Why Managers Make More Money Than Engineers

Why Managers Make More Money Than Engineers
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Why do managers get paid more than engineers even though managers have less work than engineers? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Stan Hanks, CTO of Columbia Ventures Corp, on Quora:

Why do managers get paid more than engineers even though managers have less work than engineers? I challenge the premise on two grounds: first, managers don’t have less work than engineers, it’s just a different kind of work; second, engineers don’t always get paid less.

Let’s take the second point first.

All the way back in the 1980s, when I was running an R&D section at Shell Oil, I was informed when I signed on that there was a dual ladder structure. I could progress up the tech ladder, where I’d go from Senior Research Computer Scientist (there were a pile of layers more junior as well) to something like Senior Research Fellow, which mirrored in salary and overall compensation the management ladder which started as Group Manager and went on up to the C-Suite.

Salary was at parity, non-cash compensation was at parity, and number of positions was in theory at parity, but there was a noted lack of talent filling the roles as the ranks ascended; many of the more highly qualified and motivated research staff decamped for other opportunities before hitting the top rungs.

That was thirty years ago, and in the time since, I have yet to see a company of any size which doesn’t have a similar structure. Really good technical people need to remain in tech, if that’s what they want to do. From my peer group in university and grad school, I’m the “flyer”, the one that hit the C-Suite instead of staying in purely technical and I can assure you, most of them have compensation levels above mine.

These days, in particular, when companies live and die by tech, there are no shortage of opportunities to remain a technical professional and achieve seriously above-market compensation.

Let’s look at the other assertion: that somehow, engineering is “more work” than management.

As a tech innovator, I mainly viewed my job as solving problems which I thought were fun and engaging. I was getting paid to do what I’d pay to do, more or less. Yes, there were long nights, and deadlines, and you know what? Those were exactly the sorts of things that I’d been doing for years and years, prior to taking jobs like that.

Working until the problem was solved, until the code passed regression test, until the anti-gravity machine levitated, whatever the heck it was. Or until I couldn’t work any more. Or until someone said “Hey, let’s go get Mexican food!” at 4AM. And then hitting it again tomorrow - or after the tacos de heuvos and ojos de ovejas settled and realization dawned, as the case may be.

It was work, it created something from nothing, it delivered products or services which had not previously existed - and at the same time, it was a blast because I was working on problems which I found interesting with a team with whom I loved to work.

Segue to management. First as a team leader, then a group leader, then a section leader, one day I found myself with P&L responsibility. I didn’t ask for it, it just sort of happened. And instead of freaking out, or quitting because “management is icky”, or anything else, I took it as a challenge. A new thing to learn and master, a new path to investigate.

I discovered that it’s significantly more difficult to make technology make money than it is to make new technology. I still come up with three or four technical innovations in the companies that I run or advise per year, which is always a kick, but turning them into cash money? That’s a whole different level of challenge.

As an engineer, even at a very senior level, the level of work never exceeded my bandwidth. If I was moving slow, I could take some time off, provided that I hit my deliverables. If I was crammed, I worked longer. If I was too engaged in what I was doing, I worked until I was done, or I couldn’t. But it was self-regulated, not externally driven, nearly 100% of the time.

In management, it’s different. If you’ve got P&L responsibility, you need to hit sales goals in order to keep being able to spend on things that take money. Little things, like hardware refreshes, or new software updates, or travel to conferences, or, you know, salaries for your whole team. You have to figure out how far off you’re going to be, and in which direction.

More sales, awesome, but does that mean you get to send three people to Black Hat instead of two? Or are you better off banking that third spot against a short quarter next time? Or is doing that the golden carrot you need to use to keep a potentially unhappy employee from leaving? Or do you need to fire them and replace them and use that to engage the replacement? Decisions, decisions… all yours, by the way.

Not enough sales, less awesome, what are you going to do about it? Can you figure out a way to sell more? To turn existing sales into more revenue by packing more stuff into them? No? Can you tap dance real fast and convince your management that it’s a temporary aberration and that you’ll recover next quarter? No? Uh oh. What gets cut now? Travel, sure that’s easy. That tech refresh, you can defer that, right? Hmmm. But that impacts the ability to deploy the new design verification software, which maybe puts the project behind another couple of months…. and you need that travel to keep your promise to the new hire in computer vision…. maybe lay someone off? Cut a contractor back?

The work of how to do that, to balance all the things that go into making a group of teams function as a unit and deliver on their deliverables on the timeline to which you agreed, that’s… not trivial. And it embodies a whole pile of stuff beyond your control - contracting credit markets, looming malware threats that shift customer budgets, new software released by competitors, vendor putting a critical component on the end-of-life list…

It goes on and on, endlessly. It’s not static, it’s completely fluid and dynamic and any model you have for how it works is only effective retrospectively, if that.

It’s not dissimilar from helming a very big ship with inadequate crew, and only paper charts long out of date, and a sextant and chronometer for navigation.

If you can do it, there’s no bigger rush.

If you haven’t tried, or have tried and can’t…. that’s when you start thinking that “engineering is easier.”

Trust me, it’s not.

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