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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Engineer Profile #2: The Point of Quantum Mechanics with Lindsay Watt

Engineer Profile #2:  The Point of Quantum Mechanics with Lindsay Watt

Hello engineers!  I am really excited to bring you the second in the Engineer Profile series with tech-business-finance-traveling man Lindsay Watt.  He is a true thinker and a doer, and a natural story-teller. I think you’ll really enjoy this interview.

Click here to listen now!  (And by the way here is Engineer Profile #1 if you missed it)

If you’re a student now, or if you are an engineering educator, I am sure you will find Lindsay’s take on engineering education really encouraging and interesting.  He also references Lebron James, Thomas Edison and Mark Vandreesen (though not all at the same time!), defines his most important ABC (great advice), and reveals his top three criteria for picking that perfect first job:


1) Make sure it has something that you’re passionate about in it.

2) Look for a position where you can learn as much as possible, and they will just keep throwing things at you!
3) Is in a place where things really get done, so you can put thing out there in the world and see how it feels.

You might be surprised by what he said is not so important in that first job.  And I was certainly surprised when he explained the relevance of the Quantum Mechanics course he took in school.  He tells us his perspective on the five-year plan, and why he choosing to study engineering was such a great choice for him.    He also dishes on why his first start-up failed, and the benefits he experienced of getting an MBA.

Please leave a comment below and let me know – was Lindsay’s advice what you expected?  What provoked most insight for you?  Any temptation to research a new interest or aha’s about your next steps after listening to this?  (A degree in Engineering Physics , perhaps?) :)    Enjoy!

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Do Engineers Rule The World?

Lately I have been part of a lot of conversations about engineering education through my work with The Big Beacon.  Inspiring stuff!  When I got to thinking about my undergrad experience, I started to think about other interesting memories.  Like ERTW… have you heard of it before?  It stands for Engineers Rule The World.

To those of us who attended engineering school in Canada (it’s apparently not found in other parts of the world), this is a pretty ubiquitous acronym. It gets scrawled on textbooks, spray-painted on walls and sometimes written in magic marker on people’s faces.  Most of these incidents occur close to Orientation or Frosh Week when all manner of other shenanigans are happening; whether or not they should be happening is a topic for another time.  But the pride behind ERTW is unmistakable, especially when yelled in fun at passing first year students from rival faculties.  But is there some truth in the mindset that compels engineering students to adopt this motto?  Do we really believe it?

Truth to the slogan?

Engineers Rule The World!   The logic goes that because we hold the means of design and production of bridges, food, computers, energy and any number of other extremely useful things, being an engineer must make you extremely powerful.  But is there any truth to it really?  During my Frosh Week, the Commerce students would yell right back at us ‘You’re going to work for us someday!’.   And well… we knew it was true!   They also called us plumbers, which really wasn’t true, because we would have been no help at all during a plumbing emergency, unless the toilet happened to have mal-functioned 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.  Whether they get MBAs or not, many engineers benefit greatly from learning the ways of business.  Our strong analytical skills can make us excellent managers, business leaders and entrepreneurs provided that the interpersonal and leadership skills are there to complement them.  My friend Anthony J. Fasano does a great job of showing engineers how to ‘Engineer [Their] Own Success’ in his book by developing all those “soft” skills, precisely the things many engineers dismiss as unimportant and “artsy”.  But of course we had no way of knowing that back in university…

Rule the World… or just Rule

Myself I believe we cried ERTW not necessarily as an expression of world domination, but as testament to our enthusiasm for the idea of being able to solve problems on a global scale; to really leave our mark on the world – using technology!  How awesome is that?  That rules!  We RULE!   That’s one possible interpretation.  Another is that we were trying to make ourselves feel better during our undergrad engineering education experience:  as in, I may be straining under the weight of a metric TON of physics and calculus, and getting my butt kicked academically like never before, and none of it seems very useful or relevant right now, but one day I shall rule the world!  (Pause for evil laughter)  Something you say to get yourself through.

My days of stuffing electro-magnetics and calculus knowledge into my head are long behind me, but like most engineers I have grown up with the phrase ERTW.  It always felt a little satirical to me, like Pinky and the Brain, and not terribly relevant since Ruling the World was never much of an ambition of mine.   Still, a fun piece of my personal history.  A tribute to youthful enthusiasm and joie de vivre, the joy of nerding out and yes, just a smattering of charming arrogance; one of the many great memories of engineering student culture I carry with me.

A Humbler Alternative 

On a recent trip to 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

Well – what a marked departure!  The concept of service in engineering feels right to me.  My own priorities have always asked:  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?  Of the two, ESTW speaks to my ambitions more clearly, and though I feel the pride in my profession that ERTW reflects, mostly I just feel really lucky that I get to make life better for people while nerding out.  (I could do without ruling the world though.  Too much work!)

