“Dumbing Things Down” and the Softer Side of Engineering

I had an interesting talk with the head of an engineering firm HR department today.

Her department is aptly named Human Resources… and it’s important to break down the term and note the first word: “human.” Because that’s what’s at the crux of the job she does. She acknowledges the employees as individual human beings with needs and desires and interests and goals, and she acts as a resource to help those humans be fulfilled, while balancing the needs of the company overall.

As I discussed the human side of engineering with her, she said that her efforts to get the company’s senior management to train their middle managers in negotiation, communication, and conflict resolution had been rejected outright. They said that focusing on these sorts of issues rather than technical engineering and project management would only “dumb things down” and would waste valuable training time.

I thought I’d outgrown naive optimism, but this was the first time I’d considered that the engineering profession might be openly disparaging of what she termed the “soft side of engineering.”

Isn’t this half of what we’re about, though?

There are so many firms that have strong technical chops, and the technical side of proper project management is just basic housekeeping. It’s very difficult to distinguish ourselves among other firms by just touting that we have the ability to build a very good mousetrap.

The trick is to help people understand why they want to trap mice.

The notion of client buy-in is something that is typically overlooked. We all want to provide our clients with an amazing business experience, but in order for our clients to truly appreciate our solutions, we must show that our solutions are especially valuable to them. Providing our typical client with reams of calculations will be entirely inaccessible to them. A spreadsheet tabulating our worth as engineers is not necessarily going to do it for them, either; nor is proving to them that we’ve done this sort of project a million times before.

The things that make clients rave about my work is how stressless I am to work with. I bring good solutions to the table (they’re probably more creative than what others might come up with, but grace of design is often difficult for a client to appreciate) and I lessen my clients’ worry. If there’s a problem, they know that they can look to me to help them decide what to do, and that when they look to me, I will approach their problem with the kind of honesty, responsiveness, and humor that they have grown to expect of me. My technical background doesn’t interest them so long as I’m able to complete their designs. It’s my negotiation, communication, and conflict resolution that makes their lives easier, their jobs more fun, and keeps them coming back to work with me.

We must learn how to relate to other humans in order to sell our genius mathy-math brains. That’s what distinguishes any of us from the rest. At the end of the day, the person selecting our team is just a person. We ultimately have to think of that person as an individual human being with needs and desires and interests and goals, and we must convince that particular individual that we will act as a resource to help them be fulfilled, while balancing the needs of the project overall.

We have to be technically proficient. But we also have to sell our proficiency. To do that, we have to be willing to embrace the softer side of engineering.

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