Tag Archives: project management

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.

Episode 47 — Project Management

PERT_chartAdam leads the group on a discussion of project management in this episode of The Engineering Commons.

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  • Brian feels any technically interesting project is probably of sufficient complexity to require a project manager.
  • Since Adam has a certificate in Project Management, he serves as our guide for this conversation.
  • Adam refers to a book put out by the Project Management Institute (PMI), titled A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).
  • A project is defined by the PMI as “a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result.”
  • Jeff wonders whether the company NeXT Computer would therefore have qualified as a project.
  • Project that do something for the very first time can become “science projects,” placing unlimited demands on time and money. (With apologies to scientists, who find ways to live within their time and cost constraints ;^)
  • Brian notes that engineers, when constructing complicated systems, rely heavily on solutions and technologies provided by vendors.
  • Adam and Brian feel that the skills set needed to be a strong technical expert are fairly independent of those needed to be a good project manager.
  • Carmen likes “take charge” project managers who quickly get down to business in meetings.
  • Jeff mentions President Kennedy’s 1961 proclamation that the United States would send a man to the moon as an example of a leader who didn’t necessarily have strong technical skills, but Brian notes that Wernher von Braun’s engineering expertise was needed to make the project a success.
  • A “strong matrix” organization allows project managers to easily pull resources from functional groups, while a “weak matrix” organization gives functional supervisors the authority to deny resources to project managers.
  • Project managers have to balance the constraints of time, money, scope, and quality, as represented by the Project Management Triangle.
  • A work breakdown structure decomposes a project into smaller tasks that can be carried out to ensure that the project is completed.
  • Jeff notes the need to break personal tasks into smaller sub-tasks, such as a “next action,” when working with the Getting Things Done (GTD) method of time management.
  • A lot of engineers first get introduced to working with a Gantt chart via the Microsoft Project software program.
  • The “critical path” defines the series of events that have to occur on schedule for the project to be completed on time.
  • With due credit to Donald Rumsfeld, Adam breaks risk into four categories: known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns.
  • Risk management methods include acceptance, mitigation, avoidance, and transference.
  • Projects typically involve the five stages of initiation, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing.
  • Jeff mentions the “not-invented-here” syndrome, which is an urge to repeatedly “reinvent the wheel.”
  • A sturdy wooden gavel is handy for keeping meetings on task, says Carmen.
  • According to the PMBOK, the common elements of project management systems are:
    1. Integration Management
    2. Scope Management
    3. Time Management
    4. Cost Management
    5. Quality Management
    6. Human Resource Management
    7. Communications Management
    8. Risk Management
    9. Procurement Management
    10. Stakeholders Management

Thanks to Wikipedia for the chart titled “Pert_chart_colored.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson.