Training for the Engineering Olympics

Training for the Engineering Olympics

(Historical post alert:  I started post as a this draft in October 2015.  Trying to get caught up! Should only take me 10 years or so at this rate…)

Recently I attended a workshop of the Engineering Change Lab, at the beautiful (and brand new) Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence at York University in Toronto.  It was a fantastic experience to be in such an innovative space, whose design inspirations are derived from creative opposition:  a cloud and a rock.  York’s Lassonde School of Engineering aims to produce ‘Renaissance Engineers’ and the artistic feel of the build conveys that intention.  The building is so new it’s not even on Google Maps or Google Earth yet (I know!) yet we got a tour.

We were also lucky enough to be among the first to see the movie that the Lassonde School of Engineering had made in order to celebrate the launching of their new program.  It’s called Let Me Do It, and the world premiere screened at The Art Gallery of Ontario.  In case you wondered, yes that is me in the trailer!  I appeared a few times throughout and it was equal parts humbling, honouring and embarrassing to hear and see myself on the big screen, alongside folks I really admire such as Dave Goldberg, founder of Big Beacon, and Kai Zhang, a personal friend and fellow engineering changemaker who has since started working for Lassonde.

In the Q&A following the film, a recent engineering grad asked somewhat glumly, whether it was worth it to instill and develop such creativity and design vision in these new engineering students.  We have such mundane tasks ahead of us, he said, that it didn’t seem to warrant those big fancy skills. They’d be wasted, according to him.  All the jobs that are available are boring.  Like designing brake shoes, he offered, with bored roll of the eyes.  It was clear he wanted something bigger, better, more important to do; something that would align with his ambition (I can only assume) to be impactful and inspirational.  Do a job that means something; a job that makes a difference.

Well.  I believe there is great honour in carrying out so-called ‘boring’ jobs.  You can learn a lot from them.  You can be part of something important.  Brake shoes may not be exciting or innovative but they do save lives.  If you want to make a difference in the world, start with something like that.  There are so many examples of how engineering shapes the world around us: protecting our health and safety, keeping us entertained, making our worlds incrementally easier and better.  Doing your first job out of engineering school, you can build the muscles and the skills you need to do the glamorous stuff later on.  Think of it as training for the engineering Olympics!  No one would expect even a very talented athlete to start at the top level.  So why do you expect your first job to fulfill all your dreams?

My advice:  Don’t be so quick to dismiss the positive aspects of a job that might seem routine or devoid of deeper meaning.  You can find pride in carrying out the seemingly mundane, and you can find pride in thinking more carefully about the impact you are having on people in your ‘boring’ job.  Those brake shoes are getting thousands of people home safely to their families.  Those HVAC systems are helping everyone breathe better.  Those control systems are keeping trains from colliding.  You can also learn a lot about yourself and what you want, what you are good at and how you would like to leave your mark on the world.  You may learn that brake shoes are not your
forever love, so you will find something else to challenge you and expand your skills and experience further.  Keep looking for the chance to use your engineering skills in the most innovative, interesting, creative and high-impact ways possible (I know I do!) but do not dismiss the opportunity to learn, grow and enjoy yourself on the way.

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The Grunt Years Are Not a Bad Thing!

The Grunt Years Are Not a Bad Thing!

Your first job might not be awesome.

Very early on in my engineering career, I was lucky enough to get a job as a Manufacturing Engineer at Magna. I was involved in all kinds of problem-solving; my team and I connected with multiple people to come up with solutions to problems in real-time. Not only that, but I also got to see the financial impact of my project work on the company, which I found very satisfying. Were there non-glamourous elements to my responsibilities? You bet – lots of them, actually.

Grunt work?  Not a bad thing.

Regardless of how mundane or boring the tasks you’re given seem to be, remember this: now is the time for you to to be a sponge.  It’s a time to break off a little (read: manageable, not insignificant) piece of a real-world problem and make it your own.  It’s a time to earn your stripes, soak up all the training you can get. It’s time for enjoying all those fun and important firsts.

  • first performance review
  • first business trip
  • first business cards
  • first paycheque (how will you spend it?)

These firsts aren’t just fun milestones, they are valuable learning experiences!

