Sunday, August 30, 2009
Conversations and debates about intergenerational equity occur across several different fields. They include transition economics, social policy, government budget making - and from the context and interest of engineering we have environmental concerns, sustainable development, global warming, and climate change.
In his book Worst-Case Scenarios (2007), author Cass Sunstein, presents a case for what he has termed the Principle of Intergenerational Neutrality. The governing idea requires the citizens of every generation to be treated equally. Present generations are obligated to take the interests of their descendants as seriously as they take their own. Life-cycle analysis is a cornerstone of engineering economy and thought. Engineers understand that they are fundamentally the guardians of the future against the claims of the present. Short-change the present and the future picks up the bill. As Sunstein points out, however, ". . . the Principle of Intergenerational Neutrality does not mean that the present generation should refuse to discount the future, or should impose great sacrifices on itself for the sake of those who will come later. If human history is any guide, the future will be much richer that the present; and it makes no sense to say that the relatively impoverished present should transfer its resources to the far wealthier future. And if the present generation sacrifices itself by forgoing economic growth, it is likely to hurt the future too, because long-term economic growth is likely to produce citizens who live healthier, longer, and better lives."
The questions surrounding future engineering problems and issues, such as climate change and sustainable development, will require engineers to focus on many issues. One important one is that members of any particular generation should not be favored over the members of any others. Engineering will be increasingly concerned with the distribution of costs and benefits between present and future generations. The distribution "of what" and the magnitude will primarily be focused on capacities, opportunities, and well-being. "We want our kids to have it better that we did" faces a future of generational debates over a wide range of topics - climate change, sustainability, energy dependency, environmental concern, health care reforms, and Social Security are just a small sample. Engineering and cost-benefit analysis focuses on discounting - money that will come in the future must be discounted. Engineering will be faced with new questions. Should we discount future lives as well? Is a life twenty years hence worth a fraction of a life today? The Principle of Intergenerational Neutrality hardly answers every question, but it provides the right foundation for that analysis.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
One such list defines the " . . . prime requisite of personality in any type of industrial organization." The simple approach to character and personality is a combination of good-natured friendliness and observance of the "Golden Rule." The specific elements are as follows:
- Cultivate the tendency to appreciate the good qualities, rather than the shortcomings, of each individual.
- Do not give vent to impatience and annoyance on slight provocation.
- Form the habit of considering the feelings and interests of others.
- Do not become unduly preoccupied with your own selfish interests.
- Make it a rule to help the other person whenever an opportunity arises.
- Do not harbor grudges after disagreements involving honest differences of opinion.
- Be particularly careful to be fair on all occasions.
- Do not take yourself or work too seriously.
- Put yourself out just a little to be genuinely cordial in greeting people.
- Give people the benefit of the doubt if you are inclined to suspect their motives.
In a closing section, King makes the point " . . . a mistake, of course, to try too hard to get along with everybody merely by being agreeable or even submissive on all occasions." Do not give ground too quickly just to avoid a fight, when you know you are right. Be willing to fight (good naturedly of course!) when your objectives are worth fighting for. As King quoted from Hamlet "Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, bear't that the opposed may beware of thee." (A Shakespeare quoting engineer in 1944 -times have changed!).
"Like it or not, as long as you're in a competitive business you're in fight; sometimes it's a fight between departments of the same company. As long as it's a good clean fight, with no hitting below the belt, it's perfectly healthy - but keep it to friendly competition."
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Engineering is in a constant battle with the idea and force of Nietzsche's arguments against a knowledge filled and fact based society. To engineers, there's nothing more stubborn than a fact. Observe, analyze, synthesize - the three legs of any engineer's education. To strive, to seek, to find the facts of any problem, debate, discussion or issue. Trust, but verify with the understanding that information is not a fact nor is it knowledge. Engineering is about a fundamental understanding that knowledge of the facts is the basis for any wisdom and for any possibility of coexistence, or social relations.
