Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Be a Hero

A few years ago, the band The Script released the song “Superheroes”.  It was a great song with stories of people rising up against adversity.  Go have a listen here. It’s ok.  I’ll wait.

Rising up against adversity is inspiring.  Even heroic.  

But there is a more traditional aspect of “hero” that’s worth exploring – the traditional heroes of old-time comics and cheesy TV.  I’m talking about the heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.  These were the heroes that were always on your side.  Sometimes you didn’t even know that they were around, but they would magically appear just in the nick of time.  These heroes kept entire (fictional) cities feeling safe, feeling secure and feeling cared for. 

The superhero was always on our side.

As a superhero engineer (or Rockstar Engineer for that matter)… whose side are you on?

While you think about that let’s re-consider the measure of success as an engineer.  This is something talked about in many of the previous Rockstar Engineer posts.  For me the strongest measure of an engineer’s success is “influence”.  Whether it is influencing a design, influencing a team or even influencing the course of history – engineering is about influence.

Many engineers feel that the measure of their influence should be a mathematical consideration.  My boss should see that I did “x” and there for my reward should be “Y”.  It’s a simple matter of:  Y = f(x).   Period.

I’m not so sure about that.

Recently I was listening to a talk by Danny Meyer.  He’s the guy behind many of the highest customer-rated restaurants in New York.  When he evaluated the success of his restaurants he found that about 49% could be attributed to the mathematical or “service” stuff.  Did we make good food?  Did we serve it promptly?  He goes on to say that he attributes 51% of the success to something he calls “hospitality” – or in other words “Did the customer feel cared for?  Did the customer feel like we were on their side?”  (For extra credit, check out his book “Setting the Table”).

This is an amazing observation – more than half of the reason that people like a restaurant isn’t the food or service– it’s the way people feel they were treated.  He unpacks this further to say that missing on the 49% will cause people to leave.  Those make up the baseline.  Those are the things that are expected of you.  You must deliver on those.  However, the 51% is the stuff that makes people want to come back.  That's stuff that makes people give you high ratings.

Let’s personalize this to engineering.  You might have all the answers.  You might be able to solve the problems put in front of you.  You might have just come up with the greatest product design ever.  Great!  But that’s the 49%.  That’s what’s expected of you when you take the title "engineer".

How about the other 51%?  Do the people around you feel like you are the hero that is on their side?  What about your supervisor at performance review time?  Would they say that you are on their side?

Chances are pretty good that they are looking at the 51%.

Rock on.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Get a Little Weird… Once in a While

You don't need to be defined by your job” 
      -  (Weird) Al Yankovic

I work with a lot of engineers.  Heck, I’ll admit it… I actually am an engineer.  One thing that I notice wherever I go, is that engineers can take themselves way too seriously.  Let me say that again… WAAAAAYYYYY too seriously.

I get it.  You guys are out there making important, difficult, highly technical decisions.  But, come on... lighten up a bit!  It’s not brain surgery.  Well ok, I work with some companies that actually make brain surgery equipment.  So maybe it is brain surgery for some of you.  

Nonetheless, let’s allow ourselves to have some fun along the way.

Sometimes when I’m meeting with new customers I challenge myself to see if I can get them to laugh or at the bare minimum; at least crack a smile.  This challenge silently takes place in the back of my brain where, hopefully, no one in the outside world will hear or know about it. 

Now some of you overly analytical engineers are probably saying: “why would I direct perfectly good brain energy toward doing something weird when I can direct it toward doing something productive like solving problems and making better __(insert gizmos of choice)______?”   

Here’s why:  having a light moment doesn’t use up more brain power… it actually taps into the part of your brain you probably aren’t using!  Did some of you realize that there is also a right side to the human brain?  This can unleash some really great creative stuff that can be re-channeled back to your real (a.k.a. engineering) work.

So how do we get started in terms of getting a little weird…

1. Try my challenge of “getting someone to smile” while staying generally on topic regarding an engineering task or project. 2. Put something ridiculous in your office and keep it there until someone asks about it.  If nobody asks, you may have a social problem and should go back and read all of my previous blogs! 3. If 1 and 2 are too challenging (perhaps because they involve interactions with other humans), try something weird on your own.  Do a weird experiment like this:   

This kind of "pseudo-experiment" can be super-cool to watch... definitely something to invite others to come see.  It can energize your thinking and perhaps even lead to your next great idea.  I'll bet, after watching that video, some of you are already thinking about column buckling and internal pressures.

