9 Sep 2013, 3:14pm
rant:
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  • James Dyson moans he can’t get enough engineers He is part of the problem

    James Dyson is grousing about a shortage of engineers and wants more government pork to help with that. A word in your shell-like, James. You are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    Now firstly, engineering and engineers have a problem generally. They are engineers because they have an interest in how stuff works, and so they aren’t always the most articulate or the easiest to rub along with. In the early days of British engineering, this was not such a problem because you could solve a lot of engineering problems on your own with drive and application, so Britain has an illustrious history of talented Victorian and earlier engineers. Thomas Telford, Isambard Brunel, Robert Stephenson, Michael Faraday, Oliver Lodge, James Watt, Frank Whittle, Alan Turing, Ernest Rutherford, Alan Blumlein, William Crookes – and that list is just off the top of my head, with no help from Google apart for checking the first names 🙂

    Tragically, engineers aren’t easy to work with for many people. They tend towards cantankerous crabbiness, they favour purity and precision over practical compromise and ‘good enough’. In its heyday, The Firm where I used to work concentrated these sorts in its research facility. Let’s just say that some of my colleagues in those early years were serious geeks, and often they were unbalanced characters. Some of them watched far too much Star Trek and spent too much time indoors. I believe much human progress is made by people who have something wrong with them, the guy who invented the wheel was probably a nutcase in some way. The broad swatch of humanity, the ones who do what the society norm of the time is, aren’t usually the ones who make the inventions to improve the common weal. Originators are usually the outliers – they make most of the change in human society, because they see things differently. It’s not just engineering either – pretty much across the field of human endeavour, it is the single-minded, the passionate, the eccentric who make the running.

    Interviewing engineers is always difficult. In the past companies had engineers interviewing engineers, which at least meant there was some common language, and the interviewers knew what the challenges were in making whatever the company made, and could qualify the skills interviewees claimed to have. I was lucky enough, in the three successful job interviews I have had in my life as an external candidate, to be interviewed by real people from the departments I was applying to.

    That’s all considered effete and non-PC these days, because the downside of having real people who know about what they are doing interview people is you get a lack of consistency. People favour their own characteristics, and tend to hire in their own image. Now it’s more important to get your equality and diversity tickboxes ticked than to have an effective process of interviewing people by the people they will work with, so many firms contract out the process to recruitment agencies. These take away the diversity tickbox bother and seem to run a computer process that greps the unfortunate candidates’ CVs for keywords of the particular job at hand.

    There are two problems with that – one is every firm is looking for people who have exactly the mix of technologies they want, to be able to hit the road running. They have stepped back from the process of developing their engineers. When I started work, although I was going to work with the electronics and systems of broadcast engineering, in the induction process I learned not only about the specialisms, but how a programme was made, what the issues were for the camera ops and lighting people. I also learned how to do oxy-acetylene welding and how of anneal and harden steels and why these processes existed and how to use a lathe and shaping machine, building on what I had learned at school. These were not because I was going to be doing this day to day – I have never welded or turned anything professionally, but so that I could see the wider setting of what I was going to be doing, and so that as a graduate engineer I had an awareness of the issues facing the people who would be using the gear I was working on or who I would be asking to provide services to me to make things mechanical.

    These companies, both the BBC and The Firm later on, invested in people before the trite bullshit of Investing In People™ 1 had been invented by management consultants. These firms, at the time, were driven by values, and they knew that they had to invest in skills to apply to the unusual requirements of their fields of work. Some of them had training facilities, all of which have now been contracted out or disbanded. It takes time, and occasionally you lose out is someone moves on to another company, though occasionally you gain if someone moves to your firm.

    Dyson seems to have forgotten you have to plant and nurture before you harvest...applies ot his people and their talents too

    Dyson seems to have forgotten you have to plant and nurture before you harvest… applies to his people and their talents as much as these squashes

    Dyson is a showman, but he’s also part of the problem. If he wants more British engineers he needs to invest in them – support them financially through university in return for the right grades and subjects, offer them sandwich year terms at Dyson so they can learn a both the technology and the ethos of his company. In short, take them from A level, not bitch about there not being enough of the right kind of postgrads. Let’s face it, if we want veg to grow at The Oak Tree, we plant the seeds months in advance  and water the damn things, we don’t get to harvest time and start moaning that all we have is a plot of thistles and where the bloody hell are all the fully grown vegetables we’d like to harvest that day. Somewhere British industry seems to have forgotten these fundamentals – presumably if they have the Investors In People tick boxes ticked it’ll be all right on the night.

