One of the beautiful things about engineering is that there are many, many solutions to each problem.
In school, it was comforting to realize that there was a correct answer to every homework problem. I think engineers are stereotypically wired to like a precise, logical, correct answer. A SINGLE answer. But then, I got to graduate school. And suddenly, the problems that I encountered didn’t HAVE an answer. (Yet, at least.) That was scary in itself. And even scarier, was the notion that even if I did find AN answer – it might not be the only one. Which means, my answer might not be the best one. Yowza!
Eventually I learned that in the real world, it’s not always about having the best answer. You can almost never prove which answer is best, and even if you could, it’s usually not worth the time it takes. It’s about having an answer that is good enough. And then selling it with confidence. 🙂
So I’ve learned how to deal personally deal with imprecise, multiple answers, but I’m still figuring it out in groups. Because for every engineer you put on a project, each one will have different ideas on how to go about tackling it. What if you disagree? How do you deal with that?
It’s fairly easy to deal with differences of opinion on purely technical design issues, I think. If you can do a technical calculation that shows somebody else’s design is actually wrong (um, the stress here would collapse that pressure vessel…) or not as efficient as yours (my heat transfer calculation shows the shell-and-tube exchanger to be a better fit for this application), then you have solid ground to stand on to make a complaint.
But there are also aesthetic design decisions that are a matter of opinion. And in those cases, I have learned to be much more tolerant than I used to be. I have a labmate who recently took a look at the machined piece I had just made, and scoffed at me: “What possessed you to use 1/8″ pipe fittings instead of 10-32?” Well, gees, I don’t know – the fact that it DOESN’T MATTER comes to mind. Later as I was working to clean machining oil off the part, the same labmate incredulously asked, “Why in the world did you use machining oil at all? On PLASTIC?” Um, well, because it’s my habit to always use machining oil when drilling holes. Plastic or not, I thought it was just good practice… Engineers tend to get defensive when you critique their work. Even the best ones (maybe especially the best ones) get a little personally attached to their designs, so I can guarantee they are not going to respond well to, say, “What possesed you to do X?” 🙂
So for technical design disagreements, my approach is to stick to the facts to make my point. And for aesthetic design issues, either I politely suggest, or I hold my peace.
There are also multiple ways to communicate your engineering designs and ideas, and disagreements crop up on the best way to do this as well.
Writing is an important tool for engineers to communicate. I knew a PhD student who was writing his thesis, and he and his advisor spent days arguing over the order of the chapters in his thesis. There is also a professor in my lab who constantly corrects the use of “can” and “may” in the writing of his students – the problem being, the professors is wrong and doesn’t understand the proper English useage of those words. In the first case, I wouldn’t have spent the time or effort to argue on order of chapters in a thesis. In the second case, I’m not sure. It would really bother me to make grammar changes to my writing that I knew were incorrect – but is it worth arguing over when it’s your boss?
PowerPoint slides are another topic that everyone has a different opinion on. While there are well-understood best practices for PowerPoints (no large paragraphs of text, make the plots labels big enough to read, clear figures), I have seen so many terrible, horrendous PowerPoint presentations that I have just given up. Unless somebody specifically asks me for my opinion on their slides, I just suffer with no complaint.
Plots are really the only area of communication where I really will press the issue. If I see a paper with a confusing figure, or a diagram that is unclear, or (refer to previous paragraph) a plot in a presentation with no labels or unreadable axes, I will speak up. Data is the lifeblood of a graduate student, and if someone isn’t communicating clearly, that is a worthwile disagreement to have.
So for communication issues, I pick my battles. If there is an issue of being unclear or misleading, I will bring it up and I consider it a hill worth dying on. If it’s a matter of someone just writing in a different style or making a presentation using a different approach, I will just accept it as is.
How do you express when you disagree with other engineers’ way of doing things? How do you respond when someone challenges your way of doing things?