Stuff Engineers Don’t Learn in School, Part 1

selinger-bookThis summer our three interns (Cade, Cannon, and Patrick) and I are reading and discussing the book Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School by Carl Selinger. This is the first post in a series that will cover all 16 chapters as the summer progresses. What’s in those 16 chapters? It’s the so-called “soft skills” like writing, presenting, negotiating, working in teams, dealing with stress, and more. 

Twice a year I travel to Syracuse University, my alma mater, to serve on the advisory board for the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering. A couple years ago I was seated at lunch with a campus visitor from NASA Langley. He described how he used Selinger’s book with his interns to raise their awareness of skills beyond the engineering skills that were the main focus of their internships. He felt the conversations were effective and useful.

Not shy about borrowing good ideas, I bought several copies of the book and read and discussed it with our summer 2018 interns. That went well so I’m repeating the exercise this summer and will be sharing the highlights of the discussion here because several of you out there on social media said you’d be interested.

First, An Introduction

In the book’s introduction, Carl Selinger draws motivation from Dale Carnegie’s classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Both he and Carnegie wish they had books like theirs when they had started their careers. Of course, the lessons could only be documented after they had been earned throughout a career. But now we have both books, so let the learning begin.

Why are these “soft skills” important? As Selinger states, employers expect students to graduate with a solid understanding of engineering principles. Job candidates who are good at writing, speaking, leading, and collaborating will differentiate themselves from everyone else applying for a job.

But even after landing a great engineering job, these skills will help you more fully grow personally and professionally. You don’t want to be the engineer who gives cringe-worthy presentations. You don’t want to be the engineer whose writing is so poor and so ineffective that no one understands what you’re trying to say. Assuming you got into engineering because you love the work, these soft skills will let you put your technical work to its best use by serving as a “force multiplier.”

Second, The “Real World”

I’ll mention this here at the start because it’s my opinion and not one from our interns. But I think they agreed with me when I explained it. The book’s subtitle is Skills for Success in the Real World.

The concept of a post-graduate “real world” is complete BS.

The “real world” is every second of every day from birth to death. Maybe the fact that we treat the “real world” like a place students will get to in the future is the reason they don’t prepare for it now.

The converse is also rather demeaning. If the “real world” begins after a student graduates, what’s the value of the “unreal world” they’re currently living in? Is it some sort of inconsequential playtime? Of course not. Being a college student is every bit as real as working for pay.

The world is real and the world is now. Speaking, listening, writing, teamwork, and feedback are useful skills for anyone of any age.

These are not skills for a mythical “real world,” they’re skills for life.

Chapter 1: Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School

Similar to my discussions with last summer’s interns, the first comment was that the book has a few quaint elements despite being published only 15 years ago. But the references to PDAs (personal digital assistants) amused the interns. A minor critique, but worth noting.

The interns also felt that the situation in engineering schools might have improved a bit over 15 years. Selinger repeatedly states that engineering schools don’t teach the skills he writes about. However, the interns reported quite a bit of emphasis on writing and speaking within their engineering classes. We all agreed that it is likely the case that lab reports, for example, are more about the quality of the writing and less about what actually happened in the lab. In fact, one intern was told that it didn’t matter that the lab experiment failed – the report should clearly and succinctly report how and why.

You might wonder why the undergraduate engineering curriculum isn’t full of courses on writing, presenting, teamwork, etc. The simple fact is, the curriculum is already fully packed with all the courses required for accreditation. Therefore, some of the engineering classes get to serve double-duty by covering the writing, etc.

Chapter 2: Writing

We all agreed that learning to write well is probably the most important of the soft skills an engineer should learn. We assumed Selinger thought so too since he introduces it first.

What struck us as odd was why the chapter’s title wasn’t Writing and Reading (see Chapter 3), especially since Selinger advocates for reading within the chapter.

The core of Selinger’s advice is simply stated.

  • Use clear, simple, direct language while avoiding acronyms.
  • To be a good writer you must also be a good reader.
  • Seek out as many proofreaders as you can.

We discussed the importance of reading to write better and explored what options are available to students. For example, some universities have deals where students can get an online subscription to a major newspaper or magazine for free. Outside of classwork, the students just have to find time to read for pleasure, which is often easier said than done.

Getting help with proofreading cannot be overstated. I keep in my desk a copy of the worst resume I have ever seen. It’s from a student about to graduate with a B.S. in engineering. On a single page the student committed 34 grammar and spelling errors. One proofreader likely would’ve caught all of them and protected this student from infamy.

Would you like me to proofread (not edit or evaluate) your resume? Email it to jrc at pointwise dot com.