Do yourself a favor and do something weird today!

Rock on,

-          Mark

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Take a Bow

Just about every engineer describes at least one part of his job as being “thankless”.  As a person who works in the measurement world I used to lament: “nobody wants to measure things, they just want to make stuff”. 

Boo, hoo.  Poor me. 

Designers cry how nobody appreciates their sheer genius and their amazing insight.  Production people moan about the struggles of deadlines and budget… and not to mention the ever present quality control pressures.

It’s a wonder that anyone would want to be an engineer…
…but you are one – and that says something about you.

So let’s take a look at the concept of feeling “rewarded”.  To shed some light on this I’d like to tell you about two recent conversations and an old, old story.

Conversation #1.
The topic of “the next generation of engineers” came up among some friends.  One of the guys was talking about a seminar that he attended on the topic of “managing millennials”.  It was interesting to hear of this topic.  Plus it was a catchy title – so I really tuned into what he had to say.  I’m not sure that I agree with all of the generalizations and stereotypes, but there was a general thought many people of the younger generation are growing up with a concept of “you get a reward for simply participating”.  This is indeed becoming a popular trend – the significance of winning and losing are being diminished and effort (or worse yet simply “being there”) is being rewarded.

Conversation #2.
I have a great graphic designer that I get to work with on occasion.  One day we were talking about the differences and similarities between creating software and creating art.  I told him that developing software can be incredibly engaging – it can be something like solving Sudoku puzzles for a living.  He chimed in, “I do a Sudoku puzzle every day on my lunch break!”

An old, old story…
You may have hear the expression “prodigal son”, or “the prodigal son has returned”.  The term is from a Biblical fable or “parable” (kind of like one of Aesop’s fables) which was used to illustrate a point.  The quick version of the story: 1. Son demands inheritance from dad.  2. Son blows inheritance on wine, women and song and hits rock bottom.  3. Son comes back asking for forgiveness.  4.  Dad welcomes him back and throws a party.  5. Brother get’s ticked off asking: “where’s my party?”

I used to take the brother’s side.  After all, where was his party?  However, the dad’s response to him was pretty insightful.  He said something to the effect of “your party is being here with me every day”.  The angry brother didn’t fully grasp that it was much more rewarding to be in a good place every day – rather than deal with the rough stuff that the prodigal brother went through.  Bottom line: the angry brother didn’t realize how good he had it.  He has the privilege of being in a good place.  He gets to be there all the time.

So let’s put the pieces together…

The engineering workplace can be rather thankless.  If you are used to being noticed, thanked and praised you may be in for a harsh surprise.  You may be sitting in a cubicle right now thinking about unrewarding your job really is.  Some of you might have grown up in a not-so-competitive culture and you aren’t used to the lack of “best effort” medals or stickers.  That’s ok.  It’s time for you to pull up your big engineer pants and create your own rewards.  Think about these things…

1. You get to solve puzzles for a living.  That’s a pretty cool job when you stop and think about it.

2. There are many jobs that could be much worse.  Elephants anyone? 

3. You can make your own rewards.  When you hit milestones or have personal victories – take a break.  Take a walk.  Have a coffee.  Grab a candy bar.  Do something to get away for a few minutes.  Call it a mini-vacation for 15 minutes.

4. Do your part to create a “culture of reward” around you.  When you see someone do something cool – acknowledge it.  One thing you will find is that when you start helping others feel good about their work, you will start feeling better and more rewarded yourself.  Who knows it may even rub off.

Remember this: you get to be an engineer.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Planning the Show

My condolences...

First off I’d like to convey my deepest sympathy to the 50 or so people that will be receiving the stack of printouts I recently saw coming off the copier at the UPS store.

Here’s the story… the other day, I was sending a package and happened to see a stack of paper growing on the output tray of the copier.  I know it’s probably not socially acceptable to look at someone else’s copies (it’s sort of like peeking in a public restroom), but nobody was around the copier so I discreetly took a glance.  To my horror, I saw a huge stack of "6-slides-per-page" PowerPoint handouts being collated for some unsuspecting audience.  What’s worse – within each of these tiny slide thumbnails I saw lines and lines of…           wait for it…              TEXT!!!   

