Episode 68 — Engineering Expert

expertJames Trevelyan speaks with us about the skills and talents of expert engineers, and how those of us who have not yet achieved “expert” status can improve our ability to complete engineering projects on time and within budget.

  • Brian feels he is becoming less of an expert as time goes along; there just seems to be so much to know!
  • Our guest is James Trevelyan, a professor of Mechatronics Engineering at The University of Western Australia.
  • Some of our listeners may remember Dr. Trevelyan from Episode 19. (Yes, Jeff said Episode 17 during the podcast, but he was wrong!)
  • Dr. Trevelyan has recently published a book, The Making of an Expert Engineer.
  • Our guest mentions the book by Louis Bucciarelli, Designing Engineers, as one of the few sources of information about what engineers actually do on the job.
  • Engineering provides great opportunities for making the world a better place… and for spending other people’s money!
  • Research indicates that engineers have trouble delivering reliable and predictable results.
  • Carmen quotes the singer Meatloaf, noting that “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.”
  • James mentions the accomplishments of C.Y. O’Connor, an engineer who oversaw the construction of a water pipeline across uncharted regions of Australia in the late 19th century.
  • Our guest feels the skills needed to drive projects to completion have been largely lost as experienced engineers retire.
  • While Jeff longs to take engineering students out onto the factory floor, James indicates that some students aren’t particularly keen about participating in plant trips.
  • Engineers spend a lot of time teaching others, even if on an informal basis.
  • Peer instruction has proven effective in helping college students learn new material.
  • James mentions our prior interview with Dave Goldberg, in Episode 65.
  • Once again, we mention the Grinter report (pdf), which changed the course of engineering education in the United States.
  • ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc.) is the organization that accredits most engineering programs in the United States.
  • James has spoken with corporate leaders who actively work to dismiss engineering employees, seeing the engineers as unable to produce predictable results.
  • Engineers have a reputation for being unable to communicate with those in other professions.
  • Listeners who are curious about accrual accounting are directed to Episode 34, Accounting for Engineers.
  • Expert engineers accurately forecast what can be done, then deliver on their promises.
  • An ability to avoid problems is often the mark of an expert engineer, and is more highly valued than the ability to solve problems.
  • “Prudent engineers build on past practice as much as they can.”
  • Engineers rely a lot on unwritten (implicit) knowledge.
  • Michael Polanyi was a philosopher who suggested that “we know more than we can tell.”
  • Explicit knowledge can be written down, and easily transferred; this type of knowledge forms the basis for much of what is taught in universities.
  • Expert engineers do not rely solely on their own knowledge, but know how to build on the knowledge and abilities of others.
  • Supplements to James’ book are available online, including a classification of engineering knowledge (pdf).
  • University grades don’t have much relation to engineering performance, at least as evaluated by supervisors.
  • Young engineers with an ability to obtain assistance from seasoned engineers are more likely to experience career success than are those who find themselves unable to garner expert support.
  • James hopes that senior engineers will begin cataloging concepts and ideas that younger engineers need to learn and understand.
  • One important skill that has been lost among the current generation of engineers is the art of writing of technical specifications.
  • While prior guest Dave Goldberg champions Noticing, Listening, and Questioning (NLQ), our current guest dedicates a chapter of his book to similar observational activities, which he designates the “three neglected skills:” listening, seeing, and reading.
  • We debated the relative merits of programming languages in Episode 64; James tells us that programming among engineers is most frequently performed with Excel (and its accompanying Visual Basic language).
  • James can be reached via his website: JamesPTrevelyan.com.

Thanks to Ruth Hartnup for the photo titled “Expert Ethan.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

5 thoughts on “Episode 68 — Engineering Expert”

  1. Enjoyed this episode.

    I am fascinated by this shift “within” engineering from the Engineer being “in control” (Reference: href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=by4lH2whhjk” title= “An Interview with Stanley Hooker” ) to this idea of the “Auger Engineer” (e.g Ancient Roman Auger) who reads the scientific entrails of non-scientific: expectations, plans, goals and outcomes. Is this forecasting ability well in line with the idea of the Engineer as a “domesticated breed” as referenced on page 72 in A Whole New Engineer?

    I suppose that my concern then is that “innovation” in the modern context has somehow falsely been claimed by those footing the bill rather then those doing the work — say like the building of cathedrals. Beautiful to behold, and a great deal of hard work, but their is only one Brunelleschi’s Dome.

    Is this reading off base? I am just a student and I really don’t know anything about anything but I am inferring that “innovation” is not part of standard workplace practice and instead the focus is on strictly the timely provision of product to required specification?

    And if this is the case the follow on question would be in what way can up and coming engineers and engineering students prepare themselves to take actions, with the esteem of their peers and employers, like that of Ferris?

    1. Goblin,
      Glad you liked the episode.

      I am not exactly sure I understand what you are getting at in your first paragraph, but I’ll try to respond. There have always been customers who set priorities. The video you listed (which was very interesting) really focuses on the WWII and post WWII world, and an industry very closely related to arms. From what I know every industry in that time was very focused on what can we do, and not what will it cost. Over the last few decades we have gone into a world where most organizations are facing budget issues. I see it as more a change in societal priorities than taking the engineer out of “being in charge”. Most of the engineers I work with are project managers, and we do a lot of innovation in how to build something cheaper without sacrificing function. That is as much engineering as getting more thrust, and still needs a good innovative engineer to do successfully.

