Wednesday, January 1, 2014

An Engineer Looks at New Year's Resolutions

Here is my list of issues and resolutions that engineers need to be thinking about in 2014:
  • All our systems (natural, economic, political, social, technical, etc.) are moving away from absolutism to ambiguity.  Uncertainty and rapid change rules everything.  Failure to deal with ambiguity is one of the great disorders of the age.  Unfortunately engineers have been trained and have a culture geared toward absolutism (we have our theories that explain the world - when anomalies appear, believers in the old paradigms try to ignore them or explain them away).  Engineers that want to work and think only in terms of absolutism run the risk of fleeing reality.  The #1 issue issue for engineers in 2014 is to rethink how ambiguity and uncertainty impacts everything.
  • Many engineers either work for the government (federal, state, or local) or contract with government.  Engineers need to rethink their roles, responsibilities, and objectives, is the age of distrust (government leads the list of the institutions we have grown to distrust).  The age of distrust has slammed into the age of the Internet.  In the age of the Internet, people are use to decentralized systems and maximum personal choice.  Government on the other hand builds a system and forces everyone to operator within it.  Design and engineering in 2014 needs to increasingly come to grips with the conflict between the age of distrust and the age of the Internet.
  • Engineers will be increasingly impacted by a world more focused on bits and less focused on atoms.  Physical stuff, from retail shopping centers, to university campuses, to "dumb" roads, will lose value next to a world of software, algorithms, and "smart" systems.  Education is a perfect example.   Educational opportunities online will increasingly to more available to the motivated and motivating.  In 2014, think about taking a free online class.  Think big (Stanford or MIT) and think differently.  Want to learn how to design an App for your iPad?  Take a class at Stanford for free!!
  • Make 2014 the year you improve your communication skills.  Pick up a copy of The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers.  Engineers need to get better at presenting their ideas and designs.  The Gower's guide can teach engineers "to get an idea as exactly as possible out of one mind into another."  The guide helps engineers to understand the purpose of writing - to affect people in the way that you wish them to be affected.
  • "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters."  This is a great line that increasingly highlights one of the leading challenges of engineering - dealing with an expectations gap.  In 2014, engineers need to examine the rather obvious - Twitter may not be enough to take civilization to the next level.  Historically this has been the key goal of engineering - getting people and institutions to the next level.  On one hand we have our flying car problem, on the other hand we have a potential robotic future, where many people who - despite being willing and fit to work - have no economic value as employees.  As we do a better job filling the expectations gap, engineers need to consider both the value they create, but also the disruption in the labor markets that will surely come from this new innovation.
  • Work on your empathy muscles in 2014.  Forgo computer screens and spreadsheets and focus on people.  Engineers need to get back to focusing on how to ease people's lives. (Your business model in 2014 needs to focus on one question - "Is our service or product making people's lives easier?").   If you are designing the control room for a new water treatment plant, spend two weeks with an operator to see his or her common frustrations with equipment layout (also start thinking more multi-disciplinary - add human factors engineering to your civil engineering knowledge).  Engineers need to embrace ethnography - the art and science of reporting and paying attention.
  • But don't rule out the screens entirely.  Make 2014 the year you improve your statistical analysis skills.  Pick up any magazine or newspaper and you will observe an interesting trend - - we live in a Moneyball culture.  We love data, numbers, graphics, and analysis (Is it just me, or does the Sports and Business pages look the same - numbers, numbers, and more numbers?).  Engineers increasingly are tasked with analyzing this explosion of disparate facts, figures, and image data sets.  Clients and customers understand this future - a future of Big Data analytics that results in concrete predictions to use in everyday situations.  Because it is based on a greater amount of data, results are more accurate, more customized, and more robust.  Our Big Data world needs big data statistical analysis to turn data into information into effective decision making.  If you don't have a clue what an ANOVA table is, learn.
  • "Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers." (Harry Truman)  Read something really different in 2014.  This is the season for looking at the shape of things to come in terms of investment opportunities.  Global economic forecasting - trying to look past current events to glimpse what's coming over the horizon - has become an exercise of general concern for the engineering community.  This book comes out in January by McKenzie Funk, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming.  Many uncertainties surround the future effects of climate change.  Some organizations are developing contingency plans, others are not.  The earth has experienced many different climates, and human beings are highly adaptable.  Get a bumper sticker that reads, "Adapt to a Changing World."  Engineering needs to think about who and where - those that are poised to profit handsomely from the coming climate chaos.
  • Engineers are facing a work environment where companies are changing really quickly.  The world of the factory (pressures from globalization, wage stagnation, layoffs, etc.) is rapidly coming to the world of the professional.  Many professional engineers have constructed their identities through their work.  These identities are being undermined by career stagnation and increased workloads.  In 2014, letting your sense of self get too bound up in your current job is a risky move.  Engineers in 2014 need to understand that it is vital to nurture a life outside the corporate walls that will get us through the stresses of the day without an existential collapse.
  • We have become good at texting and Twittering - all at the expense of just plain old talking.  Engineers in 2014 need to get back to the dying art of conversation.  We're talking all the time, in person as well as in e-mails, in texts, over the phone, on Facebook and Twitter.  Talk, Talk, Talk - all at the expense of conversation.  Engineers, like the rest of society, are talking at each other than with each other.  The Internet and e-mail are not structured as a social environment geared toward conversation.  Conversation is about the dull and boring  combined with the insightful and interesting.  Facebook and the Internet are about favoring showmanship over exchange - flows over ebbs.  You are constantly being judged, watched, and graded.  Start 2014 off with a true conversation. 

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