Chapter 3: Speaking and Listening

Much as was the case for writing, the interns say that a lot of their engineering classes involve some aspect of public speaking. That includes seminars and design classes where various forms of project updates are presented. While there seemed to be this emphasis on giving presentations, there didn’t seem to be any instruction on how to prepare and present your work with the exception of one reported course on engineering communications.

One intern shared what I thought was a good thing one of his professors did. If you came to the professor during office hours and gave a brief 1-on-1 presentation to him on almost any topic, he’d give you feedback and extra credit.

Selinger’s advice here too is easy to follow.

  • Know what you’re talking about.
  • DO NOT read your slides.
  • Be sincere and enthusiastic. (It is not easy to fake enthusiasm.)

It’s important to remember that the audience is hoping you’ll do a good job. They don’t want you to fail, they want to learn something or be entertained or both. (I don’t expect you to entertain them by singing your entire presentation as a previous intern here at Pointwise did. He was a musical theater major who was interning on our Business & Administrative Services team.)

The interns and I discussed several other tips for giving a good presentation.

  • Use your presentation software to its full advantage. PowerPoint offers a speaker’s view (so you NEVER have to face the projected slide), a preview of the next slide (so you can plan your transition), and a clock (so you know how long you’ve been talking).
  • Do not use a laser pointer. OK, that’s my rule. But I’ve never – and I mean literally  never – seen a laser pointer used effectively in a presentation. In fact, if you have to use a pointer I would make the case that your slides are designed poorly. One intern told of a presentation in which the presenter mentioned the helicopter on his slide, used the laser pointer to point at it, even though it was the only helicopter on the slide.
  • Know your audience. This may sound trite but it’s true. By having a good idea of who your audience is and what their expectations are you can tailor your content to meet those needs. You can tailor the level of technical detail, the amount of background, and the type of conclusions.
  • As a corollary to the above, know why you’re giving the presentation in the first place. If you don’t, consider not given the presentation at all. Or get educated real fast.

If you’re seeking additional reading on presentations and graphics see the work of Edward Tufte.

I am glad Selinger covered the art of listening in this chapter. Among business pundits, Tom Peters is perhaps listening’s most ardent advocate. Selinger and Peters make the case that active listening is important where the first commandment is simple:

  • Listen to understand, not to respond.

There several other aspects to Selinger’s advice on listening.

  • Don’t get distracted by your phone or computer screen.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Ask clarifying questions throughout.
  • When the other person is done speaking, ensure you understand what they said by summarizing their points. “If I understand you correctly, you think…”

Another aspect of modern student life we discussed is the use of computers in the classroom for taking notes during a lecture. Other than the suspicion that most students are checking Instagram or playing Fortnite, the main problem with tablets and notebooks is that studies have shown knowledge retention is much higher when taking notes using pencil and paper.

Summary

So we’re off to a good start with Selinger’s Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School. Next we’re tackling the chapters on

  • Making Decisions
  • Getting Feedback
  • Setting Priorities
  • Being Effective at Meetings

Because blog posts on this topic are new to me, let me know what you like and don’t like about how I’m presenting the material and I can adjust for chapters 4-7. And the interns and I would appreciate your comments and questions so don’t hesitate to post them here.

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9 Responses to Stuff Engineers Don’t Learn in School, Part 1

  1. LPTC AIAA says:

    Good read, looking forward to the next entries

  2. “The concept of a post-graduate “real world” is complete BS.”
    I think it’s worth noting that frequently the skills that get us through academia and the skills that are useful in a commercial setting are not identical:
    https://vulcanhammer.net/2019/04/30/advice-to-graduates-past-performance-is-not-a-guarantee-of-future-returns/

    • John Chawner says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Don. I’ll admit that I can’t find a connection between the article you shared and the premise that skills for surviving academia differ from those needed in the workplace. What you wrote about how academic success (i.e. high grades) doesn’t necessarily translate into workplace success does indeed ring true. If we can agree that Selinger’s “soft skills” are useful in the workplace, my point is to tear down the artificial wall between the “real world” and student life and extend the benefits of those skills across all of life.

  3. Pingback: Stuff Engineers Don’t Learn in School, Part 2 | Another Fine Mesh

  4. Timothy Tautges says:

    Good read. I’m wondering to myself whether this advice is as useful for certain CS and pure math majors in my orbit (I want to think it is, and suspect it is).

  5. Pingback: Stuff Engineers Don’t Learn in School, Part 3 | Another Fine Mesh

  6. Pingback: How Our Interns Spent the Summer of 2019 | Another Fine Mesh

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