All posts by Jeff Shelton

Episode 14 — Superstars

Chris and Jeff talk about how one might go about becoming an engineering “superstar.”

  • Neither Jeff or Chris have been particularly successful at figuring out how to advance their careers in large organizations, so they may not be the best at describing how one moves upward through the corporate structure.
  • A recent episode of This American Life talked about teaching networking skills to schoolkids, suggesting that engineers could also learn the relationship skills needed to move up the organizational ladder.
  • Engineers often find themselves having to take on managerial duties mid-career if they want to see their salary increase.
  • People want comfort and familiarity in their business dealings, so they are attracted to those who make them feel good about themselves and their situation.
  • Many organizations require advancing engineers to complete Six Sigma projects.
  • Organizations are rarely meritocracies, much to the chagrin of technically-oriented engineers.
  • A recent study at Harvard showed that bosses are less stressed out than their employees, mostly because they have more control over their activities.
  • Chris found an article titled “How to be a Star Engineer.” For those with access to the archives of IEEE Spectrum, the article is on pages 51–58 of volume 36, issue 10, from October, 1999. The text of this article is currently floating around online as a PDF file.
  • The book associated with this article is How to Be a Star at Work: 9 Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed, by Robert E. Kelley.
  • Strategy 1: Blazing Trails — Demonstrate initiative, by seeking out new responsibilities, undertaking extra efforts for the benefit of others, and filling the gaps between job descriptions.
  • According to the Peter Principle, employees tend to rise to their highest level of incompetence.
  • Strategy 2: Knowing Who Knows — Build a professional network that provides access to needed support at crucial times.
  • Chris has found that having curiosity and providing value are useful in building relationships.
  • Strategy 3: Proactive Self-Management — Honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses, then work to improve your value to the organization.
  • Strategy 4: Getting the Big Picture — Seek an understanding of the perspectives and values of other groups and functions within the organization.
  • Strategy 5: The Right Kind of Followership — Be a follower that makes your manager successful, rather than one who simply follows orders.
  • Strategy 6: Teamwork as Joint Ownership of a Project — Look to improve the structures that support and enhance group dynamics, in addition to being a “team player.”
  • Seth Godin has written a book called The Dip, which proposes that superstars have the ability to quickly escape dead ends, while knowing when to stick with important projects.
  • Strategy 7: Small-L Leadership — Approach leadership as a strategy for influencing others to unite on a substantial task, rather than issuing commands from above.
  • Jeff likes the book Managing Leadership by Jim Stroup, which makes the argument that leadership emanates from the organization, rather than from senior management.
  • Strategy 8: Street Smarts — Having political and social savvy is quite beneficial in moving upward through an organization.
  • Strategy 9: Show and Tell — Getting noticed, for good reasons, is important for moving up in a company. Getting noticed in a manner that promotes a common theme about your talents is even better.
  • There are good reasons to stay at a company for a decade or more. Even hard-charging, well-respected CEOs have trouble transferring their skills to new organizations.

Thanks to Elisabeth Audrey for the photo titled “Don’t Worry.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson

Episode 13 — Free Agency

In this episode, Chris and Jeff discuss engineers who find employment on a project-to-project basis, rather than signing on for a full time job.