I could not bear to imagine the sinking feeling that the audience was going to have as they sat down for a long day of training/presentation/sales pitch/whatever.  They would open their shiny, new 3-ring binders with a sense of anticipation... only to find these tiny, word-filled rectangles filling each page. 

Under some circumstances, this could be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

A few months ago I came across this video: Every Presentation Ever: Communication FAIL (caution it’s quite painful to watch – but like they say: “No pain. No gain.”)  " This got me thinking about my presentations.  Unfortunately, I find myself doing many of these same, awful things.
Here’s a question: How many of those stereotypical things do you do when in front of an audience?  (don't answer out loud, your boss may be listening).
How about this one: If you weren’t the presenter, would you pay attention to one of your own presentations? 

The problem is: most presenters are focused on their presentation (after all, they probably worked really hard on it.)  Unfortunately, this is backwards, you should be focusing on your audience not your material.  There should be a constant “dance” between the presenter and the audience, whereby the presenter provides the material in a manner that the audience can best handle it.  This give-and-take dynamic changes as a presentation moves along.  Some material is easy to digest and the presentation can move along quickly with few questions.  Other points in a talk may take a bit more time and discussion. 
This give-and-take dynamic became very obvious to me as I was in the audience for a recent taping of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”.  His opening monologues are a great example of this audience awareness.  When a joke really resonates with the audience, he pauses and enjoys the moment with them.  He may even elaborate on it and perhaps “milk it” a bit.  However, when a joke flops, he moves so quickly to another joke/topic, that the audience doesn’t have a chance to notice the previous stinker.

With Jimmy, he’s tuned in to the feedback from his audience.  Granted he can more easily measure a response by applause or laughter – we don’t often get applause or laugher in an engineering presentation... at least we hope not.

However there are some obvious responses we can be looking at:
-          Are people making eye contact with you? 
-          Are they taking notes? 
-          Are they preoccupied with their cell phone/laptop/papers/etc.?

Here’s a really subtle one:  did you know that people are less likely to cough, sneeze or blow their nose when they are fully tuned into something?

If you still are struggling to determine if people are tuned in with your talk, try this... at some point in your talk, step away from your slides and draw something on a whiteboard or flipchart.  Watch closely for eye contact changes or body language changes in the audience.  People will tend to re-engage when you change communication forms.  This is the kind of reaction that you should be looking for throughout your talk.

The above "painful" video was produced by the company “Growing Leaders” in promotion of the book “Habitudes for Communicators”.  It's a great, easily readible book.  I recommend it to anyone that spends time in front of any audience.  Check it out at: and start planning your next presentation as an "audience-centric" one!

Rock On.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Getting out of the Studio

Many universities do a great job in teaching the technical fundamentals related to engineering.  But at some point you need to get out in the real world and play for a real audience. 

Unfortunately, the real world doesn't always look like the place they told you about in school.

Here are 12 of the things I wish they would have taught me in engineering school.  I'm sure there are more, and I would welcome any additions that you may have.  So without any further delay lets dive in...

1. People skills will typically beat math or science skills in the real world.

Let’s face it – "people" are the ones that are responsible for your positions, promotions and salary.  Not equations.  Not laws of physics.  You are typically going to be judged on how much you “appear to do” and how others perceive the value of what you do - not necessarily your ability to Fourier transforms and partial differential equations.  This isn’t about being the brown-noser.  It’s about building relationships and developing your “brand” or identity.

2. Learn to be a teacher, but don’t condescend.
A little secret here:  the people around you have probably forgotten most of the stuff that’s fresh in your mind right now.  But they really don’t want to admit it.  When presenting or interacting with others start basic and stay tuned in to see if they are tracking with you.  Don’t ask the audience-humiliating kinds of questions like “if you don’t know ____  let me know.”   Instead ask “would you like me to explain ____?”   If you can help someone learn, they will value you more.  If you speak over their heads, they will avoid you or worse yet - consider you to be a jerk.