    There was a recent programme, Make Me a German, where a UK journalist went to work for Faber-Castell in Nürnberg. Germany still appears to have an industrial training system that UK companies seem to have given up, as evidenced by the 20-year old who was training for Faber-Castell. Perhaps this explains why Germany still has a reputation for engineering across a broad spectrum. Particularly where it interacts with mechanical stuff, engineering still has a lot of craft in it.

    Oh and James Dyson, as a personal grouse, why the hell is all the gear you make so damn noisy? As I get older it gets harder to pull apart the bones in the inner ear to protect the hairy preamplifier from damage. Okay my Dyson vacuum cleaner is over 10 years old but makes a dreadful and screechy racket; it always did from new. If I go into a public bog with an Dyson Airblade hand dryer I live with just shaking off the water that subject myself to the noise. Did nobody test the Airblade in a tiled room as it would be used before you produced a device chucking out so much nasty high-frequency noise? Although I have never experienced it I would hate to think what a Dyson fan sounds like for £300 – with fans big and slow-moving trumps small and fast-moving, think ceiling fan as opposed to a computer fan. People have to live with your products too, it’s not all about the efficiency!

     

     

    Notes:

    1. Just read the turgid corporate duckspeak and BS, anyone with an ounce of common sense can see that people who write “Investors in People specialises in transforming business performance through people. Our mission is to help you achieve the results you want by focusing all our work on your business objectives, and acting as a critical friend so that you maintain continuous improvement. At the heart of Investors in People is the Standard, a framework of best practice that’s outcome focused: it outlines what you need to achieve but never prescribes how, making it truly flexible regardless of your size or sector. ” are passionless droids who believe that process is a substitute for action. Give me the messy randomness of people trying to do the best they can over outcome focused frameworks of best practice any day. Process shields the incompetent from being pilloried for their cock-ups – culminating in the ‘lessons will be learned (but nobody will lose their job)’ when some organisation screws up royally. If the Ermine were God for a Day I’d dictate that all process documents self-immolate 🙂

    Hi Ermine,
    As someone who also migrated to engineering from Physics, I wouldn’t consider myself to be cantankerously crabby! Eccentric – yes. There are no women in your list! But then you’re talking about the past, when women didn’t appear to exist!
    Actually I think that engineers are a broader range of personalities/traits than you describe, i.e there is no single engineer stereotype, but they do see things differently. Additionally worrying is the pressure to remove that nonconformity from children at school, so that boxes can be ticked there too. There is a lot of pressure (more for my son that when I was at school) for children to do everything in the same way and not to think for themselves or question anything. So it’s not just about nurturing people within companies but nurturing their skills and talent from outset rather than trying to supress them. Have your read/heard any Ken Robinson?
    I’ll stop there as I am in danger of starting my own rant on your blog, when I appreciate very much reading your views.
    I agree about the unacceptable noisiness of Dyson products (and I don’t own any) and Investors in People business!

    I can assure you the Dyson fan is quite quiet! Unfortunately it doesn’t actually work in making the air around it much cooler, but at least they’re listening!

    Having invented a good vacuum cleaner (alas, outdone by the Germans who refined the current design (miele) , the company now seems hell bent on making products which look ‘wacky’, rather than actually work well. No wonder he’s bemoaning the lack of engineers, the marketing department appears to be running the show.

    @Caroline Hmm, the only two I can think of off the top of my head of that pre WW2 period are Ada Lovelace and Hedy Lemarr. That probably reflects a lack of general education on my part though 🙁

    Ken Robinson as in this fellow on TED? When I watched this talk of his I had to admit I have many of the education prejudices he called out, though since I don’t have anything to do with educating kids it probably doesn’t matter 😉 I liked his take, though I can’t see how you’d turn it into practice. Do we really drug more than 50% of children for ADHD?

    A fine rant is a good thing 😉

    @Jon Great to hear they’ve cracked the noise problem in at least one of their products! Albeit at the cost of functionality. Fans have their work cut out in Britain anyway, where it’s often humid when it’s hot.