Uncertainty and indeterminacy are givens in a modern society. The net result is an avalanche of opinions and interpretations for any given issue or discussion. Many of our problems today aren't the result of too little information. Instead they come from the challenge of sorting through a huge (and growing) amount of data; all constantly changing and much of it irrelevant or misleading. But advances in our collective thinking has invariably been from the progression of information to facts to knowledge. Our information overload and systems complexity has produced an atmosphere of mindless rhetoric - all ideology and almost never any facts. Be it climate change, energy independence, our crumbling national infrastructure - the evolution of information to fact to knowledge is constantly distorted by a culture that has embraced Nietzsche at some level - no facts, just opinions. The important idea for engineering is to be proudly pragmatic, problem solving, un-ideological - respectful of opinions and interpretations, but bounded by rational and fact based analysis and thinking
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
At the closing of the book, Steward provides a brief and insightful view of what makes a good manager - "A good manager is someone with a facility for analysis and an even greater talent for synthesis; someone who has an eye both for the details and for the big thing that really matters; someone who is able to reflect on facts in a disinterested way, who is always dissatisfied with pat answers and conventional wisdom, and who therefore takes a certain pleasure in knowledge itself; someone with a wide knowledge of the world and an even better knowledge of the way people work; someone who knows how to treat people with respect; someone with honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, and the other things that make up character; someone, in short, who understands oneself and the world around us well enough to know how to make it better. By this definition, of course, a good manager is nothing more or less that a good and well-educated person."
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Slim is known affectionately in Mexico as "El Ingeniero" - The Engineer. It is interesting and not surprising how the developing world places engineering and engineers at the sharp end of the societal pyramid. Engineers are seen as elite members of society, highly educated individuals that are visionary builders and developers - thinking about and creating the elements of a modern society. Roads, telecommunication systems, water plants - the infrastructure improvements that are needed in developing countries. El Ingeniero is a badge of honor - especially in Latin America. This badge of honor shows up all over the developing world, even in the context of revolutionaries and terrorists. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former Mujaheddin leader and current terrorist outlaw, is known as "Engineer Hekmatyar" even though he was unable to complete his engineering degree. The developing world recognizes and appreciates the importance of engineering and engineers - the understanding that "Accountant Hekmatyar" or El Dentista doesn't move the imagination nor spirit of the developing world.
One impact of globalization has been the decline of the middle class and the creation of a rich-poor chasm in the United States. For the quarter century that followed World War II, income growth in America was fairly evenly spread. But within the past quarter century, the wealthy have been doing dramatically better than the less well off. Since 1979 median family incomes have risen by 18 percent, but the incomes of the top one percent have gone up by over 200 percent. In 1970, according to the Census Bureau, the bottom fifth received 5.4 percent of America's total income and the richest fifth derived 40.9 percent. Twenty-five years later, the share of the bottom fifth had fallen to 4.4 percent, but that of the top fifth had risen to 46.5 percent. This can be clearly illustrated by the difference in salary potential between investment banking and civil engineering. Both professions compete for the same type of student - superior interest and performance in math and science. Given the thousandfold difference in salary potential, it is easy to understand the daunting task of the engineering profession to attract these students.
The erosion of the middle class and the creation of a rich-poor stratification have broad implications for the supply of engineers in the United States. The available supply of engineers essentially must come from either the poorly prepared (educationally and economically) or the unwilling (unwilling to pass up the thousandfold salary potential and enter a profession of lower status). The failure of the lower economic classes to move toward engineering is the most distressing. It would appear to be in the best interest of the nation and of individuals to view engineering as a profession that can move economically lower classes up the ladder. Poor preparation in mathematics and the sciences, coupled with the overwhelming burden of a college education (this period of decline of the middle class also corresponded to a period in which educational expenses increased at a rate greater than the overall inflation rate), has not allowed this group to embrace engineering. Embrace is too cavalier - nearly one in five American children lives in poverty, and more than one in 13 lives in extreme poverty. The harsh realities are overwhelming compared to embracing or ignoring the opportunities in engineering.
The current system system has two economic classes that cannot provide the nation adequate engineering manpower. Making up the deficit must come from either places like Bangalore in the form of off shoring or from a reliance on an ever-increasing number of immigrants. Both methods have major public policy ramifications for the United States
Monday, August 24, 2009
We are a "Make It Work" profession - - from services to products to budgets to schedules. Engineering is defined by excellence and purpose. Where excellence is born of preparation, dedication, focus, and tenacity. Compromise on any of these and you become average. We are a "Bataan Death March" bunch with a "sleep is for the dead" ethos. We are taught and trained to persist long enough to penetrate a complicated world. Engineering teaches us to persevere and the necessities of an inner-toughness. Engineering is about action . . . the idea of getting things done promoted to the status of a principle. We have the figure-it-the-hell-out gene. We understand that people don't pay for a product or a service - they pay for a result. We understand that effort can trump ability and conventions are made to be challenged and you should measure what you have, by what you can do. We understand Tim Gunn. We understand "Make It Work!"
We also understand the host of Project Runway, Heidi Klum - "Auf Wiedersehen!!"