3. That old guy just might be able to kick your butt… intellectually speaking.
Experience is a great educator.  You might be on your way out of a great school with a nice shiny degree and it may even have are some impressive, Latin words on it.  You probably do have some great theoretical knowledge.  Even though you may already carry a higher job title than he does, the person that has actually lived in it for 30+ years may still be able to teach you a thing or two (or maybe 100 things for that matter).  Take every opportunity you can to learn from him or her. 

4. Look for chances to learn essential, non-technical things.
Sure you can calculate the static load on a beam or determine the number of moles of oxygen needed in a particular reaction.  Learn what actions get rewarded in your organization.  Learn where to go or whom to go to in order to get things.  Learn the language that your supervisors speak.  Learn something about the people you work with so there is always something to talk about.  This kind of knowledge pays off greatly. 

5. Be brief.
How’s that for a short title?  When speaking get to the point.  When you lead a meeting, make sure it finishes early.  Let people know you are available if they are interested in more.  It’s far better to have someone ask you for more conversation than it is to have someone dread seeing you coming for fear that you won’t shut up.  There used to be a guy that would linger in my office so long that I would sometimes fake a pager buzz (back in the “engineers wear pagers” days) just to get him to leave.  Don’t be that guy.

6. Be an entertaining or at least an engaging communicator.
Your job as an engineer will require that you speak to others.  There are no compromises in this area.   If you have an accent – be intentional about pointing it out to your audience and giving them every opportunity to ask for clarification.  One great icebreaker that I’ve used in different parts of the US and all over the world is to poke fun at my own accent.   If you see that you are losing an audience, bring them back at all costs.  If you’re uncomfortable in front of a group; join Toastmasters or find some other forums or community groups where you can hone this craft.  Your career trajectory will thank you.

7. Learn some basics about business thinking – not just accounting.
Most big companies or at least most successful companies are led by business people.  Sure, engineers like to make fun of business people (that bunch of silly “bean counters”), but realize this:  business is the “wrapper” in which engineering is packaged and made profitable.  If your engineering isn’t sold, you usually don’t have a job.  Dig into a business topic like marketing if you really want to know something about where you fit in. 

8. Some people will not like you.
This is a tough one for many young people to come to grips with.  But, let’s face it – the world has lots of messed up people and there’s a good chance that you will encounter one or more of them in your job.  You may try and try to make things feel better, but they just may not want it.  In those cases, it’s best to just “keep it professional” and keep the interactions as minimal and as “work-centric” as possible.   Sometimes these things improve with time (so give it a chance without burning any bridges), but don’t expect a birthday card or a hug. 

9. Things take time (more time than you can imagine) in the real world.
In school, you had very, very, very short projects.  Sure, a 4-week long project seemed like an eternity in college; but many real-world projects take months or even years.  There will be times when you feel like nothing is getting done and the project will never get finished.  Use these times to get ahead of the game or to learn more about what’s coming in the next steps of the project.   Don’t just sit there! Have a plan for your downtime..

10. It’s a marathon not a sprint.
Yeah, I now that's an overused cliché, but it is some of the best career advice you will ever get.  Longevity is one of the best tools for advancement.  Longevity will bring you deeper experiences, a chance to develop wisdom (not just knowledge) and more chances for promotion.
11. Find opportunities to develop yourself outside your company.
I know that budgets are tight in many companies, but to make yourself a better engineer you’ve got to be connected to the world outside your company.  Join professional societies or standardization groups.  Publish papers.   Attend conferences or expos.  Subscribe to journals in your field.  Your knowledge of the “outside world” and your relationships with people in the “outside world” make you a better employee at your current job and a more marketable candidate should you seek a future job.

12. Smile.
People will pass their initial judgment on you based on what they see.  It doesn’t take much effort to make a positive first impression.  I do a lot of video conferencing and seeing that picture of myself on a computer screen has really caused me to take note of these visual things. Look in the mirror with your “at work” face on.  Would you perceive your appearance as someone welcoming or someone that people would rather not be around? 

Rock on.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Finding Your Muse

From Greek mythology - a goddesses of inspiration.

Almost every writer has, at some point, suffered from “writer’s block”.  But what engineers?  We often get “stuck” ...and how come we don’t get a clever name for it?  In fact, our stuck-ed-ness is often pretty significant (dare I say more significant than writer’s block?)

