Episode 96 — Perceptions

perceptionsThis episode of The Engineering Commons finds the gang discussing how engineers are perceived by those outside the engineering field.

  • Jeff accidentally reveals the plot of a well-known fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin, while sharing a childhood recollection.
  • At the end of 1981, when Jeff graduated from college, inflation in the U.S. was around 10%, six-month certificates of deposit (CDs) were paying 13.1% interest, and 30-year mortgages carried a hefty 17% interest rate. He was happy to find a job (at any salary).
  • Between 1994 and the top of the dot-com bubble, Brian opines, it was a prevalent attitude that an engineering career could lead to significant wealth.
  • As of 2006, a third of S&P 500 CEOs had undergraduate engineering degrees, says Business Insider.
  • Jeff remembers working with secretaries who would type his hand-written memos onto company letterhead using a IBM Selectric typewriter.
  • As recently as 2011, there was but one engineer in the US Congress. However, there are currently seven engineers in the House of Representatives, and one engineer in the Senate (says a Congressional Research Service report).
  • From the “give-yourself-a-pat-on-the-back” category, Adam reminds us of the graph titled, This Chart Shows Just How Much Smarter Engineers Are Than Everyone Else.
  • We discuss whether engineers really are a “different breed.”
  • Carmen thinks the TV series Silicon Valley does a reasonable job of portraying engineers.
  • Episode 40 of this podcast, titled “Engineering Fiction,” discussed how engineers are depicted in today’s mass media.
  • It turns out that Bill Nye (the Science Guy), is a Mechanical Engineer who used to work for Boeing.
  • A common myth is that engineering school is difficult; in fact, it’s brutal.
  • Brian notes the difference in permanence between electrical and civil engineering projects.
  • A healthy number of engineering students graduate with the misconception that engineers work alone and need not follow directions.
  • A Mythbusters episode (#222) demonstrated that unassigned seating results in the fastest boarding time for a passenger plane, but also generates the least satisfaction among passengers.
  • With business casual attire the current norm, engineers don’t have to worry very often about the social significant of wearing a “red power tie.”
  • Carmen notes that our past episodes with Cherish Bauer-Reich and Sophi Kravitz may shed some light on additional stereotypes encountered by women entering the engineering field.

Thanks to Steve Jurvetson for the photo titled “Widening Perception.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 95 — Details

detailsBrian, Carmen and Jeff discuss the role of details in engineering projects, and how one goes about evaluating, managing, sharing, and documenting critical minutia.

  • In the introduction, Jeff misses the detail that this podcast is published in November, not October.
  • Carmen doesn’t mind sweating the details, but reviewing documentation for typographical errors is not his favorite task.
  • It is often said that “the devil is in the details.”
  • We continue to look for guest and topic suggestions from our listeners, so feel free to send us a note with your ideas.
  • A previous guest, James Trevelyan, has written about the value of engineers, and how uncertainty reduction is an important contribution of the engineering profession.
  • Uncertainty is frequently treated as a statistical issue.
  • Brian relates a recent situation in which he burned through many hours trying to uncover a programming detail buried in the documentation.
  • Electronic circuits can behave badly in “high EMI” environments, where EMI stands for “electromagnetic interference.”
  • Jeff justifies his “pi multiplier” concept (see this podcast’s first episode) with the “cone of uncertainty” used by software developers.
  • It’s Brian’s opinion that engineers often fail to utilize the formal methods found in other professions when managing a multitude of critical details.
  • Jeff claims that engineering standards ease the burden of dealing with frequently encountered details.
  • Of course, as Carmen observes, the problem sometimes lies in choosing the “right” standard.
  • Searching a large solution space for potential design details can be a frustratingly slow process, says Jeff.
  • Brian always tries to have a backup plan, so he is not “checkmated” by a single detail.
  • The amount of documentation appropriate for each detail seems related to the detail’s expected and potential costs.
  • Creating a documentation hierarchy can provide needed information without overwhelming customers, notes Carmen.
  • Humans quickly become inured to a surplus of details (or warnings).
  • Brian has found modularization (it’s really a word!) to be a good means for keeping details from interfering with one another during the development process.
  • Software packages are available for companies wishing to implement enterprise resource planning (ERP).
  • Git has become very popular as a version control system.
  • Hardware changes can be tracked in Git using visual diffs.

Thanks to Frédéric Bisson for the photo titled “Détail de la machine à vapeur Merlin.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 94 — Relevance

usefulartsThis epiosde of The Engineering Commons finds Adam, Brian, and Jeff discussing what it means to be relevant, and how engineers can increase their relevance on the job.

  • Brian is not entirely sure what a thought leader is, but he’s pretty certain he doesn’t want to be one.
  • However, Brian invents the perfect term for someone who’s the opposite of a thought leader; they must be a thought-hole! (You heard it here first…)
  • Jeff opines that one’s relevance is largely dependent on others; seeing yourself as relevant is not nearly as important as having others perceive you as relevant.
  • Malcolm Gladwell has written a magazine article for The New Yorker about the difficulty of matching candidates with jobs, which he calls the “quarterback problem.”
  • Brian notes that engineers often get hired based on the skill set needed to complete a behind-schedule project, rather than their abilities in getting a fresh project off to a good start.
  • Lewin’s change management model (unfreeze, change, refreeze) is referenced by Jeff.
  • We talked with Kathryn Jablokow about creative diversity in Episode 76; it’s possible to be creative through both adaption and innovation.
  • Jeff makes the point that it’s possible to be relevant in many different ways, ranging from abstract observations to specific implementations.
  • Daniel Pink authored the 2012 book “To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others.”
  • Jeff inquires if Daniel Pink has a valid hypothesis; is it true that “we’re all in sales now?”
  • We envision a class in self-promotion. Or as Brian terms it, learning the proper amount of humble-bragging. (Apparently, the proper amount is little, as humble-bragging isn’t the best form of self-promotion.)
  • The ABC mantra of sales, according to author Pink, is no longer “always be closing,” but is now “attunement, buoyancy, and clarity.”
  • Brian references Occam’s razor in describing the difficulty one encounters in pursuing clarity of meaning and intent.
  • Robert Greene’s book “Mastery” has been on Brian’s reading list for a while.
  • A 2013 article by Jason Nazar, in Forbes magazine, discusses “The 21 Principles of Persuasion.”
  • Jeff makes the case that one can be relevant as a leader, follower, or rabble-rouser. His mental image? The “marching band” scene from the movie Animal House.
  • A 2014 book, “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies,” is tangentially mentioned by Brian.
  • Brian doesn’t think our future is as distopian as predicted by the YouTube video, “Humans Need Not Apply.”
  • Jeff suggests building an emotional bond between humans and artificially created art is difficult (apparently forgetting about Japanese singing sensation Hatsune Miku).
  • Adam puts out a request for a few engineering robots, if any of our listeners can access advanced AI technology.

Thanks to Richard Adams for the photo titled “Useful arts?” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Practical insights for the engineering crowd