Engineers vs. Bean-Counters – Who Should Run the Company?


In the long annals of business history, the tension Aboulafia describes — engineer vs. bean counter — occurs again and again. Like farmer vs. rancher, Roundhead vs. Cavalier, paleface vs. redskin (in the literary sense), yin vs. yang, it’s one of the great divides. In the long run, companies where the engineers (and designers) win are stronger. Boeing “knows” this, from its history. Let’s hope it can remember that principle in time.
James Fallows, Boeing’s Real Problem With the Dreamliner: Bean-Counter vs. Engineer

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Jim Fallows
Jim Fallows

I have a new favorite writer to read.  He is clear, timely, and I usually either agree with him or am swayed by his insight and argument.  It is James (Jim) Fallows, who posts pretty much every day at the Atlantic.

(In case you are interested, I tend to have a “favorite writer” at a time.  My most recent is Farhad Manjoo at Slate, and though I still like him plenty, he needs to post more often!  And, yes, Andrew Sullivan is still a multiple-times-a day check for me.  And, if you follow Sullivan’s Daily Dish — yes, I have subscribed).

Fallows’ latest post is about the Boeing trouble with their new big airplane.  It is worth reading whether you care about the airline industry or not.  He quotes extensively from aerospace industry expert Richard Aboulafia, of the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va.  Aboulafia describes how the non-engineers won out, and are now running the show, at Boeing.  They are not running the show all that well at the moment.  So, now, the engineers, who are at low strength and low morale, are trying to fix the problem.  It may take a while.

From Aboulafia:

Since the 787 appeared to be out of the woods, and the 777X was put off until the next decade, Chicago likely didn’t think it needed much from engineers. Then that damn 787 battery thing happened. Oops.

This problem is well-known, and crops up in industry after industry, company after company.  Who will run the company?  The evidence seems to back up this approach:  people with actual expertise probably should be offered a little more respect, and their voices should be listened to much more carefully…  Fallows:

In the long run, companies where the engineers (and designers) win are stronger.  

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One thought on “Engineers vs. Bean-Counters – Who Should Run the Company?

  1. Bob,

    You know your list of companies better than I. But, I think Fallows’ point is that if the folks who run a company simply know “business,” and do not have actual expertise in the product/service area of the company, they are creating a recipe for “missing important things.”

    And, yes, there are some examples, at least in the past, of “engineers” running the company. Many would argue that Jack Welch had a pretty good run. He earned his B.S. in Chemical Engineering. And, I forget which restaurant, but one national chain has a woman CEO who started out as a server in the restaurant.

    But, I was simply highlighting the Fallows/Aboulafia argument in this post. I do think they make a pretty compelling point about Boeing’s current woes.

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