Stuff Engineers Don’t Learn in School, Part 2

selinger-bookOur summer interns (Cade, Cannon, and Patrick) and I continue our discussion of Carl Selinger‘s book Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School. If you missed Part 1 of this series, we covered the first three chapters (Introduction, Writing, Speaking and Listening). We most recently spent time discussing chapters 4-7 (Making Decisions, Getting Feedback, Setting Priorities, and Being Effective at Meetings).

Making Decisions

One of the interns took immediate issue with the quote that opens this chapter. I think he called it “most absurd.” A presumed early-career engineer says they feel better about making decisions having learned that there are no right or wrong decisions. Our intern felt the opposite; without the possibility of a right or wrong answer, making a decision becomes much harder.

As it turns out, our intern proved Selinger’s point. Too many engineers – maybe because of stereotypical personality traits or because of how we’re taught to think – fear being wrong. I suffer from this trait and all three of our interns admitted to it as well.

There’s a bit of wisdom that says an imperfect decision made now is better than a perfect decision made later. In other words, early decisions avoid so-called “analysis paralysis.”

Selinger offers a 4-step framework for decision making.

  1. What has to be decided?
  2. What are the options, alternatives, choices?
  3. What information do you need to decide and what criteria will you apply to that information?
  4. Decide.

What one of our interns pointed out about Step 2 above is the fact that doing nothing is a valid choice. Sometimes this isn’t obvious to early-career professionals. Decisions are seen as a choice between A and B when in reality there’s at least one more choice which is neither A nor B.

The chapter ends with a decision making exercise which the interns agreed is a bit cringe-worthy in modern times. The exercise involves choosing a location for lunch for your team and some visitors: a “middle-aged” engineer, a “young, Asian woman,” and a recently retired “African-American.” Those attributes have nothing to do with choosing where to eat. We agreed that a better exercise for modern times would be choosing a lunch location when your group includes someone who’s lactose intolerant, a gluten-free practitioner, and a vegan.

Getting Feedback

While it is true that a student’s life is built around structured feedback in the form of grades on homework, tests, and classes, it might not be completely true that life as a working professional lacks feedback.

According to Selinger, “You will never (or hardly ever) get objective feedback in the real world.” Maybe these things don’t fit the definition of “objective” but you will (or won’t) get raises and bonuses, good (or bad) task assignments, comfortable (or not) office space and amenities, etc. You don’t need to be a wizard to get the message.

Selinger delves into the topic of performance appraisals (or as I like to describe them, the litany of all your screw-ups over the past twelve months). Even in the worst of these, you might get objective feedback in the form of your numerical rank with the team or company. (Do not infer that I believe this is a good thing.)

Being proactive is Selinger’s recommended method for getting feedback early and often. Here are the questions he recommends.

  • How do you think the project is going?
  • What would you do in this situation?
  • If you where me, what would you do differently?
  • What’s going well?
  • Where do you think I could improve?

That last question (and my snarky comment above about performance appraisals) led us into a conversation about what we at Pointwise use for professional development: a process called Catalytic Coaching (based on a book by Gary Markle and fostered by his firm, Energage). Unlike a performance appraisal which is a look backward, Catalytic Coaching is a pro-active, forward-looking plan for the employee’s professional growth. Each manager-employee pair crafts a plan that addresses both the employee’s career goals and areas where improvement would be valuable. This plan is “owned” by the employee and up to them to execute. What kinds of things might be in a plan? If the employee wants to eventually lead the team of programmers who work on the software’s user interface, the plan may include reading books, attending seminars, joining a professional society, or taking classes. If the manager sees that the employee has a problem juggling multiple tasks, the plan may include exploring techniques for personal productivity.

In fact, the time the interns spend with me discussing Selinger’s book gets charged to their Professional Development charge code on their timesheets. (We need timesheets due to our research contracts with Uncle Sam.)

Setting Priorities

At the start of our discussion of this chapter I made it clear to the interns that prioritization is a challenge for many people including me. I work with an executive coach who over the past several years has helped me get better at identifying and attacking my highest priority tasks first. Regardless, people can always tell when I have an important paper to write or presentation to prepare – because I’m tidying up my office.

The good news is that many engineers have the skills required to be organized, of which prioritization is a part. Selinger couches his suggestions around the concepts of importance and urgency; the so-called Eisenhower matrix.

  • Important and urgent? Do it right now.
  • Important but not urgent? Schedule time to do it later.
  • Not important but urgent? Delegate it.
  • Neither important nor urgent? Delete it.

Selinger repeats several suggestions from the chapter on making decisions to help you prioritize.

  • Which task do you want done first?
  • What are the task’s critical issues?
  • What do you see as the next steps?

The interns and I veered off of priorities into the general issue of personal productivity. Selinger’s third suggestion above about prioritizing (“next steps”) reminded me of a very popular system by David Allen called Getting Things Done (GTD) which I have used extensively for years. One way that GTD differs from what students may be used to is the emphasis on tasks versus appointments. We discussed how students’ lives are largely calendar driven (by class times and due dates). Calendar-based items are also useful in the workplace but another concept is that of a long-term, multi-step task. The GTD system suggests that your task tracking includes a “next step” notation. That way, you’ll know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing when the task reminder appears (for example, “prepare agenda for Tuesday’s meeting,” “review 3 papers for AIAA conference,” etc.).

A final note on prioritization. We discussed whether it was always advisable to work on your highest priority task first as Selinger advises. The answer is yes, but. You’ve heard the analogy about how to get rocks, pebbles, and sand into a big jar – you put the rocks (big, high priority things) in first because if you put the sand (the little things) in first you’ll never get the rocks in. The but is this: using the Eisenhower method, it’s possible for you to knock out a lot of smaller things first or during breaks you’ve taken from the big thing. If you’re like me, you like that feeling of being able to check-off a task as done.

Being Effective at Meetings

When asked about their experience with meetings here at work, I was thrilled when the first thing the interns said was that meetings at Pointwise always start on time. I’ll accept small compliments like that every day of the week. They also said that people running our meetings seem to do a good job of keeping things focused and pulling people back to the agenda when folks go off on a tangent.

You may infer, as I did, that the interns’ experiences with meetings at school didn’t receive accolades like that.  And after hearing their specific tales of meetings gone awry, it seems that they’d really benefit from Selinger’s main points.

  • A meeting must have an agenda. In other words, “Why are we here?”
  • Show respect for people by starting and ending on time.
  • Be an active participant. If you have nothing to say and nothing to learn, don’t go to the meeting.
  • Follow-up with written meeting minutes. Not a transcript, but the main points of what the group agreed to do.

The latter cannot be over-emphasized. One of my favorite quotes of all time (mainly attributed to George Bernard Shaw) is “the main problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred.” Only through written documents can the group ensure that everyone knows that they’re accountable for.

This just happened to me personally as I was preparing this article, but a good practice is to leave “margin” on your calendar around meetings so you have time to document your action items. Otherwise you get to the end of the day with notes from four meetings that you have to distill into actionable tasks.

What’s Next?

Next week we’ll be discussing Selinger’s chapters on Understanding Yourself and Others, Working in Teams, Learn to Negotiate, and Being More Creative. If you have suggestions for different ways we can present this material please include them in the comments.

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