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Engineering and society in general have benefited enormously from the technology that has brought CAD, e-mail, the Internet, etc. to the marketplace - productivity improvements and speed have been givens over the last 20-years. Engineering faces a paradox in this blink of an eye globalized speed zone - the faster we type and read and type and read and type and read, the faster we are forced to make decisions and judgements. Not all engineering and business decisions benefit from a short frame of reference - we need time in order to grasp the professional ramifications of our typed correspondence. Engineering is about precise language - engineers need time to shape and design and filter their words so we say exactly what we mean. Those of us who remember writing letters and memos by hand can appreciate the slower and more reflective nature of the process. Engineers would benefit from an uncoupling of the idea that speed and efficiency are intimately linked and consider that the ability to go faster may be good but will not always lead to increased engineering mindfulness.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Regardless of whether your goal is to innovate around a product, service, or business opportunity, you get good insights by having an observant and empathic view of the world. You can't just stand in your own shoes, you've got to be able to stand in the shoes of others. Empathy allows you to have original insights about the world. It also enables you to build better teams. This is the horizontal part of the tee - technologists with a wide portfolio of actionable skill sets. T-shaped engineers should be able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. Engineering should be focused on this point - patterns that yield ideas.
These T-shaped engineers will include the civil engineer working on projects in developing countries that has branched out into anthropology and history. It is the public works engineer that has added project management certification and readings in public policy formulation. It is the computer circuits engineer that has enrolled in a MBA program. It is about engineers understanding the usefulness and stimulating horizontal portion of the tee and being motivated and willing to make an entrepreneurial investment in themselves.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Several themes and forecasts presented by Friedman are important to engineers and engineering. The first is a projection of a population bust. As outlined in his book - "People assume that while population might be slowing down in Europe, the world's total population will continue to spiral out of control because of high birthrates in less developed countries. In fact, the opposite is true. Birthrates are plunging everywhere. The advanced industrial countries are on the cutting edge of decline, but the rest of the world is following right behind them. And this demographic shift will help shape the twenty-first century." This is highlighted in statistics from the United Nations that forecast by 2050, Europe will have a population between 557 million to 653 million as compared to their current population of 728 million.
The projected population bust and the collapse of population growth produces a world economy not of capital shortages but one of labor shortages (where the investment bankers are surpassed by headhunters in importance). The population bust creates a technology surge of productivity improvements and labor saving equipment. An outcome of the increased development and focus on technology is an energy demand and development surge. As the Department of Defense did with the telegraph, national highway system, and Internet - it becomes the lead funding and development agency and organization for our national energy efforts. The United States is projected to weather the population bust storm far better than the rest of the developed world. This is primarily due to our lower population densities (we have the available space for increased immigration) and our history of embracing immigrants.
Dr. Friedman closed on his projections for the next regional powers around the global - Japan, Poland, and Turkey. He also pointed out the lack of liquidity problems that Mexican banks had experienced during the recent financial crisis. Friedman speculated on the idea that drug money could have been a factor in providing needed liquidity.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
- "Be inquisitive and curious about natural objects, products, processes, ideas, and concepts. Continually explore, and communicate.
- Ask higher level questions about the purpose of each of the above.
- A continual reassessment of the situation, of the questions, and of solutions - the iterative process of exploration yields understanding at various cognitive levels which mix with one another.
- Constantly change focus from narrow angle to wide angle views of any situation.
- Through lateral thinking develop analogies for the phenomena that you observe.
- Draw sketches, perspectives, diagrams, etc. to pass your thought through your eyes back to your mind.
- Do visual thinking in 2D, 3D, etc. and have fascination in the process.
- Make commitments to deliver exceptional systems (pressure of meeting commitments motivates creativity).
- Purse your ideas tirelessly and without fear of failure - the least you will get is the experience of living inside your problem.
- Always purse multiple projects (going from one project to the next breaks the possibly degenerative thought patterns and motivates lateral thinking)."
The sets of skills and aptitudes that led to success in one walk of life either do not carry over or are downright dysfunctional in another. The political world, with a focus on the ability to charm, convince, and enlist, keeps engineering and engineers to their own private reservation. Engineers like geometry, but the world of Burke and Johnson is the subtle interplay of interest and passion, reason and imagination.
Liberal learning - defined as learning that frees the mind - is normally found upon four general areas of education: natural sciences, mathematics, the humanities and the social sciences. Liberal learning implies free and broad inquiry with intellectual discipline and is foundational for many established professions. Engineering needs this balanced base of education.
Because liberal learning aims to free us from the constraints of ignorance, sectarianism, and myopia, it prizes curiosity and seeks to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. By its nature, therefore, liberal learning is global and pluralistic. It embraces the diversity of ideas and experiences that characterize the social, natural, and intellectual world. To acknowledge such diversity in all its forms is both an intellectual commitment and a social responsibility, for nothing less will equip us to understand our world and purse fruitful lives.
