Working on an interdisciplinary team

Working on an interdisciplinary team

Chris hates working alone. Fluxor has suggestions for interview questions. And some people wonder why you should bother with a behavioral interview.

My perspective on some of these this is different because I am working with an interdisciplinary team. In a lot of companies, electrical engineers are separated from mechanical engineers, even when working on the same project. They may approach projects in stages, or maybe they work on completely different things.

The wonderful thing about where I work is that I inhabit a world full of electrical engineers, each of whom have a different specialization. There are also a smaller number of mechanical engineers and sometimes we deal with chemists and/or material scientists. Because of the nature of the projects we are working on, we work together relatively closely, probably far more than if we were working at a regular business.

Interdisciplinary research has a lot of advantages, but there are some drawbacks. It is surprising how it can affect your perspective on a normal working environment.

For instance, given there is minimal overlap in duties, I am limited to discussing issues with one or, on occasion, two people. If I hit a bump in the road at the wrong time of day or wrong day of the week, I can be spinning my wheels for a few hours or a few days once I realize I’m stuck. It’s fairly critical that I can work independently and be able to track down solutions on my own.

A second issue is that I am in no position to evaluate the expertise of most of the people I work with. While I have found my geology background surprisingly useful in relating to the mechanical engineers (given I am more versed in the mathematical language of stress, strain, and heat flow than many of the other electrical engineers), I would have difficulty coming up with a list of questions such as Fluxor’s to evaluate someone’s grounding in a field. (And I don’t mean that in the electromagnetic sense.) In fact, I would have difficulty doing that with most of the people I work with, including the electrical engineers. I may have a great understanding of simulation techniques, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing about embedded software. This means that every person is critical to meeting our goals, and no one can easily take over for another person.

Therefore, I may have to work on my own a lot, but how I interact with my colleagues may be different than many electrical engineers. A good working relationship with colleagues is even more crucial in this setting. While some companies have some redundancy built in, making it easier to assign work to someone who is easier to get along with, my workplace does not. When attempting to optimize a device, there is usually some arm wrestling that occurs between electrical and mechanical properties and manufacturing restrictions, for instance. I have to understand and communicate the issues I am facing in such a way that someone from a completely different field understands me. Likewise, I need to understand their issues. Then we have to sit down and agree on what issues are critical to each of us and where we can give a little bit. There is no room to move if someone cannot understand why the issues are important or refuses to cooperate. There is no place for the ego to override engineering considerations. Because of this as well as the fact that I can only minimally judge someone else’s technical prowess, I find behavioral considerations to be as important as technical competence. A person who comprehends the difficulties in any project is far more valuable than someone who is intimidated by learning things outside their field. A difficult person can become a real bottleneck in progress.

I imagine that all of these issues do come up in a normal engineering business to at least some degree, especially small ones. However, in an environment where you may be the only one working in a particular area of a large project, it is critical that everyone be on the same page. When you are on the same page, working can be a great learning experience.

What issues are critical at your workplace?