Useful Things I Have Learned That Engineering School Never Taught Me

Useful Things I Have Learned That Engineering School Never Taught Me

I had this post written already, but think it’s an appropriate response to recent articles from GEARS and from Miss MSE about which humanities classes I thought should have been part of my education. 

I’ve been out of school for several years now and along the way I’ve picked up a few things that made me say “Why didn’t they teach that to me before!?!?” Now, brace yourself, fellow engineers, because I’m not talking about some arcane science or deep mathematical insight. I’m talking about the general disciplines that fall into the field I think of as the Liberal Arts.

Of course, when I was student, I rolled my eyes and thought that Liberal Arts meant things like studying Art History of the Early to Late Middle Renaissance, and wondered how it would get me a job. Now, I see the Liberal Arts as a set of “soft” skills that are essential for being well rounded and helping a person function as a likeable, working, respectable, adult.

I’ve cherry picked the few topics that I found the most eye opening  and that I wished I had learned sooner (and wondered why they weren’t part of my high school or college curriculum). Namely, I’ve written a little about sales, graphic design, negotiation, drawing, and finance.

Much like a good teacher, there are few things that are as valuable for learning a subject as a good book. Also, like teachers, there are few things I find so frustrating as a bad book. For each topic, I’ll recommend a book I’ve read so you can learn from it too.

How to Get People to Listen to Your Awesome Idea

aka “Sales”

Have you ever had an amazing idea, that no one would ever take seriously, despite how obviously amazing, beneficial, or useful it was? Regardless of how much it could have helped them, they just weren’t interested?  A knowledge of sales would have helped.

Sales, at its very core, is really about the exchange of information. You have something that can help someone and you explain to them how that is possible. And then they buy it from you. Or use your idea.

Unfortunately, there are several barriers to the exchange of this information, mostly psychological; people can be silly, irrational, and most importantly, don’t like being told what to do. Hence, it doesn’t matter how awesome your idea is, or your product, or your service, unless you can get that information through those barriers.

The whole idea of sales training is to teach the techniques for effectively communicating information, particularly when a person isn’t interested because they don’t understand how they can benefit.

To learn more about sales, I recommend reading “Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets” by Michael T. Bosworth. The first chapter alone was enough to make me change the way I work with people. Around Engineer Blogs, Sophi Kravitz is a sales engineer writing for us and will be able to give us more insight into the world of sales.


How to Make Stuff Look Nice

aka “Graphic Design”

Graphic design is about the visual  communication of ideas. It is not just some artsy-fartsy field; it is a discipline that comes from knowledge of how the human eye takes in information and applies that knowledge to communicate effectively.

Have you ever had the experience of laying out a slide or a document, and said, “It just doesn’t look quite right?” Graphic design gives you the language to say exactly what is wrong.

Much of graphic design is learning the language behind the core principals, such as contrast, alignment, balance, etc. The rest then becomes learning to apply these principals to design problems.

An experienced graphic designer, with a wealth of design solutions under his or her belt, can lean on their vast knowledge and fluency in the language of design to create and critique beautiful signs, documents, websites, logos, posters, and so on.

I recommend “The Non-Designer’s Design Book” by Robin Williams. I opened it and finished it in less than two days and never saw the world the same way since.

How to Negotiate and Resolve Oppositional Situations

aka “Business training”

Much of life involves negotiation. Most of it is low stakes (where to go to lunch, for instance), but sometimes the topic of negotiation can be quite serious, such as salary, car price, or a home loan.

The key in negotiation is to avoid entrenched positions, (i.e. “I will only pay $500” vs “I will only sell for $800”) because they make it difficult to compromise without embarrassment or losing the credibility of your statements.

Much of it then becomes finding out what people really want and finding a way to bring other negotiable items to the table. When that’s not possible, negotiation focuses on agreeing to a fair way to settle an issue. (“I think the Kelly Blue Book is a good way to determine price,” “I will agree to Bob as a fair arbitrator,” “You cut the sandwich, I pick which half,” etc… )

Finding a way to reach win-win agreements is an important life skill. I recommend reading “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” by Fisher, Ury, and Patton.

How to Draw

aka “Art class”

The ability to draw, is not some innate, inborn talent. Like writing, it is a skill that can be learned. Unlike writing, however, drawing is not taught properly and practiced from pre-school through elementary, middle, high school, and college.  If nobody ever taught you how to read, you probably wouldn’t be able to, would you?

Without proper guidance, drawing can be an exercise in frustration. That’s why most people think they have no talent and they stop. For example, years of doodling has taught people that a circle with two dots and a curve is a smiley face and whenever they try to draw a portrait, a part of their brain short circuits and that’s what they see.

Learning how to draw then becomes relearning how to “see”, and then practicing the hand-eye coordination to put that on paper. And yes, there is a LOT of practicing.

The ability to draw is an invaluable communications skill, particularly for engineers. I recommend skimming “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards.


I am in the unfortunate position of still needing to learn about this stuff. Every time I start poking around dark corners of the Internet, I find a little more that scares me and makes me say “Why didn’t anyone tell me!!!?!?!”

There are taxes on salary income, taxes on dividend income, car taxes, food taxes, and so on. When you buy a house, it’s not just the loan for the house, but then the home insurance, property taxes, and closing costs to consider as well.

There are stocks, and stock options (don’t get me started on those), annuities, bonds, life insurance, 401k’s, CD’s, credit cards, credit ratings, and more.

What the hell is this stuff? Somebody help!

Editor’s Note: My (Chris’s) favorite personal finance site is Get Rich Slowly. In fact, it’s what much of the format of this blog is modeled after. Hell, even this editor’s note thing is something they do regularly on there!


First, I would like any Administrators, Professors, and Teachers to know that I’ve only been to one high school and one undergraduate school. Maybe it’s different where you are, but if it’s not, please add these subjects. They’ve opened my eyes.

To students: these skills also take practice! You will not be an expert salesman, designer, negotiator, artist, or investor from reading one book. But it will make you think about things in a different light, and that will help you in life.

Finally, remember what Mark Twain said: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Thanks to Total Mayhem for the schoolhouse photo.


I agree that these are definitely topics that all students can benefit from, not just STEM students. I’ve discussed before when I talked about templates in matlab ( and templates in powerpoint ( I have personally had papers not get accepted on the first try because the figures were insufficient to convey the information. That parallels nicely with also knowing your “sales” pitch because in every paper and every class, you have to convey to your audience (reviewers/students) why the thing you’re talking about is important.

Now, just to stoke the fires a little, these are all things that a good engineering prof should be teaching you in your classes. Lab & project classes are a good example where you have to make effective drawings and learn to “sell” your work. I don’t think these should only be left to humanities courses.

Comments are closed.