Engineering is about people…

I attended a conference in the 1980s with  600 people in the plenary session. The speaker asked who would recommend engineering to their children. Only six hands went up: 1 per cent.

That this was an engineering conference made the result even more alarming. It may go some way to explain why today engineers make up just 9 per cent of the workforce, of which 2 per cent are female.

The need to promote STEM subjects in school is well documented, but there is something more fundamental that needs to take place.

In the latter part of the year there has been a welcome shift in political rhetoric as Turnbull seeks to “embrace” the future, yet paradoxically there are too few in my profession to create that future.

The need to promote STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths) in school is well documented, but there is something more fundamental that needs to take place: influencing people with the ability to influence those yet to choose their vocation.

Had more hands risen at that conference in the 1980s, it may have been an Australian electrical engineer who adapted GPS to create the world’s first ride-sharing business; an Australian mechanical engineer who while all those around him sought to produce faster cars, realised the potential in solar-powered cars; an Australian engineer who took government-funded touch-screen technology and adapted it for use on a mobile phone.

So the first step to embracing the future is to ensure the next generation have among them a greater proportion of Australians with the ability to create the future, solve challenges, and shape a better world.

This requires a return to the fundamentals of engineering.

The word “engineer” is derived from the Latin words ingeniare, meaning to “devise”, and ingenium, meaning “cleverness”. In short, engineers devise clever ways for scientific discovery to benefit humans.

Yet somehow engineering has lost that connection to society and humanity. It has become about “things” and not about “making things happen” to benefit people. The aqueducts of the Roman empire were not about arches and stone, but about the movement of much needed water into cities for people; the Snowy Hydro Scheme is not about 16 dams and seven major power stations, it is about the provision of water for $3 billion of agricultural produce and clean renewable energy to benefit Australians; the Sydney Opera House, which my firm Arup worked on, is not just a performance theatre, it is a reflective symbol of the tenacity, beauty and brilliance of the people who make this island the best there is.

Engineering must return to why it exists. It is not about things, it is about people. In doing so it will once more be a part of the social sciences: politics and not just physics; finance and not just construction; the law and consequences of decisions, as opposed to just providing solutions.

Some of the great engineers, George Stephenson and Laurence Hartnett, the fathers of railway and the Holden respectively, spent more than half their time with politicians and money men. They knew how the system worked because they had to – their engineering was about benefiting people. Hartnett is believed to have drafted many of the letters that he received from the Australian government, so that he could then show them to his bosses to indicate the seriousness of the government’s intent to have an “Australian” car. It was never about a car, it was about an Australian car – by the people, for the people.

Just as the “E” of engineering is at the heart of STEM, so too it must be in the heart of government. There is a minister for science, innovation and industry and a chief scientist, but where is the “E”? Where is the chief engineer? Where is the link between what science can do and the implications for humanity? There is so much talk of the “T” and “S”, yet it is the “E” that is best placed to devise clever ways science and technology may or may not benefit people.

Today we face a number of challenges: poverty and unequal wealth distribution; resource scarcity and security: water, food, energy resources; climate change and resilience; urbanisation and an ageing population.

All of these are engineering challenges.

This should be the era of the engineers determining which scientific discoveries and technological advancements can benefit humanity and must be pursued. An era of engineers able to draw the distinction between our ability to do something and whether we should do something based on a wider benefit to people.

Designing with social purpose, concentrating on projects that will make our world safer, healthier, and more resilient within financial and ecological constraints: it is time for this element of engineering to come to the fore and determine future direction.

If we focus on doing the right things well, and on being very clear as to why we are doing what we are doing for the benefit of humanity,  status and respect will follow. Our profession will attract more from across genders due to the universal appeal of doing societal good, and as is statistically proven, firms will attract the best and brightest because they  have a purpose greater than profit.

If we do this now, maybe more hands will be raised should the question of recommending engineering to children be asked in a few years, and the next generation will not only embrace their future, but have enough people with the capacity to create it, too.

Dr Robert Care AM is the outgoing Australian Engineer of the Year 2015, Canberra-based Arup principal, and chairman of the Common Purpose Charitable Trust.

Interview with #1 NY Times bestselling author Prof. Robert Sutton

I am always looking for examples of how people enforce The No Asshole Rule.  For regular readers of this blog, you’ve heard a lot about SuccessFactors no assholes rule.   In the last week I’ve come across two other great illustrations, from dramatically different settings.

