Personality Characteristics of a Great Engineering Hire

Quote of the Day

Acting was fun, but my grandfather would always tell me, "It's never too late to be an engineer." You were supposed to get a "job" and do acting on weekends or at school.

— Jon Hamm


I was at dinner last night with some neighbors and the topic of hiring came up. My most important job is hiring the right engineering talent. When it comes to engineers, people frequently focus on their technical skills. While that is important, their ability to work with others is just as important. There are also some personality characteristics that I look for as well. The best engineers that I have worked with have these personality characteristics in common.

Personality Metrics

I am an engineer who writes a math and science-oriented blog, so I have to have some form of math even for personality characteristics. I evaluate the personality characteristics of an engineer using three personality metrics:

  • Anality
  • Pisstivity
  • Prima Donnas Per Square Foot Factor


I frequently hear people say that they do not want to get wrapped up in the details of a problem. I always respond that my job is a celebration of detail. Many an engineering project has been destroyed because minor details were not attended to. I expect an engineer to be detail-oriented. The really good engineers know how to move from high-level to low-level thinking as the situation requires.


Pisstivity is about owning problems. Anyone who has used contract labor understands this problem. Contractors can be very skilled, but they usually are not personally invested in the problems they are working on. Some employees have the same attitude. I look for engineers who have a history of looking for problems, grabbing them, educating themselves about the problem, and owning it all the way to the solution.

Many times I have had to ask someone to take on a problem in an area for which they have no skill. That is just the way life is sometimes. I have always been impressed with those staff members who, instead of griping, treat the situation as an opportunity to expand their skills and develop a new area of expertise. Managers cherish these employees.

Prima Donnas Per Square Foot Factor

This is really my "do they work well with others" index. Nothing disrupts a finely tuned engineering group more than a prima donna. Sometimes you need them but they need to be spread thinly – very thinly. The best engineers have egos, but they have been humbled enough that they know that nature is complicated and they just might be wrong. They also find ways to make all the people around them better, while the prima donna is all about him.


An engineering manager's most important task is hiring. The hiring of the right engineer can be a company-changing event. I have numerous stories of an engineer being hired by a company who literally changed the direction of the entire business. I will relate one story here.

When I was at HP in the old days, I remember a manufacturing engineer who thought that HP should be making low-end laser printers. His managers told him to go away. He then went off and bought a Canon copier mechanism and, on his own time and with his own money, built the first low-end HP laser printer. Grudgingly, management told him he might have something there and they turned it into a product. Today, HP is the world's largest manufacturer of printers. It all started with a young manufacturing engineer who would not give up. How is that for pisstivity!

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7 Responses to Personality Characteristics of a Great Engineering Hire

  1. Pingback: ‘Great’ Engineering Personality Metrics « EveryNano Counts

  2. Prateek says:

    Inspiring !! It took me back to my experiences with few companies that shut their doors to thoughtful employees.

    • mathscinotes says:

      Thank you for the nice comment.

      There are companies that treat their employees as a valuable asset, but they appear to be growing rarer and rarer. I try to do my part to reverse this trend.

  3. Sadie says:

    Great article. I agree. When you have a "prima donna", I think it is helpful to understand their Myers-Briggs personality type and compliment them in they way they like. They'll become your best ally and it can transform team dynamics. "Please Understand Me" gives good guidance on how to best compliment each personality type.

    • mathscinotes says:

      Thanks for the reference -- I just requested it from my local library. I also have found the work of Deborah Tannen useful. My engineering training did not address any of the management issues that I face regularly -- and just about every issue imaginable has walked into my cube over the last 30 years.


  4. john says:

    Probably the most overlooked dynamic of a team, are the attributes of the managers that are both hiring, and responsible for day to day oversight of the team. This is frequently the area where a company will least invest dollars to train managers to be really good managers that will actually lead a team thru both good and bad times.

    If a manager doesn't have the skills to objectively observe, train, and mentor their staff, and that manager is unable to hire leads that can do the same, the results are unpredictable, or highly negative. Very creative people are often also the least unlikely to be happy doing the long term detail work required to support the product thru multiple test cycles, and support the product after taking it to market. Personalities that do want the security of several years of mundane product support development work, are typically less creative and require significant task definition and daily/weekly guidance to keep them on track. Neither of these personalities handle crisis tasks very well, like failures during manufacturing build, or following a release cycle to end customers ... and those that thrive on these high visibility fire fighting projects, frequently are the least likely to be good architects or project leads, or be happy with mundane daily development either.

    A good manager understands the roles that team members will do well at, sees the bigger picture of the team dynamics, and chooses people that make the jigsaw puzzle of needed attributes by the team complete ... with a commitment to adjust the team members, train where skills are lacking, and mentor in positive ways so that the team grows together with time. Very creative people are frequently ADD/ADHD/Autisic people with a very differently wired brain, learning styles, and view of problems. These people have dyslexia issues which impact writing skills, different social interaction expectations, big picture views of the product design/market, and highly productive when free of distractions as hyperfocus kicks in for long highly productive days.

    So interview questions from my perspective are seldom on size fits all, as I look at the staffing jigsaw puzzle and available candidates to augment or fill remaining positions in the skills and personality matrix for the team. The willingness of a team member to learn, grow, and take ownership of problems ... and the commitment of the project manager and team leads to actively train and mentor, are the most critical aspect of long term success. If either is lacking, then the team will degrade over time and fail.

  5. Pingback: Things Not to Do in an Interview | Math Encounters Blog

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