Over the past couple of years, I’ve written annual columns about the future of technology. This year, I’ve decided to pull back and write about the future of engineers—not engineers in general, but specifically your career—inspired by a talk I gave to a university engineering class. (Yes, they occasionally let me out of my cubicle to talk to students.)
One student asked me what skills I thought were most important for being a good engineer. I replied that engineers need strong analytical and problem-solving skills. Since I have seen so many technologies come along, I’m glad I learned how to learn new skills. I also said engineers need to learn to work as a team, come to a consensus, and diligently progress toward that common goal.
The highest complement you can get as an engineer is that everyone is happy and relieved when you are brought in to help solve a project-stopping, company-killing problem. Conversely, the worst insult is to have other engineers believe you must have gotten your position because the CEO owes you for setting up his or her home theater system. Your reputation as an honest, competent problem solver is more important than anything else, and you need to robustly design your career to achieve that reputation.
In engineering terms, robust design means designing a product that has a high likelihood of working despite both statistical and long-term variations in its components. This requires working with each component’s maximum and minimum specifications instead of using what you consider to be reasonable norms.
Robust means you don’t use a string of logic gates to generate a specific time delay. Robust means testing the effect of temperature far past the given limits to see why your design fails and trying to figure what you can do to improve performance at those limits. Robust means using in-circuit testing to separate design flaws from statistical errors and continuing testing until the errors the tool generates are greater than the errors it finds.
Robust Role Playing
In short, robust design is a mindset aimed at making a product that will continue to function even when future parameters change in ways that are beyond your control.
Similarly, I told the students they need to design their careers to adapt to future parameter changes. New college hires have no business calling themselves digital engineers or analog engineers or VLSI engineers. Rather, they need to be able to function in some other capacity if there are no jobs available that match their specialty. They also need to be able to act ethically and do the right thing.
Then, I asked for a volunteer. (As students, they haven’t yet learned how dangerous volunteering can be.) I pretended to be the student’s manager and explained how we were behind schedule and will be subject to contact penalties if we didn’t get the project completed on time.
It would be better for the company, I said, if we just said we performed final verification on the product instead of wasting valuable time actually doing the tests. “After all, testing is just a formality, so please sign the test verification certificate,” I said.
Of course, the student knew the correct answer and refused. Students always know the correct answer when I get to this point in my talks. “You’re fired!” I yelled. “Now get the hell out of the room.” I also told the professor to reduce the student’s grade by 0.5. It’s funny, but these volunteers are always surprised when I insist they really leave the room.
After the volunteer left, I told the other students to relax, that the professor wasn’t going to lower any grades. I then asked them to stand up if they would have refused to sign the certificate too. Most stood up. Next I added some realism, suggesting that their spouse had just been laid off and that without this job they could lose their house. Some sat down.
I added more. What if their child was sick and they couldn’t do without a paycheck or medical insurance? Would that make a difference? More sat down. Complicating things more, I said that their child had cancer and that the company medical insurance would cover the bone marrow transplant scheduled for the next week. “This is getting hard,” one of the students said before sitting down. I added more and more constraints until one student was left standing.
Then, I summarized the situations. There were more than 20 students who felt that there were situations where they might compromise themselves, one student outside the door muttering truly awful things about me, and one student who was lying, lacked the imagination to understand the ramifications of his decision, or was independently wealthy and isolated from the consequences of the problem.
The FU Fund
As a young engineer, my manager suggested that we just say we tested the product instead of actually testing it. I objected, telling him that I had to sign the certification. He then looked me in the eye and said that maybe he had the wrong engineer working for him. At this point I got mad and told him I could give him my resignation in five minutes.
As I got up to leave, he stopped me and said that it was okay. This really shocked me, and I realized that if I had gone home to think about it I could have rationalized falsifying the data. With a child needing surgery and a stay-at-home wife, I really needed the job. My spontaneous anger was the only thing that made me do the right thingThat night I went home and told my wife what had happened and that we needed to have a contingency fund that would allow me to walk off a job if I ever was challenged ethically. (I call it my FU fund, which is short for Financial Umbrella—well, not really.) It took us three years to build up that savings, and ever since I have been in a position where I can afford to preserve my reputation.
Later in my career I worked for a small company whose owner told me that we had a problem with a 55-gallon drum of spent ferric chloride that he wanted to go away. I did the research and told him it would cost $10,000 to have it hauled off to a toxic waste dump.
He then said he thought he had made himself clear when he said he wanted the problem to go away. I told him that I thought I had made myself clear that it would cost $10,000. As far as I know, that barrel is still in the basement waiting for some sap to take care of it. This time the fear of losing my job could not be used against me.
I tell my students that it isn’t enough to want to make the ethical choice. It isn’t always about doing either the right thing or the wrong thing. Many times it is either doing the hard thing or the wrong thing. A contingency fund makes it less hard.
Corporations: Good Or Evil?
Sometimes my students ask me if large corporations are corrupt and inherently evil. In my experience, people are moderately honest, moderately industrious, and moderately chaste. By moderate I mean that while I would never embezzle large sums of money from my company, I don’t mind using the copy machine on occasion for personal use. Companies are made up of people, so like people, they also are moderate.
However, I have noticed that when the top level is corrupt, companies attempt to maintain a moderate average by requiring all of their employees to be hyper-honest. A friend of mine at an aerospace company said employees weren’t allowed to take as much as a pen or a coffee mug from a vendor, while their top management was taking Air Force generals on free junkets and having meetings in exotic resorts.
At one company I worked for, after the CEO got caught in possible insider trading, we all had to sign a harsh disclosure. I guess if you averaged us all out, you could consider us moderately honest.
I don’t believe companies start with the idea that they’re going to dump chemicals. But they may have employees who believe they can’t compete with other managers and have to cut corners to get ahead. It helps if their direct management only cares about results and is willing to look the other way.
In my case, I found out that the manager who asked others to falsify test reports made it a point to find employees he thought he could marginalize. He looked for vulnerable employees and tested their ethical robustness. In a sense, he was testing people past reasonable limits to find out where their limits were. If they didn’t bite, that was fine. But if they did, he had another resource to help him compete with more competent managers. Such people became more tools in his toolbox.
It’s ironic that this manager was performing the type of testing on people that he was trying to use me to get out of performing on our products. He could have been a brilliant manager if he didn’t think he had to cheat. He always made sure he had someone to blame.
I ended my talk by describing engineering as a bizarre career that, all and all, has been better than having a real job. To stay employed, you need strong analytical skills, well-rounded engineering skills, and a reputation as an honest problem solver. You also need to design your career to adjust to unexpected problems.
You make your choices and you take your chances. These choices do come up, and they are hard. The question is whether your career is ethically robust enough for you to stay standing and make the choices you want.