Scared and cocky at the same time

When I first graduated, however, I would have identified more clearly with ERTW.  Interestingly, back then I was both terrified that nothing I’d learned in school would transfer to the real world at all, and cocky that I could fix everything using my super-smart equation-solving, hard-exam-slaying brain.  I suppose I was testing a hypothesis that I could have an impact on the ‘real world’, which is what I most wanted to do above all.   Also, though my burden was nowhere near the level of debt most of today’s graduates are shouldering, I needed to make money, so I coudn’t afford to be picky about my first job.  Every single engineer wants to get a ‘good’ (translation: well-paying) job after graduation, whether they are primarily motivated by money or not.

So is it about the money?

But returning to the topic question of this post, does serving the world fit with being financially rewarded for your work?  Is the version of engineering in which we ‘Rule The World’ about being wealthy as well as powerful?  Or is it just about being arrogant, and supposing ourselves to be better?  I wonder if there are there will always be two schools of thoughts within the engineering profession – some relishing ERTW while others identify more closely with ESTW, or if over the course of their careers, most engineers will go from one of to the other.

Which version feels more relevant to you – ERTW or ESTW?  Which is more important to you?  Do you think of your professional purpose as service?  If you knew you could make enough money to live a great lifestyle either way, would you rather Serve the world… or Rule it?

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3 Things about engineering that Marc Lepine will never know

Twenty-three years ago today, a national tragedy occurred in Montreal.  In case you don’t recall:

“On Dec. 6, 1989, Marc Lepine entered Ecole Polytechnique, a Montreal-based engineering school, separated the men from the women and then shot and killed 14 female students. He also injured nine other women and four men, before turning the gun on himself. Lepine left a note blaming feminists for ruining his life.”  from

Before I was an engineer

I was not quite a teenager at the time, but I remember my mother’s reaction; that it was a hateful and cowardly act by a deranged, angry man who hated women.  Years later when I became an engineer, the incident took on new significance; these women could have been my classmates.  We were only one decade, and one Canadian province, apart.

These 14 female engineering students were picked out because their choice of program made them feminists, in Marc Lepine’s mind, and he resented them for taking a spot that should have been his.  He had applied to Ecole Polytechnique twice and been rejected because he lacked two course pre-requisites.

A national Rorschach test

To this day much angry debate carries on about whether female engineers are uniquely qualified to ‘claim’ the effects of the so-called Montreal Massacre, or whether it is better viewed as part of a wider symptom of all violence against all women.   Or is it about feminism?  Or is it about gun control?  Or the fact he was raised by a single mother?  Everyone seems to have their own lens on the incident, and their own opinion on what to do in response.

A faulty logic chain

My own take: One man’s faulty logic said that he had been victimized, so he acted to even the score in an unthinkable way.  His logic went:  I did not get what I want + Women did get what I want = Women are to blame for me not getting what I want.   I hate not getting what I want = I hate women.

Had even one piece of that logic chain been dislodged, he may have stayed home that day.  We might have those women in our boardrooms, factories, design studios, schools, courtrooms.  As it is, we’ll never know what they might have done.

What I’d have said

When I think about what went through his mind that day, or in the days and weeks before, I wish I’d been able to tell him three things:

1) When one door closes, another door opens.  If you really want to be an engineer, get the courses, and apply again next year.  Lots of people have difficult in academic settings then go on to thrive in their profession; myself included.  Or maybe check out a related career:  a trade, a technology profession, a technician discipline or a drafting or design-related career; lots of overlap with engineers in terms of skills and opportunities.  Engineering is no ‘better’ than any other profession, and it’s not for everyone.

2) It’s a really good thing that there are women in engineering.  Women bring a diversity of thought, approach and strength to the profession that allows its benefits to reach more people.  Teams work better with women on them.  Many women engineers become excellent mentors and helpers to peers, male and female.   The same argument can be made for more visible minorities and new immigrants since they bring a perspective through their life experience.  Also, they make things much more interesting and vibrant!

3) There is more than enough space – for both genders – within our profession.  There are lots of opportunities and tons of work to do.  No need to fear women entering the profession because there is actually a shortage of engineers globally.  As the planet nears seven billion people and technology continues to change the way we live, work and connect to each other, we need more smart, divergent thinkers to solve ever more complicated problems.

Whether it’s designing gear for the next space mission to Mars, making companies work smarter, faster, cleaner and safer, or breaking down systemic issues that keep billions living in poverty, there is lots of work to do.

And, if I may be permitted to add in one last more defiant personal observation: we women engineers are tough.  We may leave the profession to raise babies, go to law school, volunteer, and start our own businesses, but we will never stop being engineers in response to hate and fear.

That’s just not what we’re made of.


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So what does an engineer do? 4 data points from real engineers

So what does an engineer do?  4 data points from real engineers

‘Engineer’ is an identity I have worn quite comfortably for the last decade or so, and it’s a profession I have enjoyed practicing, but when I started the Engineer Your Life project I realized I wasn’t clear even to me exactly what an engineer does.

Was it what I was doing?  Who could tell which activities were really engineering, and which ones were just, well, what I happened to be doing at the time?  When I made photo-copies, was that duplication engineering?  (Silly example, but you get my point).

