Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Unwritten Laws of Engineering - Part 1

Mechanical Engineering magazine is running a three-part series based on the classic book The Unwritten Laws of Engineering by King and Skakoon.  The first part is titled What the Beginner Needs to Learn at Once and it is so classic I'll jump on the bandwagon and add my own commentary.  

However menial and trivial your early assignments may appear, give them your best efforts.

I honestly don't recall my first assignment at my first job out of school.  Eventually it turned into learning how a CFD code worked - without having a computer to run it on.  As you can imagine, reading source code is not too exciting.  But once I got a handle on the program and was able to answer the boss's questions we moved on to doing some interesting CFD on jet engine exhaust flowfields.    What you need to keep in mind is this: if you don't make a good showing on your first task, odds are you won't be given the chance to do something more interesting.

Of course, the authors are probably not referring to the boss who asked me to pencil in the triangles on his graph (pre-Excel days) because I had a plotting template.  But that's another story.

Demonstrate the ability to get things done.

At the end of the day your boss needs work to get done.  You need to contribute to that.  The authors say that getting things done is due to initiative, resourcefulness and ingenuity, and persistence and tenacity.  One of the keys is to not get distracted by the next shiny object that crosses your path, especially when your assignment is less than exciting.

Once I finally got a computer to run that CFD code, I spent a year analyzing a single two-dimensional nozzle - and going way over budget on the computer time.  So maybe the persistence thing can be overdone.

Develop a "Let's go see!" attitude.

Throughout your career, customers and coworkers are going to come to you with questions about something you worked on.  Rather than retreating to your office to consult your computer program or design, go with that person to look at the problem together in the same place at the same time.  There is no substitute for collaborating on an issue and seeing your work through their eyes.

I remember visiting a customer who was working on a very specific application of our CFD software.  He and I left his office, walked down to the factory, donned safety goggles, and climbed up on the work platform where he pointed down to a auxiliary air inlet on the top of an F-18 right in front of the tails and said "that's what I'm working on."  Imagine the clarity.

Don't be timid - speak up - express yourself and promote your ideas.

Let's quote the authors directly. "The quiet individual who says nothing is usually credited with having nothing to say."  But there's a caveat here: contributions will be appreciated when you have something valuable to add.  Don't speak simply for the sake of speaking.   Sometimes just asking a question is sufficient.  You're not expected to know everything and asking the right question can demonstrate your insight.

We expect our new employees (and interns) to ask a lot of questions.  Back in my 20s I thought I knew a lot.  In my 30s I began to realize how little I actually knew.  Now I'm happy simply to ask the right questions.

Strive for conciseness and clarity in oral or written reports; be extremely careful of the accuracy of your statements.

Like it or not, engineers write all the time.  Therefore, you'd better get good at it.  You'll be writing proposals, progress reports, status reports, product documentation and instructions, and much more.  You have to convince people to give you money to do work and then convince them and others that it was well spent.  Even inter-office communication requires good writing, lest you become the butt of jokes.  (Trust me, it's true.)

But also note the authors' admonition to be concise.  One of my earliest undergraduate lab experiences was to measure the thickness of a bagful of washers and report the average thickness to the instructor who had advised us that he wanted no more of half a page of results.  Of course, I wanted to impress him with my extensive and detailed summary of the measuring apparatus and computations.  I impressed him so much with my 2-page report that I got a C.   "The average width of the washers was 0.125 inches" would've gotten me an A.

One of the first things you owe your supervisor is to keep him or her informed of all significant developments.

Often these "significant" developments come in the form of bad news.  Because it's your boss's job to represent your work to their boss it's best to keep the number of surprises to a minimum.  The authors advise that when you have to report bad news, it's also good to have a solution in mind.  Don't just come to me with a problem, tell me how we can fix it.

This should be nothing new.  Just like Mom, there's nothing you'll do that Mom won't find out about eventually.  Best to come clean early.

Do not overlook the steadfast truth that your direct supervisor is your "boss."

If you want to put a feel-good spin on this, you and your coworkers form a team under the direction of your boss.  The better that team works together and communicates to achieve its goals, the better it will be for everyone.  Keep and solve problems in the team rather than going over anyone's head.

If you want the blunt force version, it's never a good idea to piss off the person who evaluates your job performance.

Be as particular as you can in the selection of your supervisor.

The authors lost me a little here.  If you have a boss you don't like you have two choices: suck it up and do your best or transfer to another group or division.  (Obviously, leaving the company is also an option.)  The 21st century update to this lesson is that you should consider working with a mentor (or mentors) to benefit and from their experiences and grow professionally from it.

Just keep in mind that bosses are people too.  Most deserve your support.  Some deserve your transfer.

Whenever you are asked by your manager to do something, you are expected to do exactly that.

This rule seemingly violates one that's currently very popular: it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission. I think the author's intent repeats the previous rule about keeping your boss informed.  The authors state that directives are usually not rigid - they're guidelines.  If you want to make changes just discuss them with your boss first.  Or, if you complete the assigned tasks but have ideas for additional or alternative steps, show your initiative and do the extra work.

So maybe the authors are just repeating themselves which may be because we're getting close to the end of part 1.

Cultivate the habit of seeking other peoples' opinions and recommendations.

OK, maybe they are repeating themselves.  This rule draws upon several topics already discussed.  As a new engineer you may not have any answers but you can demonstrate curiosity by asking questions.  Work with your boss to fully understanding their tasking, suggest modifications, and communicate back the results.

Promises, schedules, and estimates are necessary and important instruments in a well-ordered business.

One estimating method often joked about by engineers is this: make your best estimate then double the number and increase the units (so 2 days becomes 4 weeks).  I really don't have much to contribute here because the software business is notorious for its inability to schedule work.  But the gist of the authors' point here is do your best to keep your promises.

In dealing with customers and outsiders, remember that you represent the company, ostensibly with full responsibility and authority.

People will judge your employer by your words and actions, even outside of a professional setting.  They will think "Gee, they're such an ass.  I wonder if everyone at ABC Corporation is an ass."  (Trust me, I know.  Don't ask how.)

They call it being a professional for a reason.  Learn how to conduct yourself.

Can't Wait for Parts 2 and 3 

As soon as I read this article I knew it had advice worth sharing.  Rather than relying on this posting I encourage you to read the article in the October 2010 issue of Mechanical Engineering or buy the book.   Even if you're in a career other than engineering (architect or attorney, for example) I hope you'll agree that these tips apply to any line of work.  If not, I'd love to see your comments.


Francis Shivone said...

Seems like sensible advice for anyone, especially anyone working with a big company.

Even the one man company has a "boss" in his customers.

John said...

These laws were originally written in 1944 and the fact that they're still relevant makes them classic. What makes them remarkable to me is not any new insight, but that someone took the time to distill and share them. I'm hoping my student friends will take them to heart.