    @Caroline – just to reassure that Mr Ermine isn’t a sexist pig… before I became Mrs Ermine I worked with him (I now do something totally different) – and I was an engineer. He was a pleasant guy to work with; as soon as he realised I wasn’t shit for brains he just treated me like anyone else which wasn’t universally how chaps treated women engineers at the time in The Firm. This was quite a time before the ermine romance so he wasn’t just being nice for “obvious” reasons.

    oh, and many of the people at the firm (and this included the few lady engineers!) really were wierd – but I completely agree that this isn’t a necessary prerequisite for becoming an engineer!

    10 Sep 2013, 2:26pm
    by Grumpy Old Paul

    reply

    Amused by your reference to ‘grep’. I have fond memories of the early days of UK (and European) Unix penetration around 1982-1983. I even met Steve Bourne and Steve Johnson in those days.

    I was inspired by yacc (“yet another compiler compiler”) to coin another acronym, yafp (“yet another bleeping panacea”) to describe various management initiatives.

    You are so right to identify the erosion over the last thirty years of values and rationality within companies and organisations and their replacement by (mis)management babble and a tick box culture. It always used to amuse me talking to my friends in the public sector who would describe the latest management fad being foisted upon them; more often than not it was one that my Firm had discarded a few months earlier as ineffective!

    The loss of in-house training, proper apprenticeship schemes, the uncritical adoption of imported American management twaddle and the cult of youth had some other unintended consequences for which we are all paying dearly. These include an erosion of employee loyalty and commitment, loss of corporate memory and a greater propensity for organisations to make hugely expensive crass errors. The latter matters to us all as employees, shareholders or, in the case of banks too big to fail, tax payers.

    The inability of companies to recognise and reward talent is exemplified by the impossibility of finding work experienced by an old friend of mine (Fenland University graduate in Natural Sciences whose dad was a train driver) who I’d estimate was in the top 5% of programmers by ability. He was in his early fifties at the time and eventually gave up after applying for dozens of jobs with a wide range of salaries and roles. He and his wife are now happily retired in Cornwall with a cottage business making fused glass artifacts.

    Ermine,

    Yes that’s the Ken Robinson I was referring to. I don’t know about the validity of the ADHD statistic, I’m afraid. There’s another argument that suggests ADHD is related to eating habits. It’s a shame they are still not providing decent school meals, despite ticking all the boxes to say that they are.

    On the subject of stereotypes I am wondering if there are different types for different branches of engineering, or indeed different Firms. If they were all recruited using the the old way then cantankerous crabbiness would be self perpetuating. Another organisation might go for people that can’t look you in the eye when they speak to you..

    I agree it’s hard to think of female engineers but life is engineering and women do pretty well with that!

    Mrs E, thanks for the reassurance – I have enjoyed your blog too. Yes there are wierdos in engineering – I worked with a guy whose only way of relating to me was to stick his tongue out every time he saw me. To this day I have never worked out whether it was a bizarre form of flirtation, disgust or some other hidden message!

    I suppose the question is are there really any more wierdos in engineering than in any other field?

    Oh, incidently Ermine, one of the bits I enjoyed most at Imperial was the 1st yr course in the workshop using the lathe!

    And what about architects who design glass buildings to be giant solar concentrators and then wonder why everything melts? They need another tick box it seems.

    The key is to be able to see the bigger picture and to adapt to change. I agree a lot of what is happening doent make sense but nor does sticking to the old ways. I’m not saying I have the answers mind you..

    I just had an email drawing my attention to this report on female engineers in case anyone is interested:
    http://www.flipsnack.com/95A89DCF8D6/fhp0xaes

    Strange – the top Things We Can Do in that report wouldn’t have changed me.

    I was taking things to pieces in primary school, I already had some fascination with how things and the world works. At secondary school I was scavenging skips in the area where people were throwing out their old black-and-white full size TVs and recovering the components, I discovered I could survive a 300V DC shock because these TVs used vacuum tubes.

    In short if it’s sixth form secondary school careers advice that makes all the difference I’d say the student may be lacking in the passion, it should be showing far earlier.

    I was tickled by the colour of the cover 😉

    In slightly related news for people interested in how the world works, the Feynman lectures are now online!

    http://feynmanlectures.caltech.edu

    […] is actually getting even better now – for instance Greg has just reported the Feynman lectures are online. I still have my copy of one of the Feynman lecture books from university – they […]

     

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