Behold The Evolving Engineer

Innovation, broader expertise and a global perspective are increasingly important.

By Ashish Kulkarni, Celanese

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Apple has demonstrated something that helped set the path for modern electronics. The Cupertino, Calif.-based company's leaders realized products must be engineered to fulfill more than just their intended function. They must fit users' evolving needs while being cost-effective, easy to use and attractive.

Apple's concept applies to engineering each component in everything from nanotechnology for lifesaving medical devices to food and construction supplies to new fuel sources. Engineers today are deeply involved in identifying new market needs and then developing technologies to fill them, playing important roles all the way to sales and back again to research and development.

The evolving role of engineers poses a big challenge to manufacturers. We must reskill many of our current engineers or hire new ones — most companies rely on a combination of training and adding people. This involves dramatic changes: new training programs and methods as well as updating corporate processes and management practices. At the same time, companies should collaborate with universities around the world to redesign engineering programs for the future.

Today, engineers need a full toolkit of international business, leadership, as well as engineering and technology skills to succeed in our global marketplace. They require six main skills to remain relevant and at the forefront of their fields:

1. Innovativeness. More than ever, engineers must couple creativity with innovation. Collaboration among engineers and application of each's unique set of skills result in innovation. Engineers must use a carefully orchestrated combination of business, technical and scientific skills — and a large dose of ingenuity — to help set company strategy and how products will evolve.

To illustrate the point, an engineer with eight years at Celanese worked closely with an electronics industry customer starting at the ideation stage but then revised the product using technologies that came with an acquisition. This engineer guided the product through its development, working closely with teams companywide and applying ingenuity, discipline and drive along the way. The result: the team delivered the product in one-fifth the time it normally would take.

2. Three-dimensional expertise. Engineers need deep vertical knowledge (of their industry) and horizontal understanding (of their customers' industries). In addition, they must have capabilities in a third dimension — i.e., hands-on experience delivering results since knowing isn't the same as doing. These skills are necessary because problems and opportunities lie in many places.

Engineers must appreciate vertical industry trends and end-user needs as well as global economics, finance and advances in science and technology that affect various industries. Each feeds into the successful R&D processes engineers follow to develop compelling products that are practical and safe, as well as on budget and ahead of the competition.

One way we help our engineers add three-dimensional skills is by identifying employees with high potential early in their careers and devising a career development path. This path includes moving those engineers around to various roles where they contribute to multiple teams and businesses and create new technology, allowing them to gather the bulk of their critical global industry and leadership experiences on the job. This approach has benefited numerous engineers.

For example, a chemical engineer in our Advanced Engineered Materials division worked in various markets on several new projects that became commercial in his first two-to-three years. Some products he helped develop generated multi-million dollar revenue, and each contributed to creating a rich depth and breadth of experiences. This success led to two promotions. Now, he leads a full project team, where he shares his experiences and coaches others.

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