Tag Archives: communication

Episode 101 — Effective Email

BlackberryEmailElectrical engineer Bob Schmidt joins Adam, Carmen, Brian and Jeff to talk about the importance of making a good impression, and delivering the intended message, with effective email.

  • Jeff readily admits that he doesn’t use newer communication channels such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.
  • Rather than use Instagram, Jeff has a Kodak carousel projector in his basement for showing slides. (An episode from the TV show Mad Men gave rise to a demonstration of the carousel projector.)
  • Brian has fond memories of filmstrip projectors from his school days.
  • Our guest for this episode is Bob Schmidt, an electrical engineer who joined us previously for episodes about Troubleshooting and Ideas Without Words.
  • As with most career professionals, it is important for engineers to be effective in their use of email.
  • Bob’s book about troubleshooting, An Engineer’s Guide to Problem Solving, continues to do well for him.
  • Some of our guest’s recent experiences confirm the notion that “a picture’s worth a thousand words.”
  • Brian is continuing to make use of Microsoft OneNote, having recently delved into it’s collaborative features.
  • Bob has a list of five keys for delivering effective email:
    1. Spend some time on the subject line
    2. Know to whom you are speaking
    3. Check it twice, read it thrice
    4. Oh, those miserable attachments
    5. STOP, CAUTION, and YIELD signs along the road ahead
  • Brian admits sending emails with a blank subject line, but Bob says that’s inconsiderate to coworkers who must interpret the email’s subject and importance on their own.
  • Carmen and Bob “tag” their emails by topic or project to ease subsequent sorting and identification of important information.
  • Go ahead and change the subject line to fit the current conversation, suggests Bob.
  • Our guest points out that blind carbon copy (Bcc:) recipients do not receive replies to the original email on which they were copied.
  • Send carbon copy (Cc:) emails to individuals needing to know of an action or decision, but who are not directly involved in carrying out the action or decision.
  • Send Bcc: emails to individuals needing a high-level alert that progress is underway, but without burdening them with subsequent discussion details. As a courtesy to other recipients, make a note in the email about who is receiving the blind carbon copy.
  • Commenting on the dangers of using the “reply all” button, Brian mentions an email storm circulating at Time, Inc.
  • Bob suggest that engineers never send an “angry” email, noting that Abraham Lincoln would write “hot letters” that were never sent.
  • Jeff and Brian wander into a discussion of whether electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) could wipe the hard drives on which emails are often stored.
  • A great deal of corporate data from Sony Entertainment was made public in 2014.
  • Brian has declared email bankruptcy.
  • The group is general agreement that “SMS-speak” is not appropriate for professional email.
  • Carmen shares his brief experiences with Slack, a cloud-based team collaboration tool.
  • Bob suggests using HTML effects sparingly in work-related email.
  • Carmen uses disposable email addresses from Guerrilla Mail to lessen the amount of spam that shows up in his mailbox.
  • Jeff mentions the self-destructing tape player featured in old episodes of the TV show Mission Impossible.
  • Bob can be reached via his Pretty Good Problem Solver website.

Thanks to Ian Lamont for use of the photo titled “BlackBerry email on the BB 8330.” Opening music by John Trimble, and concluding theme by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 80 — Spatial Reasoning

spatialDuring this episode, we chat with researcher Jonathan Wai about the strong spatial skills exhibited by many engineers. We also discuss why standardized tests don’t measure spatial abilities, the manner in which highway clover leafs are designed, and how one particular co-host would go about reconfiguring his local deli counter.

Thanks to James Lumb for use of the image titled “Silver Balls.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 57 — What Engineers Do

DraftingIn this episode of The Engineering Commons, we discuss engineering skills and duties learned in the workplace, rather than from a textbook.

