Engineering when you don’t have a mentor

Aug. 25, 2011
Few young engineers have someone to show them the ropes when the going gets tough. A low-pressure “dry run” can help navigate through difficult times later on

Authored by:
James Finkel

Engineering Manager
Wallace Cranes
Malvern, Pa.
Edited by Leland Teschler
[email protected]
Key points:
• Newly minted engineers should devote some energy to figuring out how their organizations really work.
• To get things done when the chips are down, develop soft skills that help in dealing with other departments.

Wallace Cranes

A few months back, Dilbert-creator Scott Adams wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “How to Get a Real Education.” Adams correctly identified many issues involved in transitioning to a workplace from an academic environment. I’m sure many engineers in their first jobs out of college found Adams’ advice useful. But his insights only scratched the surface when it comes to the travails awaiting newly minted design engineers. For people in that job, more advice is in order.

The popularity of Dilbert cartoons clearly shows the homogeneity of the modern engineering workplace. Like it or not, the reality is that the presence of the Internet and the widespread adoption of ISO (or ISO-like) quality systems have resulted in workplaces that are nearly identical, quite independent of the size of the firm. Structurally and functionally all engineering firms have the same scale-independent “footprint.”

Another factor that contributes to the uniformity of the organization is the universal presence of CAD. The simple fact that design engineering, QA, production, testing, analysis, purchasing, and so on share the information on the CAD sketch makes companies look the same, often down to the same layouts for furniture and cubicle space dividers.

Most people inherently understand, to a lesser or greater degree, that interpersonal networking is important. In an engineering job, you can use the wide commonality of company workplaces to your advantage by networking in place. Regardless of where you’re employed, the same networking strategy is likely to work. In other words, the strategy used to get a job can be used to help you keep a job, if you do it right.

The networking strategy can be viewed as two parts. The first part could be called “Before you Begin” and covers skills you need to do the job. The second part could be called “How To” and could be viewed as the execution of a “sample” project. The point is to become familiar with the people with whom you’ll interact in real projects, but in a less-stressful situation before your career is on the line.

Again, this strategy works because of the homogeneity of the current workplace. The same steps are used for a project whether it is large or small, and you can use a sample project to learn how to get something done, but more importantly to introduce yourself to the people involved when the chips are down.

Begin before you begin
The Before-You-Begin phase consists of six steps.

1. Learn CAD. This may sound like obvious advice to recent graduates, but I mean really learn it. Whether you are a boss or an apprentice you need to know the difficulty levels of specific tasks in CAD. This will help you understand why it takes so long to do anything and what steps you need to “finish” a project. You do not need to be an instant expert, but indepth knowledge will help you realize that with the next software update, everyone will have to relearn.

2. Closely related to the first point is “Learn to ‘cheat’ in CAD.” Learn the laziest, fastest way possible to create your firm’s basic geometry. There is a 100% chance you will be faced with a time crunch when this speed will be the difference between shipping product and going out of business. Too, the process of figuring out how to parametrically design your product will make subsequent analyses that much easier. When you realize that the machining model, the marketing model, the CFD model, the stress model, the thermal model, and the electromagnetic model are all different, “cheating” becomes a necessity. Each flavor of a model has its own set of rules.

3. Make deadlines. Whatever the project, try to finish a rough model in about a week. Spend the rest of the time refining the job. When given a choice between nothing and something, something always wins. This is a piece of knowledge I learned my first week, but new engineers often seem unable to understand it. Just realize that content is negotiable.

4. An extension of making deadlines is “Plan your time line.” Independent of your firm’s formal planning process, try to figure out each milestone and what must be delivered when. While the dates might not be negotiable, the content often is. One further advantage of having something ready at the deadline is that you can get a good estimate of just how much change you can expect from spending time bettering the model. When you know that a 10% improvement is all you can get, you will waste less time running down blind alleys. Often, close enough is good enough.

5. Learn statistics. Do not bore the boss with a Bayesian analysis, but do learn how to apply joint probabilities. One practical application of this knowledge: As a project gets more complex, with even an 80% success rate at each step, you quickly start running into long odds against a happy outcome. If there are five steps you are down to a one-in-three chance of success at the end of the chain. Just think in terms of batting averages for your probability of success.

6. Make it pretty. Given a choice, the boss will frequently choose the better-looking project, no matter what the numbers say. If you doubt the wisdom of this approach, just look at the salaries of your marketing staff and take the hint. Again, use the CAD system to craft the geometry you need to sell your project. Like it or not, engineering is as much about the selling as it is the numbers.