The ability to think, to learn and to express oneself both rigorously and creatively, the capacity to understand ideas and issues in context, the commitment to live in society, and the yearning for truth are fundamental features of our humanity. In centering education upon these qualities liberal learning is society's best investment in our shared future.
Strategic listening is a deeper process and attitude. One can listen with the goal of making an immediate response. We are all guilty of this - especially as parents! We can also listen with the goal of learning - to gain a deeper knowledge or understanding of a particular point of view, issue or experience. We should all have the goal of becoming strategic listeners.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
- Turn-off automatic notifications of incoming e-mail - establish specific times during the day to check e-mail.
- Don't waste time sorting messages into folders.
- Don't highlight messages you intend to deal with later by marking them as "unread."
- If you won't be able to respond to an e-mail for several days, acknowledge receipt and tell the sender when you're likely to get to it.
- Make messages easy to digest by writing a clear subject line and starting the body with a key point.
- For short messages, place the entire message in the subject line.
- Whenever possible, paste the contents of an attachment into the body of the message.
- Minimize e-mail ping-pong by making suggestions.
- Before you choose "reply to all," stop and consider the e-mail burden that your choice places on each recipient.
- For your own sake, send less e-mail: An outgoing message generates, on average, roughly two responses.
Great problems have many distinguishing characteristics, but they start with a permanent record. You must write a problem down. The problem statement focuses your mind. Condense it to those few nouns and verbs that are essential to the problem. Use twenty-five words or less. Even the most difficult problems can be expressed in twenty-five words. After describing the problem, briefly record why it must be solved. Engineering problems with compelling needs get solved. If you don't need to solve it, it isn't really a problem.
Most problems suffer from a lack of attention. We don't give difficult problems enough attention to spark a solution. But our brains can work on problems around the clock, regardless of whatever else we might be doing. The mind just needs to know that we what a solution.
Galbraith's observation shows up in many parts of our daily lives - even the mail. The USPS transportation fleet of about a quarter of a million vehicles consumes very large amounts of gasoline and produces tons of emissions into the air. It is also vastly more resource-intensive to print, carry, deliver, and dispose of paper-and-ink messages than electronic ones. Galbraith's point being - the health and environmental costs of all that pollution are not paid by the USPS (One can only assume that if U.S. taxpayers really knew how much they themselves are subsidizing the junk mail that annoys them daily, they would feel even worse about the cumulative environmental impact), just as air and water pollution often isn't paid for by the industrial companies that produce it. In market economies, profits tend to be private and liabilities public.
Monday, August 17, 2009
Jay Forrester of MIT provides a systems thinker's view of Twain's observation as it relates to our environmental systems:
"The sustainability argument exists because there is indeed a problem of overpopulation, shortages of water, shortages of resources of all kinds in varying degrees, shortages of land, which leads to wars . . . But the reaction to it is largely to deal with the symptoms, not the causes, do deal with how to get more power, how to refine salt water. And these are things that make the problems worse rather than better, because they create the illusion that we don't have to deal with the growing population or growing industrialization - which are the two powerful driving forces underneath it all.
In initiative after initiative on creating a sustainable Earth, on trying to understand, restore and manage the environment, I find nothing about studying how to limit population growth or how to stop industrialization growth. Everything in these initiatives will tend to increase the problem because they take [the] emphasis off the real issues."
The complexity of sustainability need not breed mystery - however, it is difficult to solve large and complex problems with lots of little ideas. More importantly, engineers must articulate the view that every problem has a solution - but painful problems do not often have painless solutions.
- "Basically, managing is about influencing action. Management is about helping organizations and units to get things done, which means action. Sometimes managers manage actions directly. They fight fires. They manage projects. They negotiate contracts.
- One step removed, they manage people. Managers deal with people who take the action, so they motivate them and they build teams and they enhance the culture and train them and do things to get people to take more effective actions.
- And two steps removed from that, managers manage information to drive people to take actions - through budgets and objectives and delegating tasks and designing organization structure and all those sorts of things."
"Others, like me, find the daily minutiae too meaningless to record with its small traffickings up and down. But if one looks back over time and runs a memory record of a project through one's mind, a diary of sorts takes shape. In serial fashion, key events milestone the project - changes, dead-ends, parallel lines of enquiry, the conclusions and ambitions of that first inception - moments of importance that turn into only a few days of recollection. Looking back on the Bordeaux project, I remember only Eight Days. And with each day the long hours of criticism, the short seconds of inspiration, the tug of all those movements that push and pull each way as what we call The Project ticks on."