Valuable learning experiences are precisely what these first years of your career are all about.  You can make mistakes with relatively little consequence – it’s possible everyone expects you to anyway!

Watch those around you, and learn to build your skills.  You’ve got a head full of fancy math that you’d love to use, but just as important (if not more), some other stuff you probably didn’t learn in engineering school:  selling an idea, getting people to help you, reading between the lines of office politics, figuring out how to get things done, developing your network, and investing in those around you.

Really show up to work every day.

There are piles of advantages to bringing your full creative, awesome, invested, engaged self with you to work everyday. Not only will you get the right kind of attention and earn a reputation for being a great team player and high-impact worker, but you will soak up FAR more learning. Opportunities for advancement and extra training will seek you out, and you’ll be given chances to take on more responsibility.  Then, that’s right, bye-bye grunt work!

Learning below the surface

If you keep your personal goals front and centre, it won’t matter how dreary or bland the meat of your job is. As you keep your eyes on the prize and bring your awesomeness to the table, you’ll be soaking up opportunities that prepare you for your next step.  Think of it as training for the mind, the same way an athlete trains the body.

Bring the full weight of your skill, passion, and investment to every moment – especially the grunt moments – and you will find your way forward sooner than you think.


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Is that what you really want?

This originally appeared as a guest blog on my friend Pat Sweet’s engineering and leadership blog.


conscious businessJust about any engineer you ask will tell you that our profession is all the problem solving. I’ve been taking an entrepreneurship course and have learned that business is actually all about solving problems. Interesting huh?

I can’t help but think of a book that I read a few years ago called Conscious Business: Building Value through Values by Fred Kofman in which he told a very simple parable to illustrate a powerful shifting idea around problem-solving. I’ll paraphrase:

Ask me for a glass of water it would seem that your problem is that you do not have a glass of water. If I did not happen to have water with me and I will have to tell you: No, I cannot help you. I cannot solve your problem.

But is lack of a glass of water really the problem? Do you *want* a glass of water? No. You want to drink the water, but that’s not your problem. The problem is that you’re thirsty; you want to not be thirsty.

So in this example, let’s say I don’t have water, but I happen to have an orange or some juice or some sparkling water. I can solve your problem, and I can help you, if I recognize that what you really want is not to be thirsty.

The point is that we don’t generally ask for what we want. We ask for what we think will get us what we want.

In my first engineering job I was working for an automotive manufacturer. We were solving the problem that people did not have cars. That’s right: solving it by making more new cars.

Or were we? The problem really was that people needed to get around. They were asking for cars because they thought that would get them what they wanted. What if we had offered horses? Or scooter? Or maybe electric cars? Or (way more fun) jetpacks or teleporters? In today’s business environment, where things are changing so fast, many large companies are retooling their business models to survive. That is, they are solving the same problem with a completely different solution. Orange instead of glass of water.

Nimble business models win the day

Entrepreneurs can have an advantage here because they are likely much more nimble than large corporations. So it’s still about problem-solving but requires a constant ability to re-evaluate and move along with customers – or to pivot as it is known in Lean Start-up circles.

So I have come to a conclusion that neither engineering nor entrepreneurship today is not just about problem solving. It has to be about problem identification as well. Especially with the complexity of the biggest problems we are solving today, we need to bring in the skills to zoom in and zoom out on a problem and think about solving it from many angles and at many levels. Unlike on the exams we took in school it’s not the best course of action to just in and solve for x!

Making it personal

Applying this principle to your personal career and leadership journey, what do you really want? Do you want want to run a marathon? Buy a new car? Score a big promotion, a fat raise? Take 6 months off? These are all great and worthy goals. Put a timeline on them and they will downright SMART!

But anytime I hear people talking about an outcome that they want to achieve I think about that glass of water and orange example. What is it that you really want? How sure are you that you can get it by achieving that specific milestone? How else could you address that same area? It may involve taking a smaller bite, shifting your way of thinking about what your need/problem actually is. Try it sometime with your own goals. (If you don’t have goals yet, check out Pat’s excellent post on goal-setting here).

Then try doing a bit of reflection. Generate some alternatives. Zoom out and think sideways a little. You may end up changing your goal all together – that is, finding a better solution that solves the problem in a more efficient way. And isn’t efficiency the definition of good engineering?

