Stuff Engineers Don’t Learn in School, Part 3

selinger-bookIn this 3rd installment of our series on Carl Selinger’s book Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School, Cade, Cannon and I (Patrick couldn’t make the meeting) delve into chapters 8-11 on Understanding Yourself and Others, Working in Teams, Learn to Negotiate, and Being More Creative. If you want to get caught up, you’ll find Part 1 (chapters 1-3) and Part 2 (chapters 4-7) in previous posts.

But before moving forward, I asked Cade and Cannon whether anything we had read and discussed in chapters 1-7 had motivated them to change their behavior. They both indicated that they had changed how they keep track of their work priorities (chapter 7, Setting Priorities). In fact, they were motivated by the bigger issue of keeping their work organized and taking better notes. While I was pleased that had adopted any of the concepts form the book, this one seems to me like a good place to start. All engineers can benefit from improving their personal productivity.

Understanding Yourself and Others

The three of us spent more time discussing this chapter than any of the others in Part 3. Maybe that was because Selinger covers a broad range of material here from how to properly shake hands to conflict avoidance and smiling.

Immediately we jumped on the topic of personality tests. Selinger suggests taking the Myers-Briggs test to determine which one of its 16 personality types you are. In case you are not familiar with Myers-Briggs, it classifies everyone based on four criteria, each with two aspects. The resulting type is a four-letter string comprised of which of the pair of attributes is dominant for you. I am ESTJ (extroverted, sensing, thinking, judging).

  • Extroversion vs. Introversion
  • Sensing vs. Intuition
  • Thinking vs. Feeling
  • Judging vs. Perceiving

All three of us had taken the test in the past and all three of us only shared one aspect of the four attributes: T for thinking.

It’s important to note that none of the 16 types is a value judgement, good or bad. Each type is a simple descriptor that identifies how you behave. More importantly, knowing another person’s type will help you understand and appreciate their behaviors. For example, people here in the office know that the easiest way to make me shutdown is to ask me to make a decision “right now.” Because I’m ST, sensing and thinking, I need data and time to think before deciding. I will not rely on my intuition or feelings (i.e. my gut). So knowing my ESTJ type, people know how to best work with me. It’s a small example, but I think you get the point.

Of course, at the crux of the matter is whether you believe that Myers-Briggs or similar tests are accurate and reliable. I have taken different implementations of the Myers-Briggs test multiple times over decades and the results are completely consistent: always ESTJ. I have also taken several similar exams (Clifton Strengths Finder, DISC, True Colors, International Personality Item Pool, and at least one other) and the results still remain consistent. (Which might be because one of the strong aspects of my personality is consistency.) Cannon even suggested a new one to try called Enneagram.

Lao Tzu wrote:

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is wisdom.

Whether you gain that wisdom through Myers-Briggs, introspection, or another method the point Selinger makes is that this wisdom will help you understand and work better with others. Like in a team.

Working in Teams

The three of us agreed that teamwork in school means group projects which are the root of all evil. We all recounted stories of team members who did nothing requiring us to do their work with the result that they got a good grade and we just got stress.

Selinger’s main points are as follows.

  • Work through and not with people.
  • Think “we” not “I.”
  • Ensure everyone understands the big picture.
  • Divide work fairly.
  • Assign responsibility to achieve accountability.
  • Give thanks and recognition.

Jumping right to the end, the interns and I agreed that giving thanks in a tangible way is a great idea. By tangible I mean actually handwriting and mailing a note. While it’s so easy today to fire off an email or text message, people do appreciate the fact that you’ve taken extra time and effort to share your appreciation. The trick is having the discipline to remember to do it.

We also agreed that the idea of explicitly assigning responsibility for specific tasks will indeed ensure accountability. But there is a related factor. If you’re given responsibility for something you also need to have the authority make changes to it, otherwise your efforts will be futile. For example, nothing is more frustrating than being given responsibility for a bunch of CFD runs without also having the authority to get priority time on whatever your compute resource is. (See also design constraints below.)

Selinger’s discussion of teamwork dovetails nicely with chapter 6 on Setting Priorities except that in the concept of teams you’ll be setting priorities and doing planning for more than just yourself, especially if you’re the team leader. Which reminds me of another great quote, this time from Dwight Eisenhower.

Plans are useless. Planning is indispensable.

All teams need to negotiate a plan among themselves and their stakeholders.

Learning to Negotiate

Finally, in chapter 10, Selinger gets around to the topic of negotiation with which he opened the book. And in the end, there’s really not much to it.

  • Everyone negotiates every day.
  • Identify the needs of all parties involved.
  • Don’t approach negotiating as a zero-sum game; strive for a “win win.”

A “win win” scenario will take work and relies on a solid understanding of what everyone wants and needs. But such things can be achieved. A solid tactic is for your initial proposal to present several scenarios that each balance the parties’ needs differently. In other words, a 50-50 solution isn’t necessarily the best.

The interns were interested in the section on cultural differences in negotiation. I assured them that the story about Japan was indeed true. A “yes” in Japan often means “I understand what you’re saying” and not “I agree with what you’re saying.”

Being More Creative

The interns made it clear that they believe engineers to be highly creative. The need and ability to be creative is reinforced in many of their classes. One intern cited a class exercise that involved brainstorming on how to sharpen a pencil when you didn’t have a blade of any kind. I’m certain examples like this abound on college campuses today.

Selinger also believes that engineers are very creative even if he believes that “thinking outside the box” is a faddish and unhelpful phrase. I’d flip that around – engineers need to think within the box, the box of constraints. Or, as I’ve said many times:

Form is liberating.

It’s easy to be creative without constraints on cost, size, schedule, materials, performance, regulations. Do anything you want! True creativity comes from devising solutions that fit into the box defined by your constraints. In fact, we’ve all heard about the “blank screen” problem – how difficult it is to get started on anything when you’re staring at a blank screen. Your design constraints shape the blank screen and you go from there.

Selinger makes the following points about creative engineers.

  • View the problem from different perspectives including different cultures and professions.
  • Use “What if” and “I wish” statements to spark your thinking

What’s Next

Tomorrow the interns and I will be discussing the remaining chapters in the book on Ethics in the Workplace, Developing Leadership Skills, Adapting to the Workplace, Dealing with Stress and Having Fun, Taking Action and Summing Up.

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