The first came in email from Robert Care,  the CEO of Australian and Asian operations of a multinational engineering consulting firm called ARUP. Mr. Care wrote me that he had ran into the book in Sydney Airport, and reported that his company has a similar rule:

“I work for a truly wonderful professional services company that is truly extraordinary and that is doing really well in many many ways.  Three years ago I became the CEO of our Australasian operation.  It occurred to me that there was an issue (not just in the Australasian part of our operations) that needed to be dealt with.”

“I then heard something in September 2005 that started me thinking, and then talking to my close colleagues.  They encouraged me to speak more widely in my organisation and eventually we evolved a ‘no dickhead policy’. “

Mr Care sent me some of the documentation that they use to support the rule, notably a memo that he wrote in July 2006, called Let’s Talk, which explains what the rule means.  He started by explaining how he got the idea:

“On ‘that day in September’ 2005, the Sydney Swans won the Australian Rules Football League (AFL) flag for the first time in 72 years. In the euphoria that followed one clear story emerged for me above all else. The Swans, in describing how they came to win, captured it with two words: ‘no dickheads’. They did not say what it meant, but everyone understood or had their own ‘take’ on it. Later statements made it clearer – ‘they played for each other’, ‘team spirit’, ‘knowing your role and doing it’ and ‘helping each other when that doesn’t work’.”

Then he goes onto explain what the rule means at ARUP:

“To me ‘no dickheads’ refers to recruiting and retaining people who support and enhance our culture rather than weaken it; it means getting square pegs into square holes and round pegs into round holes – the right people for the right jobs; it means that we are team players working for each other not ourselves; it means that it is not alright to be a bully or abuse people who are in less powerful positions; it means that if it doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t.

By the way – the problem is not about being a ‘dickhead’; it is about behaving like one. And it is not even about behaving badly on the odd occasion – we’re all guilty of that. The real problem is about systematic and continual bad or inappropriate behaviour. It is damaging to the people who work with these ‘dickheads’, and for the firm as a whole.

So how do you know if you are behaving like a ‘dickhead’? How about considering the impact you have on others? Do other people walk away from interactions with you feeling good about themselves, or at least that they have been treated fairly, or do they try to avoid interacting with you? Are you understanding about other people’s strength and weaknesses and realistic in your expectations? Do you enhance others’ self esteem? This is what being a team is all about! And we want a team, a very successful team.”

Mr. Care also makes the critical point that the rule is especially important to apply to top performers, an essential element in enforcing such rules, as I have emphasized many times:

“OK, so we have said this is how we want it to be. But it is not enough to say it, we have to uphold it – and it might be painful. If the ‘dickhead’ is also a poor performer then the solution is obvious. The real challenge is when an otherwise good or exceptional performer has the problem. What do we do? I would argue that we have a duty and obligation to make sure the person knows the effect they are having on others. But beyond that, it is only the person themselves that can make the change, and they may not try, or may not succeed. If that’s the case I believe we should go our separate ways.”

I believe that Mr. Care completely “gets it,” and he has a huge amount to teach other big companies.  But it also seems that the rule can be useful in very small organizations, notably bars and pubs where all that alcohol consumption can turn people into (at least temporary) assholes. Pam over at Writing, Work and Weasels (a funny and most insightful blog) described how a customer applied the rule one night:

“Once, at my father’s pub, we had a particularly raunchy crowd of drunken, loudmouth idiots. One of our regulars took a piece of cardboard from a beer delivery box and a magic marker, and scrawled “Asshole-Free Section.” He stuck it on the corner of the bar where we were sitting, and we entertained ourselves for an hour or so saying “hey, didn’t you bother to read the sign?” to anyone who came to sit with us.

Too bad we can’t do that at work.

In a bar, everyone calls everyone else an asshole. That’s because if you spend enough time there, you will become one at some point. Your friends will love you for it, and everyone else will be glad they’re not you.

But I’ve always said that in spite of the drunkenness and the mooning, the quarrels and brawls and stuff people say that would never have come out of their mouths before that third shot, I’ve met more bona-fide assholes at work than in the bar. An asshole in a suit and tie is still an asshole, just one without an excuse.”

I love the contrast between these two stories. It makes me realize that — although jerks may always be with us — so will the urge to expel them and drive them away from us!