Look for the orange!


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Open Letter to the Engineering Class of 2014

Engineers of Tomorrow, Welcome to the rest of your life.  
As of this moment, you are no longer a student at an institute of higher education, but a co-creator of this world.  You may have noticed: it’s full of problems, full of breakdowns, full of inconsistencies and contradictions – systems that do not work the way they were supposed to, people who have been let down, things that need to be better than they are. 

That iron ring you’re placing on your finger could be many things; a symbol of your victory over academic onslaught, an entrance into an exclusive club of engineering professionals, but we believe it’s also a call to action. You are being called on to build bridges, but not the type that you can build out of concrete and steel.  
You are being called upon to bridge the gap
between the disappointments of the past and the everpresent hope for the future.  

You are being called upon to imagine the world that your heart wants to live in, that your sense of right and wrong says there should be, and then to find yourself a way to help change that idea into a reality.  You are being called upon to use your skills for good; not just for your own enjoyment or profit but also to benefit and take care of others.  
You are being called upon to contribute to something you believe in
– as a member of this professional community and as thinking, feeling citizen of the world.  

How will you choose?  However will you accomplish this lofty and vaguely-defined goal?  How will you know what to do with no one to tell you? Where will you start?  The same way you would walk a journey of 10,000 miles –
one step at a time.  
You’ll need your creativity and imagination every bit as much as your mad math skills.  You’ll need your intuition and empathy as much as your analytical prowess, and your heart as much as your head.  
Up until this moment you were a consumer of knowledge, a navigator of systems, a follower of orders, a passer of really tough examinations.  Your parents and professors seemed to knew more than you; always seemed to have the upper hand.  It may be a while before you assume positions of formal power and influence, but make no mistake:   
you are now one hundred percept in charge of you.  
You will never stop learning and growing but using your curiosity, you will keep creating your own education.  You may not have infinite job offers in your hand, but your inner wisdom will always bring you to the opportunities that are perfect for you.  You may have no idea where you fit in, but your courage to speak up and take action will guarantee you will never be alone.

Take that job you’re not quite sure you can handle.  It’s character-building to fail.  
Try that volunteer opportunity that has you work with people who think nothing like you do.  Learning to honour differences rather than hating them is one of the toughest and most useful skills you’ll ever learn.  
Making diversity into fuel for innovation and revelation is really the only alchemy you will ever need.  
It’s the perpetual motion machine of this world.  
Do that thing you’re scared to do that gives you goosebumps just thinking about.  Try.  Risk telling your truth.  Open your ears when others do the same.  
Dig deep to make a difference, however you can, whenever you can.  

What do you want to do?   The future, in so many ways, depends on you. 
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Try to work and live at the same time

image courtesy of

You can’t read very many articles without hearing the term ‘work-life balance’ – and with good reason.

Balancing personal and professional commitments is a lifelong task.  As an engineer, I think of it as a design challenge for which there might be no one ‘right’ solution, but rather various options that have tradeoffs.  Also (and this sounds bad but it is your saving grace), all will shift over time.
Have you heard of the price/quality/time triangle?  It’s the idea that you can have to make tradeoffs between doing things cheap, well, and fast when you are managing a project or designing a new product.   Usually, the saying goes, you have to pick two.
From product design to life design
What does this have to do with making good life decisions?  Well, you are constantly making tradeoffs.  Do I want the job that pays more, or the one that’s close to home?  Do I want the project that will challenge me, or the one that will make me look good?  Do I want to work with a company that’s in the industry I trained for, or one that will broaden my horizons?
 Obviously there is no one ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer.  The main goal is to get good at assessing and reading these parameters (basically doing a cost/benefit analysis) and re-visiting it often.  You’ll be keeping up with new opportunities, and find yourself able to judge subsequent goals and changing factors as you go.
More evaluating, less rushing to a decision

Also, you’ll find as you get good at this process, you will be able to search out and evaluate more opportunities, which increases the probability you’ll find the one that’s juuuuuust right.  Figuring out how to do this puts you WAY ahead of many other people in today’s workforce!  Often, because the process of job-searching and life-option-evaluating is so scary, people rush through it and choose the first or second option they consider.  It’s a relief just to have something, right? 