As a starting point to figuring out just where that line lay between true engineering and incidental activities, I asked a group of fellow engineers:

What the single most important thing that your engineering education gave you?

since I knew that tell me how what they acquired at school actually gets used and which sits on the proverbial dusty top shelf of their minds, never to be used.

Some of the answers touched on the benefits of being an engineer, rather than the activities involved, which was nice to know but not very informative:

  • The freedom to take big, exciting risks, secure in the knowledge I will always have a job to fall back on because my skills are useful and transferable. I can get stuff done!
Some answers hinted at the benefits of the experience of engineering school itself, in that you find your tribe:
  •  My friends. The amazing women I met during my education are pillars of strength – they inspire me, encourage me to take risks, and love life. It also taught me how to live the life I love – and gave me my first opportunties to “write my chapter” differently.
  • Connection to other people like me…which gives courage to be even more me!
 Awww!  Very sweet.  But it does not really answer our question either.
Then we started getting somewhere:
  • Single most useful thing I learned: how to build and test hypotheses. Being an engineer, I took it for granted that this was the way people thought; after graduation I was amazed to see that most other people don’t think like that
  • An organized problem-solving approach that requires being explicit about your assumptions. Very useful in academic research, and in life.
  • The ability to think critically, the desire to challenge everything and the skills to sound like I know what I’m talking about. :):)
  • Critical, organized thinking, and a desire for making evidence-based decisions.
  • The ability to problem solve and to consider – and discard – ideas based on evidence and data until you find the best fit. Being comfortable with best fit rather than perfect fit.
  • And probably most important of all, understanding that the public good is paramount, tap, tap, tap.
Okay so to summarize.  What does an engineer do?
1) Think critically.  Respect evidence.  The ability to build and test hypotheses is thought to belong to the realm of pure science or research, but it nonetheless shows up as a well-worn tool of practicing engineers today.  Take an idea, strip it down, test it out, and put it back together.
2) Know your biases.  Explain yourself.  All that knowledge in your head is going nowhere and accomplishing nothing if you have no ability to relate your framework, approach, assumptions and ideas to those around you.
3) Solve problems.  Be comfortable with real life, not perfect conditions.  At some universities, including mine, the Engineering Faculty is referred to as ‘Applied Science’.  So don’t spend all your time nerding out on theory.  Roll up your sleeves and solve something.
4) Recognize your responsibility to public welfare. In Canada, we wear an iron ring to remind us of our responsibility to do our work properly.  The tap-tap-tap refers to the sound we make with the ring to taunt the younger, not-yet-ringed students.  The complete story of the iron ring is found here.
I have one more answer that doesn’t fit into the question I am exploring in this post, but it did make me laugh!
  • To see everything as black and white. Some times that cause issues on “normal” life (at home for example) :):)

How about you – do you agree that these were the most important takeaways from your engineering education?  How you do draw the line between engineering and not engineering?  Leave a comment or a tweet!

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Engineer Profile #1: The Engines of Democracy with Chris Iskander

Engineer Profile #1:  The Engines of Democracy with Chris Iskander

Hello engineers!  I am really excited to present the first in a series of interviews with engineers who have already done some life design, made some progress in their career and have a story to share.  The subject of the first Engineer Profile is Chris Iskander, mechanical engineer from Toronto Canada.

If you were hoping to collect more data on what fellow engineers are doing, look no further!

The Engines of Democracy with Chris Iskander
(interview run time 20 min – you can right-click to download,  left-click to play in a new window.)

The subject of today’s profile is the multi-talented Chris Iskander, who graduated from the University of Toronto with a Mechanical Engineering degree.  Today he works for Dominion Voting Systems, a company that provides products and services to support elections.

So Chris is responsible for the engines of democracy.  (I like to say so anyway!) Hence the title of this post.  Very timely topic considering tomorrow’s big election in the US, no?

He came on as employee #15 over eight years ago, when the company was just two years old.  He shares the reason that his company survived as a startup, and what he feels their biggest competitive advantage is and what makes him most proud to work there.

It’s really a fantastic interview.  He surprised me with a reference to something we all learned way back in high school.

He took the words right out of my mouth when it comes to true fulfilment in your life and career.

You might be surprised to hear his reasons for ignoring his father’s wishes, or to learn why he had to go to the Phillipines eight times in 2010!

Chris also very generously offered his own approach to making good career decisions.

He offered some tremendous advice to the engineer who is starting out:

“If you’re not happy, don’t internalize it. Don’t make it personal. Don’t let yourself believe it’s something negative about you.”

I’ll be interviewing more inspiring engineers in the weeks and months to come.   We hope you will find these interviews informative, thought-provoking and enjoyable, starting today with adrenaline-loving, often-traveling, highly-risk-tolerant Chris Iskander!

Would love to hear what you think of Chris’ advice or anything else we spoke about in the interview.  Drop me a comment or a tweet.

Engineering involves using both sides of your brain!



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