Last week I attended the annual awards dinner sponsored by the Santa Clara Valley Section of the ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers). It was a great event and hats off to everyone who made it happen.
Dr. Robert J. Moffat Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University was the recipient of a special award and he said something during his acceptance speech that I thought was very interesting and highlighted, what for me, is the issue around engineers and their ability to contribute to their organizations long-term.
During his talk he told us about the process he used to decide what career path he would take. He told us about his early career at General Motors and then his later education at Stanford University ultimately receiving his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.
Upon completion of his Ph.D. he began the process of packing up his office at Stanford in anticipation of returning to Michigan and General Motors when he was offered a teaching position at Stanford. Now he had to make a decision; teach at Stanford or return to General Motors.
Deciding What To Do
He shared with us his initial difficulty in making this decision, even though the engineer in him thought the decision was a “no brainer”. The job at General Motors paid more, provided a professional personal secretary, pension, a plush office, and all the benefits expected for a high-level executive position at a large American corporation.
The other possibility was a teaching position at Stanford with significantly less pay, no personal professional secretary, smaller pension, no plush office, and the opportunity for Dr. Moffat to furnish his own office.
He then went on to share with us his “process” for making his decision. He said (and I paraphrase as best I can from memory), “I thought; ‘This is an easy decision to make. I’m an engineer. I’ll just make a list of the pros and cons of each option and decide'”. Essentially, he was going to deal with the “data”.
Making A List and Checking It Twice
So he made his list. All markers pointed to Michigan. All data pointed to General Motors.
This is the perfect “engineers approach”, right? Data rules! Data will tell you what you should do. But will data tell you what you “want” to do? After making his lists and looking at them, anyone selecting a career based on “raw data” would have selected General Motors, and Professor Moffat said as much in his speech. But when he thought about what he “wanted” to do, he selected a teaching assignment at Stanford where he has been every since. He is now Professor Emeritus and said he has not regretted his decision for one moment. His heart, his emotions, told him that he wanted to stay at Stanford. He made his decision not on “factual data” but on the “emotional non-data”. He made his decision on emotion. He made his decision not on the “left hemispheric processing” of his brain but on its “right hemispheric processing”.
Most engineers rely on data and often believe that decisions, especially decisions at work, should be driven by data. Decisions driven by data seem to be “no-brainers”. Yet few decisions are truly based on “data”. Many, if not most really important decisions, those with far reaching implications, require the application of judgment. They require the application of emotion and subtle inter-personal evaluation. They require the understanding of the far-reaching implications of the consequences not just on “things” but on “people”, on “groups of people”, and on “group cultures”. Many decisions in the world are often “colored”, “modified”, even wholly determined by factors other than data. Factors having to do with desires, emotions, and values.
This ability to move from the arena of “unambiguous and certain data” to the arena of “ambiguous and uncertain judgement” is a key step in the transition from engineer to leader. The path from engineer to leader, from engineer to manager, even from engineer to team lead, requires the development of the non-data-driven component of our decision-making capabilities. It requires the development of the right hemispheres of our brains, that portion which processes non-linearly and “feels” more than it “analyzes”. It requires our ability to be more than technical and for most of us the transition is like a new career.
Being More Than Technical
The engineers and engineering managers of the future, the engineers and engineering managers that will change the world, not just for the sake of change but change the world for the better, are and will be the engineers and managers that can, like Professor Moffat, access both their left and right brains. They are those who can deal with data AND the ambiguities and subtleties of the human condition. They can deal with data and with colleagues across the oceans and around the world.
Well done ASME.