All posts by Jeff Shelton

Episode 7 — In the Zone

What is it like for an engineer to be “in the zone?” Are there any good techniques for finding such a “flow” in your engineering work? We discuss these issues in this week’s episode.

  • Chris likes the performance of leaded solder, but recognizes the importance of moving to a lead-free alternative. This transition in solder composition was largely driven by the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (or RoHS).
  • The problem of tin whiskers has the aerospace industry continuing to use leaded solder.
  • Chris has slipped “into the zone” while soldering, and Jeff has similarly found the “flow” while working on CAD drawings.
  • Time seems to fly by when one is in the zone, and the process can be both physically and mentally exhausting.
  • Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has theorized that moments of flow occur when we activate so many neurological functions that we can no longer maintain awareness of our own activities. Thus, we lose any sense of self, and become wholly engrossed in the moment.
  • A blog entry about creative flow, written by Everett Bogue, was recently published on the site Zen Habits. It is noted that achieving flow can be difficult.
  • Suggested steps for achieving flow are:
    1. Pick a enjoyable, challenging activity
    2. Eliminate distractions
    3. Think before you do
    4. Isolate yourself
    5. Let go
    6. Give yourself a time limit
    7. Keep moving
    8. Don’t think
    9. Practice
  • Gamification uses game design techniques to enhance non-game contexts.
  • In a recent YouTube clip, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek claims that happiness is rarely a driving desire in creative endeavors.
  • The topic of what inspires people to take action is covered in Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
  • We learn that Jeff will listen to (yawn) smooth jazz while working. Chris, on the other hand, can crank away while listening to techno music.
  • Clips of white, pink, or brown noise can be found online at SimplyNoise.com. These are useful for drowning out unwanted background noise in the work environment.
  • John Cook claims that Mental Context Switches are Evil. It’s tough to stay in the zone if you’re constantly having to think about the tools you are using, and the context in which they work.
  • Both Chris and Jeff have experimented with the Pomodoro technique, in which tasks are broken into 20 minute work sessions. Numerous apps are available for tracking tasks and interruptions, if you don’t like using pencil and paper.
  • Cubicles were created for office equipment manufacturer Herman Miller by designer Robert Propst.
  • Jeff’s additional suggestions for getting into the zone include:
    1. Start with a clean desk
    2. Use sketches to capture relationships
    3. Leave a foothold for the next day
    4. Take a power nap when struggling
  • Some companies provide napping rooms for employees to refresh themselves mid-day.
  • Today’s engineers have to maintain a creative edge, as routine functions and duties can be computerized or outsourced.

Thanks again to Ian for being on The Engineering Commons this week. To catch each update as soon as it’s posted, be sure to subscribe to the feed!

Thanks to loop_oh for the speed zone photo, titled “30 zone.”

Episode 5 — Recruitment

In a discussion with Jim Heilman of Discovery Personnel, a mechanical engineer who left industry after two decades to recruit technical talent in the plastics industry, we examine how engineers can best work with recruiters to further their own careers, as well as to find engineering talent for their businesses.

  • Following up from the prior episode about design thinking, Jeff notes that a movie titled Designing & Thinking is being shown in selected theaters around the country. Anybody have a review for us?
  • Recruiters serve as an intermediary between job seekers and employers.
  • Some of the big job databases online include Monster, CareerBuilder, and Indeed.
  • Talented individuals who don’t really want to be contacted about job opportunities are known as passive candidates. These are the people that recruiters work the hardest to reach.
  • Jim notes that networking is still the best way to find a new position. Salespeople are good contacts, as they are in frequent communication with other businesses in your industry.
  • A good reference on networking, and the job search process, is the book What Color is My Parachute?
  • Jim reflects that he’s been able to stay competitive in recruiting because, in the words of Rick Springfield, We All Need A Human Touch.
  • If you’re searching for a job, you need to tailor your resume to the company and job for which you’re applying.
  • When talking with potential employers, try to imagine what they are looking for in an employee, rather than focusing on your own desires for salary and vacation.
  • It is far more common for new hires to be let go because they don’t fit with a company’s culture, rather than for technical incompetence.
  • Jim is of the opinion that listing yourself as a candidate on Monster.com can “cheapen” how potential employers view your services. It is better to respond to a job that has already been posted. However, many recruiters rely on Monster and CareerBuilder to find candidates.
  • In recent weeks, Jim was looking for an engineer who was familiar with Swiss turning machines, which produce features of very high accuracy.
  • While a project portfolio is important, the resume remains the best starting point for gaining entry into most companies.
  • Jim estimates that there are 150,000 recruiters in the United States, and they all have trouble finding candidates that can meet the increasingly specific requirements demanded by employers. Jim likens the process to finding a purple squirrel.
  • The cost of using a recruiter is steep, often 30% of a candidate’s first year salary. Thus, a company working through a recruiter is experiencing a lot of pain, and is anxious to find a qualified employee. This cost is normally paid by the employer, which means that recruiters are generally looking out for the best interests of the hiring firm, not the candidate.
  • Networking is important when trying to hire engineering talent, as well as in conducting a job search.
  • As a hiring manager, be aware that recruited employees are only guaranteed to stay with your firm for a short term, often only 30 days. However, Jim estimates the early departure rate for his placements as being fairly low, around 1 in 100.
  • Jim Heilman can be reached at Discovery Personnel, and you can follow him on Twitter.

Have you subscribed yet? It’s the easiest way to hear when there’s a new episode. We plan for every 2 weeks. But who can remember that? Just subscribe! Email or RSS reader or Podcatcher.

Thanks to Victor 1558 for the photograph.

Episode 4 — Design Thinking

In this episode, we discuss “design thinking,” a problem-solving approach that is now applied in business and education, as well as in the creation of new products and services. We talk with Jim Tappel, a professor at the University of Cincinnati and former IDEO employee, about how engineers might best coexist with, or even embrace, this approach to discovering new solutions.

  • Jeff once used the intro and outro music of a Dire Straits song, Industrial Disease, in the background of a video featuring a robotic gripper he had designed.
  • Jim is currently involved with Cooperative Education at the University of Cincinnati. At a previous point in his career, Jim worked for the well-known design firm, IDEO.
  • An article that tells designers to excite engineers with performance issues is The Key to Sustainable Product Creation: The Marriage of Engineering and Design.
  • Tracy Kidder’s book, The Soul of a New Machine is referenced by Jim as documenting one corporation’s willingness to fail.
  • A series of increasingly capable robots from the movie, “The Incredibles,” is noted by Chris; he is probably thinking of the Omnidroids?
  • Swiss watch manufacturers thought outside the box in creating Swatch watches.
  • “Design Thinking” covers a broad swath of ideas, as evidenced by its entry in Wikipedia.
  • Eddie Obeng has written about “foggy” projects in his book New Rules for the New World: Cautionary Tales for the New World Manager. Such efforts lack a clear objective, and the existence of any workable solution is uncertain.
  • Jeff mentions a book by the CEO of IDEO, Tim Brown: Change by Design.
  • We learn about the importance of “kiss off” and “suck back” in making toothpaste enticing to consumers.
  • Jim estimates that when coming up with new ideas, the success rate is about 2%; it takes the courage to generate a lot of mediocre and bad concepts to find a winning solution.
  • In reference to a Dan Saffer video about design thinking, Jim notes that there is more to the methodology than putting a whole bunch of post-it notes up on the wall.

Have you subscribed yet? It’s the easiest way to hear when there’s a new episode. We plan for every 2 weeks. But who can remember that? Just subscribe! Email or RSS reader or Podcatcher.

Thanks to Dawn D for the photograph from Design 2020.