Why Engineer? Chapter 3 Part 3 — What Can You Only Learn on the Job?

Here’s something extra that they don’t teach in school. Some things are so complicated and lacking in answers that they require quite a bit of study before you reach a decision about how to treat them. And the odd thing is that your can study and study and eventually find that you have the answer you need, but all the things that you learned are useless. It’s as though you become smarter and smarter and finally come to the conclusion that all you learned was a waste of time — and then you really are smart.

Here’s an example. I once had to design heat exchangers that transferred heat from water to an agricultural waste slurry (a mix of solid particles and water). The viscosity of the slurry was unknown, indeed not predictable for every case. So, I started ordering articles and books from the company library on everything I could find on heat transfer involving slurries. Nothing fit my case. I worked at it over several months and learned a lot about things I would never use. And then it hit me. Pretty much every slurry in the studies I read absorbed heat better than water. So if I designed the heat exchangers as though they were dealing only with water, the result would be at least as good as I needed. So, all the knowledge I had gained was ultimately not applicable, but I now knew how to make the designs work. You climb the knowledge curve until you fall off. That’s when you finally get smart.

I’ve seen this happen several times in my career. Just beat around in the dark until you find that one little light switch.

Why Engineer? Chapter 3 Part 2 — What Can You Only Learn on the Job?

Learn to plan and estimate.  That is something you can only learn at your particular place of work.  Both the estimating and the planning depend heavily on the type of engineering you do, the products your company makes, the needs of your customers, and how your company organizes itself.  Few engineers plan their work or estimate their time or the time of others.  It is the bigger picture.  It sets priorities.  It tells you if what you are doing is really important.  Even if you do not supervise the work of others, it helps you fit your work into the flow of work needed from all parties involved.

Don’t trust everything you were taught in college.  Textbooks are an endless source of errors.  handbooks also contain errors.  And not just a few.  And not just small errors.  Many years ago, (OK, eons ago) when desktop computers were first coming into the work environment, I was asked to check on a particular handbook that was frequently used by our engineers.  A new edition had come out, and it was supposed to be set up especially for use with computers.  So, I called the professor whose name was listed as one of the authors (the prime author had died).  We had a nice chat.  He said the the publisher was working with a programmer to write the software that would allow the new edition’s formulations to be applied to desktop computers. He also mentioned that the revisions to the new edition had brought with it a number of errors, and he asked if I would like a copy of the errata.  I said yes, and in about a week I received a listing of over seventy significant errors, some by as much as a factor of Pi.  Subsequent to that, one of our engineers found three more large errors.  The book’s subject was stress analysis!  In fact, it was the premier book on the subject, used by practically anyone who did stress analysis.

I have other examples of source errors, but you get the picture.

Given the time to think about it more deeply, I am sure I could list any number of things that you only learn on the job.  In fact, if you aren’t constantly learning on the job, the job gets sort of boring.

Why Engineer? Chapter 3 Part 1 — What Can You Only Learn on the Job?

Beyond college is where the learning most pertinent to your career takes place.  So, here are some of the first things you will learn.

Completing a job on time is number one.  If you can do that without ruining the outcome, so much the better.

Speed is important.  It allows the company to promise a quicker final result.  It spends less company and customer money to get what the customer wants.  It commonly allows you to spend time refining your solutions, making them better, cheaper.

You will not generally be a speed demon the instant you start your first job.

Speed is not just dependent on you.  You will most likely have to coordinate your work with the work of others, the customer included.  That can, and often does, slow you down.  If the work is not adequately coordinated by either you or those above you, speed will not be the only thing that is sacrificed.  The quality of the work will suffer also.  Sorry, but that is the real world.  You are seldom the only one to determine the fate of your work.

Completing a job correctly may take more time at first, but may still be the least time burner.  A common phrase in the industry is, “We never have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it over.”  That sarcasm makes a point that is all too often ignored.  Now, you can fight against doing something wrong, but there are limits.  Every project has a program manager in one form or another.  As short sighted as it may be, in fighting to stay within budget and schedule, a program manager may not want to solve all of the design problems.  It may be the program manager’s judgment that certain aspects of the design are not all that important.  However, they may seem extremely important to you.  Seldom will you win that argument.

What if the design aspect that is being ignored is not just about money?  How if it is truly an issue of safety?  Well, some of the responsibility to get this fixed depends on you, and how well you can make your case.  The good news is that most engineering organizations have a path to follow in dealing with potential safety issues.  And they are far better at it than the evening news would like you to believe.

Get to know your organization.  Use it to get what you need for a good design.  In those rare instances where you think safety is being compromised, you may be surprised to find that the problem is not what you think it is.