When an engineer gets stuck, many external forces can be at play:  things like the constraints of tight schedules, constraints of other connected systems and even the constraints of the laws of physics.

So how do you break through the block?  Let me offer you a couple of quick ideas for finding your muse...

1. Take a break.  Yeah, I know... you’ve got a schedule. 
If you’ve ever gotten a car stuck, you probably know that spinning your wheels only gets you more stuck.  The same applies to your creative processes.  The time you spend backing up and re-approaching the problem can often result in a faster arrival at the solution. 

Hint: How to take a break with purpose.
What you do on a break is really up to you.   For some people it's exercise.  For others it may be a trip to the coffee machine/shop.  For many people (even famous ones) it's a "power nap".  Regardless of what you do, I'd encourage you with this one principle: if you are going to tune out; tune out with purpose.  Try setting an alarm on your phone or on your watch for a 15 minute break.  This plays a neat trick on your mind.   Typically, when people take a break, all they think about is “how much work that have to get back to” and they worry about not getting back to it in time to finish.  Thus they never really give their mind a break. Knowing that an alarm will bring you back allows you to fully leave.

2. Do a DBR.  Something “different but related”
I always wanted to come up with my own acronym so why not now?  Different-but-related activities can keep you thinking in the right direction, but from a slightly different angle.  A DBR should be something that you look forward to doing – but at the same time stimulates your thinking.

Finding your DBRs:
First you need to identify those things that are related to what you do and then find interesting outlets for those things.  An important note: your DBRs should almost feel like a hobby or a “guilty pleasure” - they should be enjoyable activities with some kind of connection to your work.  Reading a technical journal is not necessarily a DBR (unless you’re a hopeless geek).  On the other hand, playing golf or basketball is probably a stretch in the context of DBR.

Let me use myself as an example: 
I write a lot of software for measurement systems. In addition I’m regularly in front of an audience consulting and teaching.  My DBRs aren’t going to be the same as yours, but for the sake of example, my DBRs are:
  •  As I’m involved in the development of new technologies, I find that learning about other, cool, new technologies can be very inspiring.  99% of the time these technologies aren’t related to what I’m working on but seeing cool, finished products is inspiring.  PG-13 warning: The writing style is edgy and sometimes contains profanity.
  •  I think every rockstar engineer should spend some time listening to TED talks.  These are 15 minute talks on almost every imaginable topic.  Rockstar engineers don’t just learn about the subject matter, but they also can pick up on some great presentation skills.  I’m often more captivated by the latter (i.e. the presentation styles) than the content.
  •  I write software primarily in the C# programming language.  CodeProject provides a constant diet of other clever things that other people are doing in C#.  Their projects aren’t even close to mine, but just seeing their work often gives me a re-charge.
  • Various leadership/effectiveness/communication blogs.  Email me if you’d like to know some of them.

3. Talk it out
Now this one may not apply to everybody.  I’m a very verbal thinker so the process of talking to someone is a huge help for me.  This may not apply to everybody.  But for those of you that aren’t verbal thinkers, I’d encourage you to give it a try.

Guidelines for conversation as inspiration:
  • Remember that conversation is a gift:
    If another person is willing to give you his or her time – treat it with respect.  They are giving you a part of their lives.  Be thankful, act thankful and tell them that you are thankful.
  • Respect the other person’s time and mental state:
    There is a chance that they are in the middle of doing something amazing.  Even if nothing is scheduled on their calendar they may still be “tied up”.  Respect that.
  • Respect the other person’s expertise and interests:
    I don’t talk mathematics with some of my friends.  I don’t talk business strategy with other friends. 
  • Respect their difference of opinion:
    If you are asking a person for help, DO NOT SHOOT DOWN THEIR IDEAS.  There is no place for defensiveness or negativity when you are the one asking for help.

Every one of us will have times where we are stuck and a muse would come in handy.  (Although I’m not sure I’d recognize an “engineer muse” if one walked by.)  So until that happens; take a break, do a DBR or just go find someone to hash it out with. 

Postscript: In case you haven’t guessed, I was stuck this afternoon while writing software and it got me thinking about the whole being stuck thing.  Writing is also a DBR for me.  Instead of writing computer programs in computer language, writing human words in human language is a good break.  So thanks for helping me out today! 

