Some individuals are reluctant to speak about the future. They say they can’t “see” it. I can -- I “see” the future of engineering clearly because I “see” you; I see engineering students and young practitioners. What you do, or don’t do, with your careers will determine our profession’s future. Please consider my thoughts related to your future. I offer five suggestions.
Suggestion 1 – Always be a student: I recall my college days when I looked forward to graduating so that I would not have to study anymore. That was naïve. Technology and economic-social complexity are expanding exponentially. The most successful business, government, academic, and volunteer organizations recruit and retain engineers and others who stay current, who continue to study in a variety of ways. Regardless of the state of economy, you will always be employable if you continue your personal development. So please consider being a perpetual student.
One way to continue your studies is to read about leaders. I recently read Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat by John Lukacs (2008). This is the story of Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, during the years immediately before World War II and during the war. The book teaches two important lessons possibly pertinent to your future. The first is the value of vision, whether personal or organizational. Churchill saw, before almost anyone, the great difficulty the British Isles would experience during the imminent war, and he persisted in speaking about this vision, in spite of widespread skepticism, so that his nation would be prepared. Second, Churchill, like most individuals who lead, was a powerful speaker. He wrote his own speeches and practiced them. Many of his expressions are still memorable and used in the English language including “slippery slope” and “finest hour.”
You have many and varied options for continuing your studies. A major one is to seek an employer who will encourage you to continue your personal and professional development and assist you. Even if you are fortunate enough to find such an employer, take charge of your own continued development. Continued study and personal development are your responsibility.
Suggestion 2 – Protect your reputation: Before discussing reputation, briefly consider image. Image is what we think of someone when we first see them. You see me or I see you for the first time and we form an initial impression. Image is important in that, as someone said, “you get only one chance to make a good first impression.” However, reputation is much more important. Reputation is what people who know you think about you. The two most important reputation elements are, in my view, honesty and integrity.
Honesty is retrospective; it is how you describe or explain what you have done or what has happened. Integrity is prospective; it is how you follow through on what you say you will do.
Individuals who practice honesty and have integrity tell the truth and keep their word--old fashioned and powerful attributes. Engineers who practice honesty and integrity earn excellent reputations and, as a result, have many professional opportunities. Clients, owners, stakeholders, partners, collaborators, and others seek honest individuals who also do what they say they will do.
Why is reputation important? I recently shopped for a vase that would be a birthday present for my wife. I found the vase that I knew she would like it and bought it. I was not concerned about the reputation of the person who made it. I judged the vase on its characteristics.
In contrast, the individuals and organizations that consider retaining our firms to provide services or seek help from our government, academic, and volunteer organizations, often do not understand our complex processes and results. Unlike me and the vase, those we serve typically cannot judge our recommended plans, designs, specifications, and other products based on the characteristics of those results. However, the individuals we serve do feel competent to judge us and assess our reputation, that is, to determine if we are honest and have integrity.
Whatever others conclude about your reputation—good or bad—is imputed to or transferred to your work products. If you have built and protected your reputation, those you serve are very likely to accept your recommendations. If your reputation has been damaged, your credibility will be greatly diminished.
Reputation is like a crystal figurine created by a craftsperson. Reputation, like the figurine, requires much effort to create. Reputation, like the figurine, has many facets. Once shattered, reputation, like the figurine, may be impossible to repair. My advice: tell the truth and keep your word recognizing that sometimes this will be very difficult.
Suggestion 3 – Balance success and significance: By “success,” I mean your personal gain. Examples are the money you earn, the car you drive, and the prestigious title you’ve acquired. In contrast, “significance” refers to your positive impact on others and society. Success is about “stuff;” significance is about legacy.
I happen to live near a project I managed years ago and, as a result, I frequently see “my” project serving its intended functions and adding to the quality of life in the community. Very few people remember that I had anything to do with this project. That’s not important. What is important to me is the satisfaction I feel seeing the project work.
Another way of looking at the advice to balance success and significance is to think about your epitaph. Do you want it to say something like “he drove a Porsche” or “she had a prestigious title”? Or, in contrast, would you prefer an epitaph like this: “He or she left the world a better place than he or she found it”?
Suggestion 4 – Use technology wisely: Technology is expanding rapidly. I view all of it as neutral; it is neither good nor bad. The positive or negative characterization of any technology depends on how we use it.
How are you using technology? Consider communication technology. Consider reading The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future by Mark Bauerlein (2008). The thesis of the book, and I’m not convinced that the thesis is correct, is that U.S. young people, which the author defines as those under about 30 years of age, are misusing or under using communication technology.
For example, instead of using the internet after class to learn more about what was discussed in class, they use the internet while in class to view YouTube. Instead of using communication technology to expand their contacts around the campus, their employing organization, their country, and the world, they use it primarily to communicate even more with their close circle of friends. That is, rather than reach out, they turn even more inward.
Maybe the author’s thesis is incorrect. I hope so. Regardless, the book’s message might stimulate you to think about your use of technology. Is it your master or your slave? Does it help you grow or does it stunt you? As you move through your career, you will increasingly be able to inform colleagues and those you serve about the positive and negative aspects of technology and guide its wise use.
Suggestion 5 – Think and act globally: When I was a university student, and contemplating graduate school and my first engineering position, I thought only about employment and study in the U.S. Vacation travel planning was limited to the U.S. I studied only English and knew little about other cultures.
You are citizens of a global society and should think and act accordingly. For example, early in your career, consider employment, project assignments, or graduate study in other countries. Travel to other nations, learn another language, and become more aware of culture differences.
As we say, “it is a small world.” And, over the last two decades or so, I’ve learned how small it is and tried to act accordingly. Because of my age and circumstances, I had the option of deciding if I wanted to think and act globally. In my view, if you want to realize your potential, you do not have that option.
Closing thoughts: As you go forward into an increasingly complex and connected world, please consider my five suggestions: Always be a student, protect your reputation, balance success and significance, use technology wisely, and think and act globally. The future, yours and that of the engineering profession, is in your hands. Practice good stewardship. Don’t let the future just happen. You only get to go around once and, take it from me, the trip goes fast. Create the future for yourself, the engineering profession, and society.
(Note: I presented the essence of this essay at a 2008 Brazilian engineering conference. The message seemed to be well received by the student, faculty, and practitioner audience. Therefore, I hope to share it with more students and young practitioners. If you are in academia, please consider sharing this essay with your current or former students. Practitioners, please do the same with the young practitioners you encounter. Thank you!)
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