Walking the org chart
Consider carrying out the following experiment as a way to begin your networking in earnest:

Your mission is to chose a simple project as a low-pressure “dry run” that you will hand-carry throughout your organization. The actual project is much-less important than the process. Because most engineering organizations behave the same way viewed from the inside, the path for any project is essentially identical. Whether you have a new logo for a business card or a brand-new engineering product that spent years in development, the same departments will want their say.

You want your trial project to be relatively “friction free” so your time is spent learning the identity of the gatekeepers in your organization and in what format they want any future requests. Note how long it takes to let all these little interactions run their course. Because this is a low-risk project and you really do not want to impose a time scale, you will learn how to plan for a more-realistic project. For example, if you notice that legal and the PR group hate each other and will engage in an endless series of approvals and denials, then you should adjust your schedule appropriately.

When you do spot loops like the legal/PR spat, you can figure out the best way to present ideas to each of the competing groups. Again, this is a function of your particular organization; you may want to schedule several premeetings where the departments are either invited together or kept away from each other. This is just one of the quirks you will learn.

The conversation will be pretty much the same with each person or department. You will ask two groups of questions. Your first series of question will be along the lines of, “What do I have to do to get you to approve this?” By all means try to be a little less blunt. The second set of questions come under the general category of, “What do I have to fix so you will want to approve this project?”

When you have these conversations, try to note whether there is a picture with children or a pet on the desk of the person with whom you are speaking. If so, try to be casually friendly; you must ask about the picture. For readers who have never worked in a corporate environment before, it may come as a surprise that most important discussion will focus on that picture, not on the project.

You must realize that the “side discussion” about the picture may have a greater impact than anything else you will likely say in that office or cubicle. This conversation demonstrates your humanity and accessibility, and it shows that you really want to get the project done. It also hints that you will come back.

A point rarely made in school, but which comes up every workday, is that few transactions are one-time. You will likely deal with the same group of people for every single project, so getting angry with any of them is counterproductive. Too, because people tend to concentrate in one industry, you may eventually run into the same individuals who have made a lateral move to another firm. I personally worked with one ex-boss at four different firms. People do remember.

As you push your project through various departments, you might notice that your path looks a lot like the corporate organizational chart, but turned on its side. As this project is intended as a learning experience, you may want to sit down with your boss to preplan your voyage. While some spats are inevitable, your boss should be able to direct you down a preferred path. One of the many things you will learn is that a lot of decisions are sequence-dependent. The good news is that you can use this knowledge to your advantage.

If you know that legal is going to be a hurdle, you can probably guess that any other department will have had the same difficulties. Knowing that legal is tough means that if you get this approval early, then other departments might fall in line.

Note, though, that the example of legal is just that, an example. If in your firm, the manufacturing group holds sway, go to them first.

The goals of “walking the org chart” are manifold. While introducing yourself around the organization, you will learn who controls both the real power and the process. With your trial run you can get an accurate reading of the time line and time sinks. Knowledge of where the roadblocks are will serve you well when you must get rapid approval on real projects.

And while this might seem like a theoretical discussion, I can assure you it is very real. One of my firm’s customers, a government research facility, needed a larger I-beam for its crane. To meet tight overhead dimensions (set by OSHA), the customer needed a custom solution and was running under a tight deadline. I created a dimensional sketch that let the customer walk the document through his organization. This hand-carried document let the customer “prove” that what was ordered would fit. And though it may sound odd, the physical piece of paper proved that the proposed object was “real” and the dimensions and weight required for shipping could be determined. The normal path would have taken weeks. In this case, the part should be delivered in less than week after the order is placed.

Final words As an engineer, you have been schooled in the use of tools such as mathematical simulations (finite-element analysis, fluid flow, circuit analysis), CAD modeling and maybe even some form of linear programming. By walking the organization, you will learn which tools to use for which department. So while this exercise may initially make you uncomfortable, you will ultimately learn how to sell to a wide range of users, a skill that will serve you well in any career.

Edited by Leland Teschler

The value of samples in navigating the org chart

While it is common practice among engineers to refer to the CAD file as “the part,” in truth there are several options for generating sample parts to help speed the approval and checking processes. This ring, for example, was fabricated straight from the CAD model. As the technology has become more affordable, engineers can rely on SLA, small-scale direct fabrication, or SLA-to-lost-wax casting. If anything, the supplements to the CAD sketch are proliferating.

The CAD drawing is your promise to turn an idea into reality. As such, it must be “complete” so that each group in the approval process can find the information they need to do their jobs. The file needs to include specifications for materials, tolerances, weights and, where needed, processing instructions. If there are any questions left unanswered, you might not get what you intended.

Before you begin marching your paperwork through the corporation, you will want to be fully prepared. If your part is in an assembly, make sure that it fits. Your goal in social networking is to make sure that you are well perceived. Efforts toward trying to push through something that does not work could well be career limiting.

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.

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