Episode 74 — Ideas Without Words

lightbulbElectrical engineer Bob Schmidt joins the discussion of how engineers convey important concepts without using words.

  • Beyond writing down a few words to remind him of key details, Brian likes to dive straight into analysis or development when he has a new design idea.
  • Brian often uses LTSpice to analyze electrical circuits.
  • A debate ensues about the importance of being “neat” while making design sketches, and how the purpose of such drawings differs between mechanical and electrical engineers.
  • Our guest for this episode is Bob Schmidt, who previously joined us to talk about “Troubleshooting in Episode 48.” Bob is the author of “An Engineer’s Guide to Solving Problems.”
  • We mull over Chris Gammell’s recent comment (at 9:39 mark) that the NPR radio show “Car Talk” was never specifically about cars, but rather about the process of troubleshooting automotive problems.
  • Jeff shares a troubleshooting story related to replacing a water spigot on the outside of his house.
  • Carmen, Brian, Adam, and Bob take turns telling their own horror stories about plumbing.
  • The importance of eye protection is emphasized by some misadventures endured by Brian and Carmen.
  • Jeff shares a quote by Heather Martin about the relationship between drawing and thinking.
  • Our guest argues that “Ideas with Fewer Words” would be a more accurate description of how engineers use figures and diagrams.
  • Bob is especially irritated by engineers who fail to include units on their graphs.
  • Block diagrams can be useful in organizing thoughts about system inputs and outputs.
  • Jeff shares his experience of trying to implement IDEF0 for documenting manufacturing processes.
  • While whiteboards are good for gathering group input, Bob emphasizes the need to quickly save the results before the whiteboard can be erased, causing critical notes to be permanently lost.
  • Jeff and Bob lament the difficulty of keeping track of one’s ideas over the years.
  • Describing a figure as it is drawn on the whiteboard can help promote a common understanding of the figure’s meaning, claims Jeff.
  • Mind maps can help organize seemingly unrelated ideas and thoughts.
  • Bob creates lists in Excel to capture his ideas.
  • Dan Roam’s book, “The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures,” is mentioned by Jeff.
  • Bob and Jeff talk about drawing on paper napkins; is it just an “engineering” thing?
  • Our guest shares his success in using “annotated photographs” to share information with colleagues.
  • Forward looking infrared (FLIR) images have proven useful for Brian in his professional work.
  • Bob notes the growing interdependence of all the engineering fields.
  • Coming out of college, Jeff interviewed with Cray Computer, and was disappointed to learn that they mostly needed help with thermal issues.
  • Jeff shares another troubleshooting story, this time related to his problems establishing good TV reception.

Thanks to Ramunas Geciauska for use of the photo titled “Idea Bulb.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 73 — Review 2014

fireworksAdam, Brian, Carmen and Jeff discuss highlights and back stories from episodes of The Engineering Commons podcast that were released in 2014.

  • Carmen and Adam explain why certain beers benefit from aging.
  • It is suggested we introduce canon for our podcast, so as to keep track of “reality” for those multiverses in which our errors aren’t really errors at all, thus helping us maintain retroactive continuity (retcon) across our episodes.   :)
  • We’re always looking for new guests to discuss their adventures in engineering, so if you’d like to join us (or you want to suggest a colleague), you can fire off an email to admin -=+ at +=- theengineeringcommons.com.
  • Adam led us through a discussion of “Project Management” in Episode 47.
  • We discuss why customers are rarely willing to fund open-ended “science projects.”
  • We talked with Bob Schmidt about “Troubleshooting” in early February, 2014. His book is “An Engineer’s Guide to Solving Problems.”
  • Our next episode discussed “Women in Engineering” with guest Cherish Bauer-Reich.
  • Mike Parks joined us to talk about the “Art of Engineering” in Episode 50. Mike produces the S.T.E.A.M. Power podcast.
  • We digress into a discussion about wirewrapping.
  • Product Development” was the topic of our next episode, which featured guest Dave Young.
  • We published our episode about “Engineering Pranks” on April Fool’s Day.
  • An interview with Carmen will appear in an upcoming issue of Circuit Cellar.
  • Storytelling” was the subject of our conversation with Craig Sampson.
  • Our next episode featured Kai Zhuang, talking about how engineers frequently feel they are perceived as nothing more than a “Brain on a Stick.”
  • We welcomed Clay Coons back to the podcast in mid-May to talk about “Engines.”
  • Todd Nelson regaled us with stories of the analog semiconductor industry in an episode titled “Analog Footsteps.”
  • We discussed essential elements of engineering in our next episode, “What Engineers Do.”
  • Due to having a guest bow out at the last minute, we produced a very off-the-cuff episode that we called “Miscellany.”
  • Jeff recounts (once more) the central plot to Fredrick Pohl’s short story from 1954, “The Midas Plague,” in which the rich consume less, while the poor are forced to consume the glut of goods and services produced by robots.
  • Brian mentions a YouTube video titled “Humans Need Not Apply.”
  • In Episode 59, we talked with Mark French about “Engineering Technology.”
  • Pamela Rogalski spoke with us about “Social License” in our following episode.
  • In the episode titled “Renaissance Engineer,” we talked with Janusz Kozinski about founding the Lassonde School of Engineering.
  • Megan Pollack chatted with us about being a good engineering “Role Model.”
  • We considered the pros and cons of going back to school for a business degree in our conversation with Michael Lachman, titled “Engineering MBA.”
  • Although we attempted to answer “Reddit Questions” in Episode 64, our answers were almost always that “it depends.”
  • Our next episode allowed us to talk with Dave Goldberg and Catherine Whitney about “A Whole New Engineer.”
  • Nuts and Bolts” were discussed in Episode 66 and, amazingly, Brian feels like this was one of the more useful episodes that we’ve produced.
  • John Chidgey was kind enough to join us to talk about PLCs and podcasting in the episode we called “Pragmatic.”
  • We welcomed James Trevelyan to our podcast to talk about what it takes to be an “Engineering Expert.”
  • Gary Bertoline spoke with us about engineering “Credentials” in our following episode.
  • We learned about starting up a side business in our discussion with “Awkward Engineer” Sam Feller.
  • Former co-host Chris Gammell joined us to talk about design tradeoffs and parametric part searches in an episode titled “Design Avenues.”
  • In our final episode of the year, we talked about “Getting Stuff Done.”
  • Thanks to our listeners for downloading The Engineering Commons podcast! We hope you enjoy great success in 2015!

