Monday, August 29, 2011

Let's get ready to rock...

Person 1.     Wow, Frank sure is a jerk.
Person 2      Well, he is an engineer after all.

Person 1       Oh, that explains it.

Throughout my life as an engineer I’ve heard that kind of exchange numerous times.  In fact, having heard that kind of “he’s an engineer” exchange three different times in the past week I’ve decided it’s time to spill my guts on the topic.
Some people wear the title “Engineer” with great pride; and rightfully so – they’ve worked hard to earn that title.  Some have gone through many years of study in colleges and universities, other have done hard time in the school of hard knocks.  All are part of an elite group that society looks to as the ones who “make things happen”.  If you hold the title “engineer” I applaud you for your achievements and am excitedly waiting and watching to see your contributions to society.

Unfortunately, “Engineer” has a dark side.  To some, holding the title “engineer” seems to somehow give them the right to be a complete...   well, let's keep this to a PG-13 rating and say "jerk". 
So take this “am I a jerk of an engineer” quiz:
Rate the following statements based on the scale:

0 = totally disagree
1 = rarely
2 = sometimes
3 = I’m 50-50 on this
4 = most of the time
5 = totally agree

1.       I think that the world is full of idiots.

2.       The world would be a better place if everybody thought as I do.

3.       It doesn’t matter how I look or smell

4.       I don’t have to get input from those below me.

5.       I’m not going to dumb it down for you.  If you can’t understand, it’s your problem.

6.       Management is all stupid.

7.       I don’t care what the customer says.

8.       They’re late.  Even if they are important, I’m going to start without them.

9.       I’m really good at, and enjoy, finding flaws in other people’s work

10.   This test is a waste of time and none of these questions matter.

OK, I’m not going to do the “add up your scores” thing.  You are engineers and you should be able to take an average (especially since there are 10 questions).  So for scoring let’s just say if your average is anything over a 1.25, you need to stop and consider “are you really as effective as you can be?”.  If you are above the 2.0 level, you really need to assess where you are in terms of being a full-out, pain-in-the-butt-to-be-around jerk-o-saurus.

Let me say that again, if you rank high in jerk-icity, chances are you are not going to be effective as an engineer.  And here’s a hint – engineering is about “effectiveness”. 

I’m in the field of metrology – the science of measurement.  Thus to me, the concept of measurement is very important.  As a good engineer you rely on measurement.  Measurement provides data and data is stuff of decision making.  You may have seen the sign:

In God we Trust.  All others must present data.
So how do we measure an engineer?  What are the attributes that matter most?  In 17xx, Lord Kelvin said that which we measure, we can control.  So what attributes would you measure in an engineer and hope to control or improve upon?

Here are some thoughts:

Intelligence.  This is a great attribute for an engineer.  It’s pretty much a prerequisite for being an engineer.  But, intelligence alone doesn’t get stuff done.  In fact an over abundance of intelligence may come along with a bit of arrogance.

Creativity. This is a terrific thing and can help you get “out of the box” when solving problems and designing the next biggest thing.  But artists are creative (don’t get me wrong here – I love the arts), but most artists don’t make good engineers.

An analytical mind.  This is a tool that must be in every engineer’s tool box – the ability to look at things from different angles and perceive different realities and outcomes.  Unfortunately, too much of this can lead to the dreaded “analysis paralysis” and once again nothing gets done.

Thoroughness. This is another admirable trait.  By being thorough a good engineer ensuring that his or her products and projects will be complete, reliable, functional and that no detail will be missed.  Again we find the “too much of a good thing” syndrome when we look at the attribute of thoroughness.  Engineering is often about managing risk to find an optimal solution not an ideal solution.  Ideal solutions don’t generally exist.  Thus an over emphasis on thoroughness could ultimately cripple a project.

I would argue the each of the above traits are important, however they are all subservient to the greater measure of an engineer:

Every attribute described above can ultimately suffer from the “too much of a good thing” syndrome.  However, effectiveness cannot suffer in this way.  The more effective we are, the better we ultimately are.

While being a jerk, you can attain some level of effectiveness.  However, if you want to see exponential effectiveness results and truly be a rockstar engineer, you need to start thinking outside the box in terms of several areas.  These areas are not related to chemical reactions, physical properties or mathematics.  They are related to human dynamics – something that isn’t generally taught in engineering schools.

Being a jerk means taking the easy way out.  Ignoring people takes less effort than engaging with them.  But just like Newton said – actions equal reactions.  If you invest in people there will, most likely be a reaction.  If you invest in breaking down relational barriers, your effectiveness can be improved through better relationships.  If you invest in your image, your outside perceptions can improve.

I want to challenge you to consider some non-engineering principles in the upcoming posts.  These are principles that can boost your “street cred” and ultimately help you skyrocket into engineering rockstardom.  These aren’t rocket science, but they do make scientific sense.
So let’s get ready to rock…