"THE UNWRITTEN LAWS OF ENGINEERING"
Excerpts From a Booklet Published by
the American Society of Mechanical Engineers
and Written by Professor W.J. King of U.C.L.A.
Your Obstacles – Personal, Not Technical
Some time ago I became very much impressed with a fact which can be observed in any engineering organization – that the chief of obstacles to the success of individual engineers or of a group are of a personal and administrative rather than a technical nature. It was apparent that my associates and I were getting into much more trouble by violating the "unwritten" laws of professional conduct than by committing technical sins against the well-documented laws of science. Since the former appeared to be indeed unwritten, as regards any adequate and convenient text, the following "laws" were formulated and collected, to provide a set of "house rules" or a professional code, for an engineering organization. Although they are admittedly fragmentary and incomplete, they are offered here for whatever they may be worth to younger men just starting their careers, and to older men who know these things perfectly well but who all too often fail to apply them in practice.
How to Handle Your Work
However menial or trivial your early assignments may appear – give them your best efforts. Many young engineers feel that the minor chores of a technical project are beneath their dignity and unworthy of their college training. They expect to prove their true worth in some major enterprise. Actually, the spirit and effectiveness with which you tackle your first humble task will very likely to be carefully watched and may affect your entire career. Occasionally a man will worry unduly about where his job is going to get him – Whether it is sufficiently strategic or significant. Of course these are pertinent considerations, but by and large if you take care of your present job well, the future will take care of itself. This is particularly so in the case of a large corporation, where executives are constantly searching for competent men to move up into more responsible positions. Success depends so largely upon personality, native ability, and vigorous, intelligent prosecution of any job that it is no exaggeration to say that your ultimate chances are much better if you do a good job on some minor detail than if you do a mediocre job as section head. Furthermore, it is also true that if you do not first make a good showing on your present job, you are not likely to be given the opportunity of trying something else more to your liking.
There is always a premium upon the ability to get things done. This depends on a combination of three basic characteristics:
Energy – the initiative to start things and aggressiveness to keep them moving briskly.
Resourcefulness or ingenuity, i.e., the faculty for finding ways to accomplish the desired result.
Persistence (tenacity), which is the disposition to persevere in spite of difficulties, discouragement or indifference.
In carrying out a project, do not wait for foremen, vendors, and others to deliver the goods: go after them and keep everlastingly after them. This is one of the first things a new man has to learn in entering the industry. Many novices assume that it is sufficient to place the order and sit back and wait until the goods are delivered. The fact is that most jobs move in direct proportion to the amount of follow-up and expediting that is applied to them. Expediting means planning, investigating, promoting, and facilitating every stop in the process. Cultivate the habit of looking immediately for some way around each obstacle encountered, some other recourse or expedient to keep the job rolling without losing momentum.
On the other hand, individuals can make themselves obnoxious and antagonize everyone by browbeating tactics. Be careful about demanding action from another department.
Confirm your instructions and the other fellow’s commitment in writing. Do not assume that the job will be done or the bargain kept just because the other fellow agreed to do it. Many people have poor memories, others are too busy, and almost everyone will take the matter a great deal more seriously if he sees it in writing. Of course, there are exceptions, but at times it pays to make a third party a copy of the memo, as a witness.
When sent out on any complaint or other assignment, stick with it and see it through to a successful finish. All too often a visiting engineer from another office will leave a job half done or poorly done in order to catch a plane or keep some other engagement. Wire the boss that you’ve got to stay over to clean up the job. Neither he nor the customer will like it if another man has to be sent out later to finish it up.
Avoid the appearance of vacillation! One of the gravest of indictments of an engineer is to say: "His opinion depends on the last man he talked to." Refrain from stating an opinion or promoting an undertaking until you can obtain and study the facts. Then see it through, unless fresh evidence makes it folly to persist.
Don’t be timid – speak up – express yourself and promote your ideas. Every young man should read Emerson’s essay on "Self Reliance." Too many new men seem to think that their job is simply to do what they’re told to do along the lines laid down by the boss. Of course there are times when it is very wise and prudent to keep your mouth shut. But, as a rule, it pays to express your point of view whenever you can contribute something. The quiet mousy individual who says nothing is usually credited with nothing to say.
It frequently happens in any sort of undertaking, that nobody is sure just how the matter ought to be handled; it’s a question of selecting some kind of program with a reasonable chance of success. This is often the case in engineering-office conferences. The first man to speak up with a definite, plausible proposal has a better-than-even chance of carrying the floor. And the man who talks most knowingly and confidently about the matter will very often end up with the assignment to carry out the project. If you do not want the job, keep your mouth shut and you’ll be overlooked, but you’ll also be overlooked when it becomes time to assign larger responsibilities!
Before asking for approval of any major action, have a definite plan and program worked out to support it. Executives very generally and very properly will refuse to approve any proposed undertaking that is not well planned and thought through as regards the practical details of it execution. Quite often a young man will propose a project without having worked out the means of accomplishing it, or weighing the actual advantages against the difficulties and costs. This makes the difference between a well-considered and half-baked scheme.