Thanks to Scott Cresswell for use of the photo titled “Docklands Fireworks (Explored!).” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 72 — Getting Stuff Done

personal_kanbanCarmen, Adam, and Jeff address a few methods by which engineers can track, organize, and prioritize the tasks for which they are responsible.

  • Jeff admits that he often struggles more with deciding what to do than with getting something done.
  • Even though Chris is not with us this week, we reference once of his favorite books, “The Dip,” by Seth Godin.
  • On a recent weekend, Jeff got the chance to meet listener Ioannis Andrianakis, founder and technical director of Plex Tuning.
  • Phone calls are dead, except for those who believe that phone calls aren’t dead.
  • To-do lists have been around for a long while, although not everybody is a fan.
  • One variation on the todo list, the 1-3-5 rule, suggests writing down one big task, three medium-sized tasks, and five little tasks to accomplish during the day.
  • Another scheme for improving todo lists is the Auto Focus system, created by Mark Forster.
  • A book titled “The Progress Principle” contends that managers should ensure their employees achieve steady forward progress in meaningful work. Jeff has reviewed the book elsewhere.
  • One of the best-known productivity systems is the Getting Things Done (GTD) method, outlined in a book of the same name that was authored by David Allen (and not Paul Allen as stated in the podcast).
  • The five steps of the GTD method are:
    1. Capture everything on your mind.
    2. Clarify the meaning of each task.
    3. Organize your efforts.
    4. Reflect on your progress and process.
    5. Engage in getting tasks completed.
  • An extensive review of the GTD method can be found in Episodes 95, 96, and 97 of the Back to Work podcast by Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin.
  • At one point Jeff used the Franklin Planner system for staying organized at work.
  • The Pomodoro Technique is a means for improving one’s time management.
  • Many apps are available for implementing the Pomodoro method.
  • An analog note-taking system for staying organized is the Bullet Journal.
  • Jeff is currently using Nozbe for keeping track of his “To Do” items.
  • Most people dislike being told what to do.
  • Carmen recently came across an article about the power of checklists.
  • Kanban is a method for controlling inventory flow within a production facility.
  • Personal Kanban is a means for completing one’s tasks without getting too overloaded.
  • A whiteboard is often used to implement Personal Kanban.
  • Carmen references the Pragmatic podcast episodes titled “Maximum Erasability” (23 and 23a) that discuss whiteboard use. (You can also listen to our prior interview with fellow podcaster John Chidgey, who produces the Pragmatic podcast.)
  • The Trello web app can be used for implementing Personal Kanban in a digital manner.
  • One method for overcoming procrastination, made famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, is called “Don’t Break the Chain (DBTC).”
  • Demetri Martin described his implementation of DBTC in an old episode of the Nerdist podcast.
  • Jeff references “A Cranky Pessimist’s Guide to Getting Things Done.”
  • Evernote, Dropbox, and Google Drive provide useful tools for storing information on the web.
  • Jeff uses pocket-sized Moleskine Cahier notebooks for jotting down information during the day. Carmen prefers the memo books from Field Notes.
  • Adam uses an Excel file for tracking tasks, and prints out a copy of the spreadsheet to carry with him when he is away from his desk.
  • Windows users can use Notepad to track activities, generating timestamps by pressing the F5 key.

Thanks to Dennis Hamilton for use of the photo titled “Productivity: Wrapping up the First Stage of a Special Project.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Practical insights for the engineering crowd