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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What’s the engineering type?

During a recent twitter chat with the Big Beacon community, the question came up of whether in order to be successful in the profession, an engineer will always need to be “a certain type” of person. It got me to thinking: what is that engineering type?

(By the way the Big Beacon twitter chats are every Wednesday evening at 8 pm ET – please join us to discuss the present and future of engineering education! We touch on all sorts of interesting topics and welcome your voice to the conversation.)

Is there an ‘engineering type’?

image via @theSecondMrHan

Are engineers all the same? image via @theSecondMrHan

This is a really interesting question; on the one hand we want to say that we are open and inclusive and that all types are welcome.  On the other hand it would tough to ignore the fact that many engineers do tend to have similar personalities and traits in common.  I have had this experience at engineering networking events and conferences – there is often an instant recognition in meeting someone who shares your professional background.

The value of defining an engineering ‘type’ or identity is that it makes our culture stronger, makes the stories easier to tell.  It’s kind of cool knowing that you belong to a group – an engineering family if you will.  Even though they may be strangers they share common ground with you, care about many of the things you care about, face many of the same challenges, and maybe even share some of your personality quirks!

Another perspective

Then again some engineers may not share those ‘engineer-type’ traits – does that mean that they can’t or shouldn’t be engineers?  The risk of defining this culture too narrowly that we stop being inclusive and open-minded about the value that other perspectives and thinking styles could bring. We risk missing out on the benefits of diversity – known among other things to be an absolute necessity for innovation, creativity and profitability in business.

More specifically to the engineering profession, we risk becoming too insular and isolated if we define our identity too narrowly.  This is bad for business.  How are we going to serve the needs of society without having them represented within our own ranks? I was recently quoted in a special report about Engineering in Canada (check bottom of page 2) about this very topic.

A diversity of diversities

Since I am a woman, my comments are often taken to be about having more women in engineering, but I believe that all types of diversity (personality, strengths, traits, interests, age, as well as race, ethnicity and gender) are beneficial – I would even say crucial to the future of our profession.

Every type as the engineer type

As Big Beacon founder Dave Goldberg tweeted last night:  #BigBeacon would like to see every type be ‘the engineering type’.  In the professional field made up of ‘Whole New Engineers’ an envisioned in the Big Beacon manifesto, provided that a student has the ability and the willingness to work hard to solve important problems, constantly make things better, work in teams, design the future and make the world a better place, the engineering profession will take one look at them and say:  Yup – that’s our type!

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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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