- Embrace restraints. Engineers are all about working with constraints and trade-offs (time, budget, location, materials). The perfect management solution never exists - identify the best solution given the restraints.
- Take a risk. Change does not happen without taking chances. Engineers are comfortable with the notion that they might be wrong, but still they experiment and try new approaches.
- Question everything. Answers are important, of course, but first come the questions (and the question might just be the answer). Engineers are used to asking myriad questions that lead to the right question - which will lead to the right answer.
- It's not about the tools, it's about the ideas. Engineers from various fields spend a lot of time away for new technology tools, using pencil and paper to sketch out their ideas.
I came up with a more unifying theme that gets around this segmentation issue. Historically engineering has been very vertical - - you get these vertical cylinders of knowledge with little interchange or interaction across disciplines. I really think organizations and the public have wised up to this problem - - the future is for engineering and engineers to be much better at systems thinking and multi-disciplinary in their problem solving and management. The development of horizontal thinking and management is the future.
That is where ASEM steps in – the mechanism that goes outside the traditional boundaries and helps the engineer and manager to start making the horizontal connections. Not just networking with another civil - - but “uber-networking” - - the opportunity to connect and interface with other disciplines, leaders and ideas. That is a powerful idea and message with respect to the future.
Can you imagine a local ASEM chapter in the DFW area that brought together the leaders within the various engineering disciplines - - civil, mechanical, petroleum, electrical, industrial, etc, - - no other organization exists at the management level.
One quick point - - - I see my "primary" professional organizations as ASCE, SAME and INCOSE (I have a doctorate in EM and MBA and a MS in Systems Engineering) - - - however, I always think in terms of being a civil engineer. I am sure a mechanical engineer who is an engineering manager or who has an EM degree probably thinks in terms of being a mechanical engineer. Not initially in terms of being an EM.
To network, grow and enhance the organization - - I am going to take the brochure to a SAME meeting or an ASCE meeting or an Engineers without Borders meeting and hand it out to other members and friends. The point is that brochure needs to convince the civil or mechanical engineer that there is value in joining another engineering organization. No one is going to cancel a membership in ASCE to join ASEM. The secondary organization is probably going to always be ASEM. The problem is that civils want to hear about civil management issues and chemicals want to hear about chemical management issues - - you end up having to really segment the brochure message and information. Really need a unifying theme to all this - - something like engineering management is universal. And most engineers are not going to buy into this - - because the basic engineering disciplines are already highly segmented in the first place.
I think my ASCE membership runs $350 per year - - the ASEM is what $90. Most companies are going to pay the primary ($350) - - the ASEM is coming from their own pockets. What do they get from ASEM that they don't get from ASCE? Kind of the $90 question!!
This is in response to Timothy J. Noles’s July letter to the editor in which Mr. Noles addressed several issues relating to our declining infrastructure and fiscal responsibilities. Mr. Noles was fundamentally addressing issues raised by William F. Galli in a May letter to the editor.
Several points should be addressed with respect to both letters. The first is the rather minimalist approach to our code of ethics - - namely the singular quotation of safety. The fundamental canon is much broader in scope than just safety - - “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.” The interesting phrase is “ . . . welfare of the public . . .” Although broad, welfare in the context of engineering means a focus on the well-being and prosperity of the public. A cornerstone of our well-being and prosperity has to be an understanding of the forces and factors associated with our economic and financial welfare. If all we want to do is design the roads and bridges that connect sub-prime subdivisions based on “liar loans” with empty shopping malls, and desire to never enter the public debate on economic welfare and prosperity - - - we are doing the general public a huge disservice.
Sometimes we need to be reminded of the old lawyer who stated, “About half the practice of a decent lawyer consists of telling would-be clients that they are damned fools and should stop.” Yes, we recommend and yes, Congress funds and yes, we design and yes, we build. But does anyone think for a moment that when we burn through one trillion dollars that the process has been strategic, systematic or transparent? When small congressional districts receive a disproportionate share of highway funds – has the welfare of the nation as a whole really been considered? Should civil engineers debate and discuss this? Clearly yes. Should we debate, discuss, and care about how and when $50 trillion of public debt and obligations gets covered and how it interfaces with our responsibilities of safety, health and welfare? Clearly yes. Should we be part of the debate over the need for the new fire station versus funding the pension of the retired firefighter? Clearly yes. Has the world changed requiring new ways of thinking, responsibilities, attitudes and debates? Clearly yes.