  • Brian tells young engineers that an engineering degree is a “learner’s permit.” Once in the workplace, engineers have to teach themselves to solve an entirely new class of problems.
  • A gold-fish shaped retention pond, first mentioned by Adam in our episode on engineering pranks, is referenced once again, although your dutiful scribe is still looking for hard evidence of such a structure.
  • An extended discussion related to beer production and consumption breaks out amongst the discussion panel.
  • Jeff describes how the bricks that once covered the entire racing surface at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are now found only at the start/finish line, in what is known as the Yard of Bricks.
  • Lateral loading on racing surfaces, due to the massive grip exerted by race car tires, requires the use of specialized asphalt mixtures.
  • Drivers in the Indianapolis 500 automobile race pull more than 3 lateral g’s while going through the turns.
  • Quotes about the engineering profession:

    “Engineering is the art of organizing and directing men, and of controlling the forces and materials of nature for the benefit of the human race.” — Henry Gordon Stott (1907)

    “”The ideal engineer is a composite … He is not a scientist, he is not a mathematician, he is not a sociologist or a writer; but he may use the knowledge and techniques of any or all of these disciplines in solving engineering problems.” — N. W. Dougherty (1955)

    “Engineering is not merely knowing and being knowledgeable, like a walking encyclopedia; engineering is not merely analysis; engineering is not merely the possession of the capacity to get elegant solutions to non-existent engineering problems; engineering is practicing the art of the organized forcing of technological change… Engineers operate at the interface between science and society…” — Gordon Stanley Brown (1962)

    “Scientists study the world as it is, engineers create the world that never has been.” — Theodore von Kármán

  • Engineers break complex problems into smaller solvable pieces. The “art” of engineering is knowing how big those pieces can be.
  • Whereas textbook problems usually have a definite answer, problems from the workplace are often ill-defined, and may sometimes offer no practicable solution.
  • Problem constraints in industry may seem at times arbitrary, being controlled by economic, political, and organizational powers beyond the engineer’s realm of influence. Additionally, these constraints are not fixed, but vary with time.
  • We reveal our high-tech method of aligning audio tracks in Audacity, the audio editing software used to create this podcast.
  • Obsolescence issues are increasingly important for design engineers as commercially-available components are being manufactured for shorter periods of time.
  • Engineers must avoid the natural urge to over-design products, even when dealing with complex constraints.
  • Making a prototype work once in the lab is far different than making thousands of mass-produced products work reliably in the field.
  • An important part of an engineer’s job is prioritizing where one’s time should be spent.
  • Many times it’s more important to be on the “proper” side of the equation than to be right; that is, one has to make certain assumptions that may be incorrect, but those assumptions need to be made such that the product or service will not fail, even if the assumptions are not perfectly accurate.
  • Jeff’s example of a 500 ksi stress load would have been more realistic at 50 ksi or 500 MPa, at least for steel parts.
  • In examining the meltdown of nuclear reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, recent reports have suggested that a contributing factor was the lowering of a seawall back in 1967.
  • Jeff references a scene from The Big Bang Theory television show where Stuart and Sheldon argue about gradations of being wrong.
  • It’s important for engineers to keep track of the small details, even though the process of doing so may be quite tedious.
  • In his autobiography, test pilot Chuck Yeager recalls the tragic outcome of a line worker’s decision to install bolts “right side up” while assembling a jet plane aileron, even thought the blueprints indicated otherwise.
  • Engineering designs need to account for human factors, as well as technical constraints and specifications.
  • Jeff makes selective use of geometric dimensioning and tolerancing standards, as sometimes a simple callout works better in the prototype machine shop.
  • As an engineer, skepticism is prudent in evaluating information and methods. However, too much skepticism can lead to one being labeled “not a team player.”
  • Engineers are often asked to be “fortune tellers,” predicting future outcomes for processes and designs that have never before been realized.
  • Adam emphasizes the importance of understanding safety factors, and their proper application in the design process.
  • Production and maintenance costs are crucial factors in industry, while such cost issues are often overlooked in textbook problems.

Thanks to Seattle Municipal Archives for the photograph titled “Drafter working in Engineering Department, 1959.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.