Yup, this week on Engineer Blogs, we’re talking about cross-functional engineering teams and working with engineers that aren’t like our own field. And in the true nature of someone that writes articles at the end of the week, I’d like to discuss the things that all our other wonderful writers haven’t mentioned yet (like my post reversing how the world looks at engineers). I mean, I need to keep the topics fresh and snappy, ya know?
Anyway, this week, I’d like to talk about those engineers in a group that a bit “off”. That sub-group of the engineering fraternity that no one seems to understand. The group that had a really strong period, but now have started to fade into the background. The group? Surely, it must be civil engineers, right? Or what about chemical engineers, who needs those guys anymore? What about those crazy mechanical engineers, machine shop is so last century, agreed?
Nope, it’s none of those. The group of “different” and “out there” engineers I’m thinking of? Old engineers.
Why do I lump these elders into a seperate group? Because they’re different! And not in a bad way.
- They’re really experienced
- I’m not saying that this trumps all other decision making processes, but it does mean that they’ve seen a lot of ideas tried and failed. Now, this can be a weak point too, giving up on an idea too soon. But it also can mean that they will be able to point out stumbling blocks of a project before it even starts. That’s a valuable person to have on your team, assuming they offer suggestions that may work instead. The best experienced engineer will politely warn a younger engineer and then allow him or her to go off and fail miserably and figure it out for themselves. I always appreciate that. It’s how I learn!
- They’re rigorously educated
- Just the other day my fiancee told me of a 4 year study of college students and how schools aren’t nearly as rigorous as they used to be. My reaction? Lack of surprise. Talking to older engineers about their university experience, I realized they did twice the amount of work I did (and not just because of the lack of a calculator) and in the end wound up with worse grades (because the grading was different). Aside from my guilt about this, I know that there were things they learned in school that I then had to learn from them! This is expected from older to younger engineers in most cases (mentoring, etc), but it’s the rigor in problem solving and thought exercises that are the true skill that younger engineers need to glean from their older counterparts.
- They’re rare
- Let’s be honest, folks. Engineering is not cut out to be a life-long profession any more (though I’m not sure it ever was). The earning potential of engineers is all front loaded and engineers are expected (or forced) to move to management or other fields as they start to move up in the world. Or at least as they move up in years. So the ones that stay behind and are engineers to the end are a more rare breed. They love having their hands in problems and they love figuring out technical challenges. This could also mean they dislike or are not cut out for managing people, which also could mean they’re closer to the dreaded “stereotypical engineer”. What does this mean for you? You will have to realize why they’re still in engineering (the good and the bad) and try to learn from all the positive things they’ve done in their career.
- They’re passed over for new hires
- Brian Fuller of EElife recently did a survey about age and engineering. Well, it was EEs, but that’s the only group that matters, right? Kidding. Anyway, the survey found that having a job and continuing in that role is not a problem for older workers. It’s gaining new employment while out of work that older engineers start to feel disadvantaged. This could mean that older engineers are less likely to move out of an existing position, because moving on to other jobs is more difficult. As a result of that, younger engineers might have a harder time moving up in the ranks because the older engineers aren’t willing to budge. Or in other situations, young superstar engineers will be moved up and around the existing older engineers, either into a more senior role or management; in which case the older engineer would then be reporting to the younger engineer.
So how do I suggest that people work with this group of “outcasts and misfits”? Listen to them. Older engineers are not some crazy group, in reality. They’re actually just you, 30 years into the future (well, I make the mistake of thinking others are MY age, so you can do your own math). You can bet you’ll be in their shoes some day: some youngin’ will come up to you hoping for some nuggets of wisdom and think you’re similarly smart, experienced and insufferable (what are they teaching those future children???). Try your best to utilize the wisdom they have, be patient with their suggestions (they’re being offered for a reason) and in the event you’re in charge, treat them well.
So what about you? Do you find it harder to work with engineers outside your discipline? Or outside your age group? Let us know in the comments!