Stuff Engineers Don’t Learn in School, Part 4

selinger-bookIn this last post of our series on Carl Selinger’s book Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School, our summer interns (Cade, Cannon, and Patrick) and I discuss the book’s last five chapters: Ethics in the Workplace, Developing Leadership Skills, Adapting to the Workplace, Dealing with Stress and Having Fun, and Taking Action and Summing Up.

But before starting with new material and because he missed our last meeting, I asked Patrick whether anything he had read in Selinger’s book had motivated him to take action. He cited the practical decision making framework from chapter 4, Making Decisions. Perhaps because it was simple, he believes the framework will help him make decisions without a lot of vacillating. As a reminder, the 4-step framework is

  • What is to be decided?
  • What are the options, alternatives, choices?
  • What information and criteria is needed to make the decision?
  • Decide.

Ethics in the Workplace

It’s telling that this chapter is perhaps the shortest in the entire book. Our inference was not that ethics is unimportant but rather that its subjectivity makes it hard to write explicit and firm rules and guidelines.

All of the interns have some sort of ethics instruction in their undergraduate curriculum. Two reported classes dedicated entirely to the topic while the third reported that ethics was covered in his senior design class. For one of them, the instruction involved study of the National Society of Professional Engineers’ Code of Ethics followed by a test. This seems like a good way to bring some structure and rigor to the course.

Developing Leadership Skills

Selinger opens this chapter on leadership by making it clear that

“your ability to lead people and to manage activities will be important to your success, whatever your intended career path.”

This is important because students often equate “leader” with “boss” when leadership can mean everything from organizing a group of students working on a design problem to being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And among our three interns we had aspirations across the entire leadership spectrum, from wanting to be technical forever, to wanting to lead a team, to wanting to lead a company.

Is there such thing as a “born leader?” Selinger answers that question by pointing out that being born with certain qualities doesn’t make it certain that you’ll excel in a certain role. In the same way that practice and training helps someone with innate athletic ability achieve in sports, developing leadership skills helps someone like an engineer achieve as a leader. What are those skills? Writing, speaking, listening, making decisions, setting priorities, and more. Exactly the subjects Selinger covers in his book.

Some specific leadership truths cited by Selinger are

  • Build leadership skills by taking responsibility, even just for your own life.
  • Get involved, volunteer for jobs.
  • Leadership is about doing the right things, management is about doing the things right.

One of the interns took comfort in the fact that Selinger makes it clear that leaders are fallible, despite the fact that most people assume the opposite. Our intern had heard the phrase “imposter syndrome” which is a real thing; leaders often feel like they’re imposters because they too have fallen for infallibility.

Shortly after discussing these chapters with the interns I read Ben Horowitz’ book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things. The only page I photographed was the beginning of a section titled The Most Difficult CEO Skill in which he wrote

“By far the most difficult skill I learned as CEO was the ability to manage my own psychology.”

Adapting to the Workplace

Of all the topics in this chapter on what life in an office is like, the one the interns seemed to latch onto was dress code. Admittedly, we have a fairly casual dress code here. For example, I wear denim virtually every day. But other than wariness about what their next employer might want, the good news is that an organization’s dress code is easily discovered by observation.

The same is true for what Selinger calls “turf:” your office or cubicle. Each organization will have rules for how much space you get and what you can do with it. Some are safety driven (e.g. no open flames like candles), some are obvious “this is shared space” stuff (e.g. no music without headphones), and some can be bone-headed corporate stuff (e.g. everything hanging on the walls must be framed, even calendars).

Selinger also dips back into productivity issues such as managing your email inbox (we repeated our discussion of David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach to the inbox) and the email minefield which is “cc’ing” somebody and/or everybody on emails (which led to an interesting discussion of the meaning and origins of “cc”).

Bottom line: if you’ve ever had a roommate or shared office space with other students you’ve already learned many of the lessons needed to operate in the workplace.

Public Service Announcement: trimming fingernails and toenails is definitely for home or the bathroom, not your desk.

Dealing with Stress and Having Fun

Do engineers really have to be told to have fun? Apparently so, if one intern is to be believed. When returning to work after some leisure time, he always feels bad because his work could’ve been farther ahead if he’d only kept working. Let’s be clear: no one on their deathbed wishes they’d spent more time at work. The guilt may be real, but you need to take time for yourself, family, and friends.

Teaching someone to have fun is almost as difficult as teaching someone ethics. Some people like to exercise, some like to read or listen to music, others enjoy watching sports. None of those is better than the other. Do whatever you prefer. You may often find, as I do, that ideas for a work issue arise in the midst of your fun.

With respect to stress, Selinger describes how stress is normal and the human mind and body are designed to deal with a certain amount of stress. It’s just when stress is continuous that you begin to suffer its adverse effects (which is why you need to break things up by having fun).

When stress prevents you from making any progress at all, Selinger promotes a method called telescoping to help you manage the situation better. Telescoping involves answering a series of questions.

  • What can go wrong?
  • How likely is it to go wrong?
  • How serious would it be if it did go wrong?
  • What would you do if it when wrong?

By just thinking clearly about the situation and framing it in this way, you can destress and begin making progress again.

Taking Action and Summing Up

In the end, Selinger’s advice to engineering students is very simple.

  • Take responsibility.
  • Take action.

By taking responsibility for all aspects of your life – personal and professional – you will be in a position to advance your relationships and your career.

By taking action, especially using the skills covered by this book, you will actually make progress.

There’s no silver bullet to being a professional. You will make mistakes along the way and you will find yourself in awkward or even bad situations. But maybe by using the things you don’t learn in engineering school you’ll get through them in the best way possible.

The End

I polled the interns and they unanimously recommend repeating this exercise with our next cohort of summer interns. They even say to continue using Selinger’s book despite its out-of-date references to PDAs. I certainly plan to do this again because each year the interns give me new perspectives on what today’s students (tomorrow’s professionals) are facing and thinking.


This entry was posted in News and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Stuff Engineers Don’t Learn in School, Part 4

  1. Juan says:

    Thanks a lot for this type of post. It’s helpful and rewarding to read you. Greetings from Spain!

  2. Thank you for this series. I’m grateful to you for alerting me to a book i didn’t know about and also for your account and reflections ion how you used it. I’m delighted to hear that someone is doing this kind of teaching. I’d like to invite you to collate the four posts into a synoptic post or PDF, which would make the material easier to share.

    • John Chawner says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Compiling the posts into a single PDF would be interesting but I’m wondering how my discussions with the interns will change from year to year.

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

Leave a Reply