Choose at haste, repent at leisure

Then, they get into the workforce and wonder why they are not happy, or why their day-to-day activities have nothing to do with their aspirations.  This situation is completely avoidable but it takes work.  It takes extra courage to stay in the  discomfort of the option-evaluation phase a little bit longer, and you’ll need some tools to help you do it right.  Luckily engineering students and recent grads are in a great position, because creative application of all those things you soaked up in school works like a charm to make great life decisions.   That is, in a nutshell, what Engineer Your Life is all about.
…but balance what?
While I wholeheartedly support the concept, I have a problem with the term ‘work-life balance’, since it implies that work and life are two opposite things.  Guess what though?  You are living when you’re at work!  So you might as well enjoy it.  My radical notion is that you can work and live at the same time!
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Engineers Rule the World (or do they?)

Since joining up with The Big Beacon to discuss how A Whole New Engineering Education can produce A Whole New Engineer in the future, I have been thinking a lot about my own engineering education experience.

Studying engineering is not just about academic rigour – though there is plenty of that! It’s also about an identity; being a member of a sub-culture.  That culture influences members’ behaviours and choices, and since students are the engineers of the future, it’s worth understanding the subculture of engineering students. One slogan in particular sums up that subculture as I experienced it: ERTW, standing for Engineers Rule The World.

Engineers Rule the World.  Really?

To those of us who attended engineering school in Canada (it’s apparently not found as much elsewhere), this is a pretty ubiquitous acronym. Scrawled on textbooks, spray-painted on walls, mostly close to Orientation or Frosh Week when all manner of other spirited shenanigans are happening. The pride behind ERTW is unmistakable, mostly when yelled in fun at rival faculties.  But is there something more signficant about the mindset that compels engineering students to adopt this motto?  Do we really believe it?

Truth to the slogan?

The logic goes that if we hold the means of design and production of bridges, food, computers, energy and any number of other useful things, being an engineer must make you extremely powerful.  But during my Frosh Week, the Commerce students would yell right back at us ‘You’re going to work for us someday!’.   We knew it was probably true!   We were being groomed to work for the companies that they were being groomed to run. They also called us plumbers, which had no truth, because we would have been no help at all during a plumbing emergency, unless the toilet happened to have malfunctioned due to a broken differential equation inside of it.

Plumbers no more

Many of my friends who graduated as engineers have gone on to positions in management, and now make decisions alongside their business-major colleagues.  Our strong analytical skills can make us excellent managers, business leaders and entrepreneurs provided that they have interpersonal and leadership skills as well; skills which start in the subculture of engineering education.

Rule the World… or just Rule

As a student, I had great enthusiasm for the idea of being able to solve problems on a global scale; to really leave my mark on the world.  And to do it using math and technology – how awesome is that?  That rules!  We RULE!   Faculty pride is also a way to stay sane during the undergrad engineering education experience.  Even while straining under the weight of a metric TON of physics and calculus, and getting my butt kicked academically, a slogan like ERTW reassured me as a student: what I am learning is powerful and useful.  But could the arrogance implied in the word ‘rule’ be damaging to engineers’ ability to be effective team players in the work place?

A Humbler Alternative 

At the Engineers Without Borders Canada National Office, I saw water bottles, binders and shelves decorated with a nearly-identical alternative acronym: ESTW.

A little digging revealed this rant; so ESTW stands for Engineers Serve The World.

Some further explanation at

The concept engineering as service feels right to me.   What is my education for if not to positively affect people’s lives?  What is my profession’s purpose if not to help? What is on my knowledge worth if it doesn’t actually make a difference?  I feel the pride in my profession that ERTW reflects, but of the two, ESTW speaks to my identity as an engineer more clearly.

The Whole New Engineer of the future is humble, and a team player and a community builder.  Clearly these are not skills or traits that can be acquired from a textbook.   But in my experience they are well worth developing. They represent an authentic personal change that comes from within, no matter what you learned in school.

Future engineers, ask yourself:  Which version works best – ERTW or ESTW?  Which is more important to you – ruling the world or serving it?   Engineering educators:  How can you help your students down the path to being proud of what they do, but self-aware and humble?

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