      I also do not think that the sponsor taking credit is new, I guarantee Ford had help making the model-T, but he gets credit. (overly simple example, but you get my point I hope). It is also my opinion that the sponsor deserves recognition, they saw a great idea and paid for it, while that may not seem fair to someone who invents things, it is the cost of that funding (nothing is free).

      Engineering still requires innovation, you may not see big breakthroughs overnight but innovation is happening faster than ever, just in smaller steps that are not as noticeable. Every time a product is developed to spec (if that spec is more demanding than the last) something was innovated. It may not be as glamorous as the light bulb but for every major innovation thousands of engineers were working hard on other minor improvements (even back in the day).

      1. Adam
        Thanks for the reply, there is a real paucity of “real world” knowledge/ wisdom (mostly due to budgetary/resource restraints of my Pre-Engineering program) and this is why I enjoy the podcast as it gives insight into where I am headed.

        That said I might try and clarify my first paragraph. What I think I was getting at is that as you have stated the focus on innovation is now mostly on small improvements and it seems that budgetary chips are harder and harder to come by; it seems then that American Engineering isn’t really building “great projects” anymore.

        In a sentence. What part of the human experience of engineering has been lost between Stanley Hooker and now?

        Now what do I mean by that. France has the Millau Viaduct, Dubai has the Burj Khalifa, China has the LuPu bridge and there are countless other projects around the world that seem to speak to something that seems lost to the Current American Experience.

        I am fine with the idea of continuous improvement and small innovation; frankly, I wish this idea were the norm for all organizations and not just Engineering ones, but if continuous improvement is “all” that is going on in Engineering today then I feel that American Engineering isn’t “being all it can be” – please pardon my metaphor (it is late).

        All the focus on bringing things in on a tight schedule undercuts the will of the individual to take leaps of imagination — like one Gale Ferris as identified previously. A situation where the Engineer was the one who said it could be done, and no one else believed in him.

        It seems your interview brought to light how little faith the Western citizen has in Engineers, and I think this is a travesty.

        I realize much of engineering is run of the mill stuff where you have a responsibility to your client and company and that isn’t a bad thing. However it is a bad thing if all across Engineering there are no more engineers like Gale Ferris to build “Big Beacons” of both the community and the profession that in time become a source of pride. (like the examples cited above)

        What can I and others like me do to get into a position to be like Gale Ferris and to be poised to regain broad base support of the non-engineering public? What can we as engineering students do to build a more trusting relationship with the public at large? America needs its own Millau Viaduct or Burj Khalifa or LuPu Bridge and I want to find a way to be a part of that project and I want to do it in my lifetime …

        and we aren’t going to be able to do it until that trust as discussed at length in this podcast is regained.

        1. Ok well my response to the first part is; what about the I-phone, the Internet, computers, the cellular phone network. While they may not seem to be engineering feats of the scale of many large public works projects I would say they are. Having a device in your pocket that can access the knowledge or humanity (slight exaggeration) is an amazing achievement. Just because something is small does not stop it from being a big achievement.

          As for America having a large public works project, that challenge is more political than engineering (not that they are not related). For the next several years the focus of American public works agencies will be preserving the amazing works that were built during the depression and after WWII (interstate system, WPA projects, etc). It just happens that those pieces of infrastructure are nearing the design life, and need repair or replacement. Getting enough money to fix what we have is already a challenge. I would check out the ASCE report card. I really have no idea how to make the change from preservation to building again but if anyone has a good idea I would like to know.

          1. I do not mean to downplay the wonderful contributions that the information age has brought us and I am sorry if my comments were taken as such, they were not intended that way. There have been many advancements in these technologies in recent decades and I suspect there will be many more contributions in the future from the Software/Computer sides of Engineering.

            I guess as a pre-engineering student on the path to a Mechanical Engineering Degree and hopefully a Masters in Welding Engineering I just feel that there as been a loss of academic and public interest in the maintenance and advancement within the realm of what is traditionally thought of as “heavy industry”.

            Such heavy industry is after all the grand base upon which society rests, even as it has seemingly become transparent and out-of-the-public-mind in this information age. Someone has to provide power to those super-computers and data-centers and by extension all those protocols and programs that are processed with electricity on hardware.

            After writing my last reply I was struck that I had mentioned only Grand Civil projects. As I thought about it I was leaving out projects like the “Triple E” Super Container Ship and the Airbus A380. Both are massive projects and they were also projects that seemed to express a certain pride for their builder’s and customers alike (even as they are built part by part by divisions of MNCs around the world and shipped for final assembly). And to be fair I think some projects of similar scope might indeed be in progress on the shores of America (the idea of a manned Mars mission comes to mind).

            I think you are on to something when you mention the fact that much of this is political and with that in mind I am only aware of the ASME doing extensive outreach work in lieu of the lack of government involvement in such endeavors (again I think there was a brief historical bit about this in the text A Whole New Engineer)

            I don’t mean to ham up the conversation, thank you for taking time out of your day and having patience to put up with a lowly pre-engineering Student. I have found this an engaging and valuable conversation. Thank you.

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