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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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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