Strive for conciseness and clarity in oral or written reports. If there is one bane of an executive’s existence, it is the man who takes a half hour of rambling discourse to tell him what could be said in one sentence of twenty words. There is a curious and widespread tendency among engineers to surround the answer to a simple question with so many preliminaries and commentaries that the answer itself can hardly be discerned. It is so difficult to get a direct answer out of some men that their usefulness is greatly diminished. The tendency is to explain the answer before answering the question. To be sure, very few questions admit of simple answers without qualifications, but the important thing is to state the crux of the matter succinctly, first. The trick is to convey the maximum of significant information in the minimum time (is) a valuable asset to any man.
An excellent guide in this respect may be found in the standard practice of newspapers in printing the news. The headlines give 90 per cent of the basic facts. If you have the time and the interest to read further, the first paragraph will give you most of the important particulars. Succeeding paragraphs simply give details of progressively diminishing significance. To fit an article into available space, the editor simply lops off paragraphs from the rear end, knowing that relatively little of importance will be lost. You can hardly do better than to adopt this method if your own reports, presenting your facts in the order of importance, as if you might be cut off any minute.
Be extremely careful of the accuracy of your statements. This seems almost trite, and yet many engineers lose the confidence of their superiors and associates by habitually guessing when they do not know the answer to a direct question. A wrong answer is worse than no answer. If you do not know, say so, but also say, "I’ll find out right away." If you are not certain, indicate the exact degree of certainty or approximation upon which your answer is based. A reputation for dependability and reliability can be one of your most valuable assets.
This applies of course, to written matter, calculations, etc., as well as to oral reports. It is definitely bad business to submit a report to the boss for approval without first carefully checking it yourself, and yet formal reports are sometimes turned in full of glaring errors and omissions.
The Way to Handle Your Boss
Every executive must know what’s going on in his bailiwick. This principle is so elementary and fundamental as to be axiomatic. It follows from the very obvious fact that a man cannot possibly manage his business successfully unless he knows what’s going on in it. It is cited here because several of the rules, which follow, are concerned with specific violations of this cardinal requirement.
Do not overlook the fact that you’re working for your boss. This sounds simple enough, but some engineers never get it. By all means, you’re working for society, the company, the department, your family and yourself, but primarily you should be working for and through your boss. And your boss is your immediate superior, to whom you report directly. As a rule, you can serve all other ends to best advantage by working for him; assuming that he’s approximately the man he ought to be.
Generally speaking, you cannot get by the boss; he determines your rating and he rates you on your ability to cooperate, among other things. Besides, most of us get more satisfaction out of our jobs when we’re able to give the boss our personal loyalty, with the feeling that we’re helping him to get the main job done.
Be as particular as you can in the selection of your boss. In its effect upon your engineering career, this is second in importance only to the selection of proper parents. In most engineering organizations the influence of the senior engineer, or even the section head, is a major factor in molding the professional character of younger engineers. Long before the days of universities and textbooks, master craftsmen in all the arts absorbed their skills by apprenticeship to master craftsmen. It is very much as in the game of golf, a beginner who constantly plays in the company with "dubs" is very apt to remain a "dub" himself, no matter how faithfully he studies the rules, whereas even a few rounds with a "pro" will usually improve a novice’s game.
But, of course, it is not always possible to choose your boss. What if he turns out to be somewhat less than half the man he ought to be? There are only two proper alternatives open to you; (a) accept his higher authority and execute his policies as best you can, or (b) transfer to some other outfit at the first opportunity.
One of the first things you owe your boss is to keep him informed. This is a corollary of the preceding rules: An executive must know what’s going on. The main question is: How much must he know – how many of the details? This is always a difficult matter for the new man to get straight. Many novices hesitate to bother the boss with too many reports and thus can be overdone; but most of the time the executive’s problem is to extract enough information to keep adequately posted. For every time he has to say, "Don’t bother me with so many details," there will be three times he will ask, "Why doesn’t someone tell me these things?" Bear in mind that he is constantly called upon to account for, defend, and explain your activities to "higher-ups", as well as to coordinate these activities into a larger plan. In a nutshell, the rule is therefore to give him promptly all the information he needs for those two purposes.
Whatever the boss wants done takes priority. You may think you have more important things to do first, but unless you obtain permission it is usually unwise to put any other project ahead of a specific assignment from your own boss. As a rule, he has good reasons for wanting his job done now, and it is apt to have a great deal more bearing upon your rating than less conspicuous projects, which may appear more urgent.
Also, make a note of this: If you are instructed to do something and you subsequently decide it isn’t worth doing (in view of new data or events) do not just let it die, but inform the boss of your intentions and reasons. Neglect of this point has caused trouble on more than one occasion.
Do not be too anxious to follow the boss’s lead. This is the other side of he preceding rule. An undue subservience of deference to the department head’s wishes is fairly common among young engineers. A man with this kind of psychology may:
Plaque the boss incessantly for minute directions and approvals.
Surrender all initiative and depend upon the boss to do all of his basic thinking for him.
Persist in carrying through a design or a program even after new evidence has proved the original plan to be wrong.
This is where an engineering organization differs from an army. In general, the program laid down by the department or section head is tentative, rather than sacred, and is intended to serve only until a better program is proposed and approved.
The rule therefore is to tell your boss what you have done, at reasonable intervals, and ask his approval of any well considered and properly planned deviations or new projects that you may have conceived.