Rock on!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Teacher, teacher...

Teacher, teacher
can you teach me?
- 38 Special (1985)

Let’s take a trip down memory lane shall we?  Think back to when you first got interested in engineering.  Was it when you first took something apart just to see what was inside?  Perhaps when you first got interested in the way bubbles formed in milk carton when you blew in the straw?  Maybe when you first realized that the teeter totter exhibited a mechanical advantage depending on where you and your friend/enemy sat?

Now think about what got you going academically in the direction of engineering.  For me it was a particular high school science teacher followed by a couple of rockstar professors in college.  Those people made things interesting and brought a new view or a new explanation of the physical world that had me in awe.  Some the best were the ones that made science into a “story”.  As the story unfolded, both my knowledge and my interest would grow.

Wake Up!

You’re an engineer!  Snap out of it!  We don’t have time for this stuff… dreaming about milk bubbles and teeter totters. Come on.  We’ve got real work to do… or we?

Unfortunately, the principles of learning and wonderment are lost in the day-to-day tasks of most engineers.  However, true rockstar engineers are able to hold on to this – and more importantly, they are able to communicate it.  Being a teacher is a hallmark of being a rockstar engineer.
Now I’m not saying that you need to become a professor or worse yet force people to listen to you ramble on and on about something that only you are interested in.  I’m saying that being a teacher makes you a valuable team member and can pay huge benefits to your effectiveness.

The highly regarded financial advisor, Dave Ramsey, says that when you hire a consultant – always hire someone that’s a teacher at heart.  Here’s a hint for you… if you are an engineer, you are in many ways a consultant.  A consultant gets paid for sharing and applying knowledge.  An engineer gets paid to apply his or her knowledge.

So here are some quick tips to make you a better teacher.

When in front of the room:

1. Most importantly, get in tune with your audience.  Learn to pick up on their body language.  Some people don’t want to be taught.  So, when in front of them, quickly present the answers and move on.  Other people want to be taught but are afraid to ask for fear of looking stupid.  It’s up to you to take the lead with these people and offer more information.  They are the ones that I love to work with and they will give you a chance to shine as a teacher. 

2. When presenting, seek out the chance to share the “why”, not just the “what”.   People are more willing to buy into something that you present if they understand a bit of what went into it.  By understanding the “why” behind a particular engineering solution, they are already closer to accepting the “what”.  When sharing the why – don’t use big “show off” words.  The smartest guys in the world don’t need to act smart with big words.

3. Finally… don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t ask questions in front of a room that cause people to put themselves down.  Asking the question “is anybody not understanding this?” in front of an audience is the equivalent of asking “who would like to be singled out and called stupid in front of the room?”  Instead, try “should I cover this in a bit more detail?” or “would it help if I explained this a bit more?”  These questions put the ownership on the presenter not the student.  We don’t want to be condescending to an audience, but worse yet we never want to make them feel stupid.

When one-on-one or in a small group:

1. Learn to listen. (This is hard – especially when you get excited about what you are talking about.)  Here’s a trick I use when I sense I’m having trouble listening: repeat the question back. 

2. Learn to draw. (this applies to a large group as well) I know we are engineers not artists, but the ability to make simple sketches to illustrate a point can increase your teacher rating enormously.  In my world of measurement there are several sketches that seem to be useful in many different settings.  I’ve actually spent time practicing the drawing of certain sketches in order to make me better at presenting concepts “on the fly”.  Now these things don’t have to be beautiful – they need to convey a point.  The cool thing is that as the picture develops so does a story; revealing a bit more with each stroke of the pencil or pen – and stories are a great way to teach.

3. Don’t be afraid to have fun.  Make fun of yourself, make fun of the topic.  Smile – it knocks down barriers to learning.  Remember: teaching is about investing in a person other than yourself; so create an environment or conversation that helps them feel comfortable.  In fact, it makes it more fun for both of you.

Dave Ramsey recommends looking for a teacher-minded-person when hiring someone to help you.  A teacher is a person that helps others learn and thus adds value to them.  If you want to amp up your effectiveness as an engineer, be a teacher for those around you.  It will raise them up and in the process it will further elevate you to rockstar engineer status.

Rock on!