth, I found just such an engineer and asked him about his experiences in the year after he had graduated. After it appeared his father had forked out a rather exorbitant $100,000 bill for a four-year electrical engineering course, he had obtained a position programming FPGAs to perform machine-vision tasks.

While he confided in me that this was not his eventual goal in life—he wanted to form his own company developing computer games—he said that his father was extremely pleased since this initial position would introduce him to the world of corporate culture. Although it seems his pay was not exactly spectacular, it was his first introduction into the working world and one that would eventually lead him toward his goal.

Of course, the working world is completely different from college life. You have to turn up on time, you have to learn certain skills from your managers, and you have to dress rather better than torn jeans and a T-shirt. Nevertheless, it seems our young engineer had overcome all of these corporate obstacles and was soon highly regarded among the engineering staff. So much so, in fact, that he told me they had given him a pay raise after the first three months and this in the midst of a so-called recession.

Two months ago, however, he was presented with a situation that I have to say has become all too endemic in the corporate world. His engineering staff and their peers were invited into a boardroom where the company’s monthly engineering meeting was to take place. In a familiar fashion, the head of engineering asked everyone in the room about what their achievements had been during the past month.

The last shall be first

Being the bottom on the totem pole, our rather clever graduate was the last to be asked. After ranting on for ten minutes about the intricacies of VHDL and what FPGA companies would do next, the meeting was finally brought to a conclusion. As an honors degree student, he told me he believed he had done an incredible job both in the work asked of him and in presenting his accomplishments to the engineering team.

In the cafeteria during lunch, however, he was brought to task by a rather elderly fellow who had been with the company for more than two decades. “I hope you don’t mind,” the old fellow wheezed, “but I have a little problem with what you said in the meeting.”

Our young engineer was at first flabbergasted. During the past six months he had a pay raise and extra hours to compensate him for his efforts. Was something wrong?

“But you see,” the old-timer suggested, “during the meeting when asked what had been accomplished, you always said, ‘I did this and I did that’ instead of saying that ‘we have accomplished this and we have accomplished that.’”

At this news, our young engineer was at first shocked and stunned. He HAD done this and he HAD done that. And what right was it anyway for an old-timer to suggest that he had not? When he told me this story at the trade show, I told him that he was right to have said what he did. He had accomplished the tasks required of him.

Upon reflection, however, the old-timer may have been correct. Without other people around us, none of us can ever accomplish anything, even though you may be rewarded with pay raises and a pat on the back. Perhaps correctly, what matters in corporations, it seems, is more a perception of unity rather than individual talents or accomplishments.

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