Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Unwritten Laws of Engineering Part 3, Professional and Personal Considerations

ASME completes its republication of The Unwritten Laws of Engineering in the December 2010 issue with Part 3 titled Professional and Personal Considerations.  First published in 1944, this work by W.J. King (later revised by James G. Skakoon) is an engineering classic and provides tips on professional and personal conduct.

This last installment should be interesting because it begins with this quote: "Emotional competencies were twice as important in contributing to excellence as were pure intelligence and expertise."  (I took little comfort from this cuz for intelligence I'm as pure as Ke$ha and when it comes to emotional competence my wife says I had a feeling once and it died of loneliness.)  Let me paraphrase another quote: a technical expert with a good personality is more valuable than a sociological freak.  And if you're like me, you're now mentally cataloging all the freaks you've known in your career.

Laws of Character and Personality

One of the most valuable personal traits is the ability to get along with all kinds of people.  This section reads like everything Mom should have taught you so I won't dwell on it.  I will mention #8 of their 10 "dos and don'ts" - Do not take yourself or your work too seriously.  For whatever reason, humorless jerks tend to fill that void in their personality with self-importance.

Never underestimate the extent of your professional responsibility and personal liability.  When I first read this section I thought of civil engineers and professional engineers and their very direct liability to their customers.  The section supports this by advising against taking the "I was only doing my job" approach. However, one passage caught my eye when it mentioned "One of your jobs... is to think like a total idiot and figure out 'How is this product going to be misused?'"  As appealing as idiocy is, I'm saddened that engineers are liable for not anticipating that a moron is going to use a lawnmower as a hedge trimmer or blow dry their hair in the bathtub.  Even in the software business, as soon as you make your software idiot-proof they invent a better idiot.  Lawyers, lawyers, lawyers.

Let ethical behavior govern your actions and those of your company.  Duh.  I mean, really.  I know the authors warned that they'd only list rules that are frequently violated.  But, duh.  If you're not ethical I really don't want to know you, let alone work with you.  But back when I worked for a large defense contractor I had to take ethics training and then sign a document committing to be ethical.  But if I was ethical why would I need to sign the form?  And if I was unethical I'd sign it regardless.

Regarding Behavior in the Workplace

Be aware of the effect that your personal appearance and behavior have on others and, in turn, on you.  We've all known the engineer with B.O., greasy hair, horrendous table manners, or a fly that's perpetually down.  Why our profession seemingly is cursed with this more than others is beyond me.  All undergraduates would benefit from an etiquette class before leaving school.  Or here's the short version: shower daily.

Beware of what you commit to writing and of who will read it.  This gave me a deja vu moment.  In these days of Web 2.0 we're all aware that any email, PDF, or video will be copied endless and live infinitely online.  But back in 1944 these authors already knew that you should "assume (1) that your documents might go to anyone and (2) that they will exist forever."  What's old is new again.

Regarding Career and Personal Development

Analyze yourself and your subordinates.  This section is interesting in that the authors introduce the idea of using a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to understand not only how you think but how your coworkers think.  The 16 MBTI types are neither good nor bad but simply insight into the way you think.  What's interesting is that a diverse collection of MBTI types leads to a more successful team and I've personally seen that in action with undergraduate design teams.  I'm an ESTJ, by the way.

Maintain your employability as well as that of your subordinates.  Proof yet again that education begins  after you graduate.  Whether you do it for yourself, your employer, or your next employer it pays to keep learning new things.

Read my summary of Part 2 and Part 1 of The Unwritten Laws of Engineering.


Burhop said...

This is a great post. I'm tempted to grab some of your one-iiners and post them to twitter!

John said...

Thanks. Feel free to steal them all. As someone recently said to me, "I'm open source."

Francis Shivone said...

Our dinner discussion last night, or one of them, was the origins of our modern idea of "personality," which, in many Catholic circles is placed in St Augustine's, Confessions, and later in St Thomas.

But St Augustine is the first known writer of autobiography in the modern sense. Maybe Marcus Aurelius is somewhat autobiographical, but there is no "conversion" or change there.

Anyway, I find the personality types a little mechanistic, even though I appreciate the insights drawn from them and enjoy the tests.

John said...


Wow. I haven't done St. Augustine since my failed attempt at a philosophy minor back in my undergrad days (Ethics and Value Theory) and I haven't done Catholic for a long time (much to my mother's chagrin).

The interesting thing about personality tests (or even something more mundane like handwriting analyses) is that people like hearing about themselves and readily agree. In other one of my undergrad philosophy courses (title forgotten) we discussed scientific theory and debunking as it pertains to belief. Most people when given a personality study will believe the results, even when everyone in the room is given the same results.

Having said that, Myers-Briggs is really intended to provide insight into how other people think and work so that you may work with them better. "Bill is a visual person so he won't get it until I draw a picture." "Betsy is so analytical she has to go thru 10 tests even tho the result is clear after 2." Knowing what to expect from other people simply facilitates agreement and progress.