  • Our guest is Stephen Kesich, a recently graduated mechatronics engineer who is now residing in Southern California.
  • Stephen reports that his classmates experienced difficulty finding full-time employment in their respective engineering fields.
  • Knowledge of specific CAD software, such as CATIA or SolidWorks, is often important in landing a job in the field of mechanical design.
  • Networking played a key role in helping Stephen find employment, as a friend’s father offered him an engineering job.
  • Chris also found several of his engineering jobs through networking, despite his initial dislike for the concept.
  • While a cooperative education program wasn’t in place at Stephen’s school, he managed to construct his own industrial connections.
  • Stephen found LinkedIn to be an important avenue for making engineering connections.
  • Finding housing for short-term projects is difficult, as month-to-month leases can be “massively” expensive.
  • What Color is Your Parachute? is a classic job-search book that recommends many of the networking steps that Stephen has implemented on his own.
  • Chris mentions a xkcd strip that provides a “cheat sheet” about which sports are in season.
  • Non-disclosure agreements cover the intellectual property that contract employees access.
  • Chris and Jeff haggle over the differences between contractors and consultants.
  • Despite enjoying his contract work, Stephen looks forward to someday having a steady job.
  • Daniel Pink wrote about free agent employment in his 2001 book, Free Agent Nation.
  • Health insurance is generally not offered to contract employees.
  • If you’re not a full-time employee, and work in the US as an independent contractor, you may receive a reporting of your earnings via a Form 1099.
  • Jeff asks about the prevalence of Google-style interview questions.
  • Chris likes to ask interviewees about their hobbies, believing a resume is best read from the bottom up.
  • It’s often a difficult decision whether to remain a generalist, or become a specialist in your engineering field.
  • Going through a site like Quirky is a new way to develop a product.
  • Maintaining an online presence is likely to be of growing importance, as employers search for engineers who are already up-to-speed on a given subject.
  • Chris is currently reading The Startup of You, by a co-founder of LinkedIn.
  • Stephen can be reached through comments to this post.

Thanks to Ed Yourdon for the photo titled “Laptop Man.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson

Episode 12 — Ethics

What obligations do engineers have to others? Where do the lines of legality, morality, and ethics intersect? Chris and Jeff discuss engineering ethics in this episode.

  • Our guest is Karl Stephan, professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University.
  • Both Chris and Karl have enjoyed the BBQ at The Salt Lick, which Chris claims is the “world’s best.”
  • Karl was first inspired to consider the ethical aspects of engineering by J.P Moreland.
  • A leading voice for engineering ethics is the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT).
  • Surveys of engineering schools, conducted by Karl a number of years ago, revealed that ethics didn’t receive a lot of emphasis.
  • The subject of ethics concerns one’s professional obligations, a duty to follow codes of behavior that are deemed important for a particular field.
  • Texas A&M has offered a well-regarded engineering ethics course for a number of years.
  • Joseph Herkert, of Arizona State University, divides ethical issues into two categories: microethics and macroethics. Karl has a blog post about this catagorization.
  • Microethics involve local situations and dilemmas, while macroethics consider larger societal implications of technology. Most engineers have to deal with microethic issues.
  • “Hot button” issues for engineering ethics include implanted chips, energy policy, computers and communications, privacy, security, and military technologies.
  • New engineering grads face the ethical choice of selecting a company for whom they are going to work. Money is not the only issue to be considered.
  • Chris recalls a TED talk by Daniel Pink (that has since been animated), identifying that people are most motivated by the opportunity for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Daniel Pink’s book on the subject is Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
  • A new type of legal entity that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems is called a B Corporation.
  • There are no “rules” for engineering ethics, just guidelines. Even great moral dilemmas, such as whether to go to war, have no rules, but rather a set of considerations related to the morality and justness of the cause.
  • Jeff recalls a recent Radiolab episode that discussed how people have trouble making color distinctions when there is no word available for that range of hues. He speculates that engineers may have trouble distinguishing ethics nuances unless they’ve discussed such issues.
  • As an example of the clarifying power of words, Karl references a book by Yves Simon that highlights the differences between “authority” and “authoritarianism.”
  • Engineering ethics usually only becomes a subject of public discussion when things go wrong.
  • “Near” failures are often a clue of impending “actual” disasters. The Challenger O-ring failure is such an example.
  • Risk assessment is related to the field of engineering ethics.
  • “Causes” of engineering failure may include organizational culture, societal emphasis, and external occurrences, as well as technical decisions.
  • Whistleblowers are almost always fired, and often lose professional contacts.
  • There is no guarantee that a society will continue to produce engineers.
  • The most common personality types for engineers, as determined by a Myers-Briggs test, are ISTJ for students, and INTJ for professors and consulting engineers.
  • Ethical situations don’t frequently arrive with a large warning sign. That’s why it’s important to think about such situations ahead of time, so you know what to do when a crisis arises.
  • Karl’s writings can be found on the Engineering Ethics Blog, and he can be reached by email.
  • More information can be found at the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Research, the National Science Foundation’s Ethics Center, the Texas A&M ethics course, and the National Institute for Engineering Ethics.

Thanks to Suzanne Hamilton for the photo of a facepalming statue. Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson