Find Your Happy

Each year I post my remarks from the MEM graduation ceremony. It is always a wonderful celebration. Here are my remarks from a few weeks ago at our 2014 ceremony…

MEM Graduation Remarks: Find Your Happy

I feel very fortunate to be able to participate in this celebration of a great accomplishment. In talking with some of you I have been struck by the profound desire you have to find the right job and career for yourselves and to strive to make things better; for your organizations, your families and yourselves. This is wonderful. Nowhere was this more obvious than when several of you told me about the MEM program the other day. I was pleased to hear that you praised it and talked about what a great experience it has been. But even more importantly, without missing a beat and with great passion, you also talked about how it can be better. This is fantastic. A positive, optimistic attitude coupled with a never ending search for improvement. This follows the “Ten Things We Know to Be True from Google.” Great just isn’t good enough.

Having said that, we also know that every decision is a choice; a trade-off of sorts. I strongly support this attitude that great is not good enough. But equally important is the idea that we all must find our fit; it will hard to be great in any organization if you have not found a good fit. The place where we are comfortable and at the same time challenged. Where our skills are appreciated and simultaneously not quite good enough. It is a dynamic positive tension so to speak. I believe that this is not in conflict with being happy and enjoying our time on this earth. In fact, it is not only consistent with being happy but it is probably a requirement if we are to optimize our enjoyment and happiness. So I’d like to call the next part of my two minutes in the sun here “Find Your Happy”.

The wide variety of likes and dislikes, skills and weaknesses, motivators and demotivators in our DNA are truly astounding. To be the most successful, not just in your work but in your life, you will need to Find Your Happy. Of course, this is a take-off on the Pharrell Williams academy award nominated song “Happy”. And I understand there was a hit MEM video – it may not win any academy awards but it is just as telling as the Academy Awards version. If you can find something to do every day, both in your personal life and your work life, that makes you feel like these folks look, then you are truly successful (Duke MEMP Happy Video).

While striving to Find Your Happy remember the famous quote about the future by William Gibson (and also utilized in my Innovation Management Class):

“The future is already here it is just unevenly distributed”.

In the context of Find Your Happy, this means that somewhere, someone is a great role model for you. You will be able to see your future through them! Look carefully for these mentors or coaches and study them. But the only way to find your own Happy is to find the right mentors and then look beyond them. You cannot look for some predetermined social definition of happy but truly must find your own. It’s hard. Especially if your idea of success is not the common, socially acceptable definition, you will question yourself and your decision. Don’t. Figure out what success means to you and follow your own happy. This is nowhere better stated than the fishermen story.

Many of you know the story of the Fisherman and the MBA meeting in a small coastal fishing village in Mexico. Well there is a lesser known but equally important encounter that occurred on a beach in the Florida Keys between an MEM alumnus and what appeared to be a beach bum; you know the type – a typical Jimmy Buffet fan. Here is how it went…..

An MEM Alumnus, Melvin E. Martin, was at the pier of a town in the Florida Keys when a small fishing boat captained by what appeared to be a beach bum pulled up. Low and behold the boat was full to the brim with Yellow Fin Tuna. What made this most remarkable is that Melvin had been watching boats for quite some time and this was the only boat that had caught any fish. The MEM alum asked the beach bum fisherman, let’s call him Bob, how long he had been out fishing and he replied, just a short time. So Melvin asked; Are you going out again? How often does this happen? What is your secret?

The Beach Bum said he was done for the day and probably for the week. He had plenty of fish to allow him to head to his favorite bar where there would be a band playing Jimmy Buffet music and plenty of beer on tap. When he was pressed for his secret about how he was so successful in his fishing he mentioned that he had invented a gadget integrated with a software algorithm many years before that let him see the fish. Not just the simple underwater radar that most boats had but a remote telemetry system with predictive capabilities that utilized data mining and machine learning to predict when and where the fish would be and even identify the type with 85% accuracy. So he could use this innovation to fish one day a week and spend the rest of his time hanging around the beach, chatting with his friends, listening to Jimmy Buffet music and even trying to learn how to play Jimmy Buffet songs on the guitar.

By now Mel, the MEM alumnus, was pretty excited. He was having flashbacks to Professor Holme’s course on Commercializing Technology Innovations and knew this technology was a winner. From his IP course he thought about all the claims that could be written up in a patent for this new technology. And of course he could give this inventor advice on how to lead a company to commercialize this technology given the skills he developed in Professor Ryan’s course. So he said to the inventor, why don’t you patent your technology, raise venture capital, set up a manufacturing facility, begin selling your gadget to all the fisherman in Florida and eventually up and down the East Coast and then across North America! Really, you can take it global after that!

Bob asked: How long will this take?

Mel: About fifteen years

Bob: Why would I want to do that?

MEM: You can build up the business and get a big equity stake in the company!

Bob: And what then?

Mel: You get to do an IPO and cash out on the millions of dollars you make!

Bob: And what then?

Mel: You get to retire to a beach town in a warm climate, do a little fishing, hang out with your friends, listen to Jimmy Buffet music and maybe learn to play the guitar!

Bob looked a bit funny at Mel but admired his enthusiasm.

Most people hear this story and think the moral is that we should have more balance in our lives, not work too hard, figure out what really matters to us. Those are not bad takeaways but there is another part to the conversation. Mel the MEM alumnus then used the emotional intelligence he learned from the program to discern that Bob was not really impressed with the idea of building a company, and was already doing what he loved to do. So his next words were.

“I have a better idea. How about I patent and commercialize your technology, you can advise me once a week while we are out on your boat fishing and we split the profits 50/50! We will both be doing what we love!”

So for me, the takeaway is – don’t wait until you retire to do what you love because as the famous Confucius saying goes:

“Choose a job you love and you will never need to work a day in your life.”

I see many of you doing this already. I congratulate you for that insight and wish you all the best as you begin your career pursuits.

Sell, Sell, Sell

As we approach the end of the school year, students are anxiously awaiting the start of the new jobs they have lined up or in some cases looking more intensely for a job as classes wind down and graduation day approaches. This reminds me of a topic that comes up periodically and that I cannot say enough about – We are all selling, all the time. Every day we meet someone new, have a discussion with a colleague, talk to a stranger on the street, it really does not matter, we are selling. Never is this more true than when looking for, or starting, a new job. I can understand that you are thinking; we are not selling “all the time”. OK, maybe that overstates it slightly but not by much. Let’s consider a very basic goal of any interaction – we want to be perceived as credible. Thus, at the very least we want to “sell” our credibility to the person on the other side of the interaction. Admittedly, a better word might be “persuade” than “sell” but since one of the definitions of sell from the Merriam Webster dictionary (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sell) is “to persuade or influence to a course of action or to the acceptance of something” I think we are safe.

My point in all this is that every time we have a discussion in the workplace, we should be trying to create an environment where our perspective is understood and accepted. So often I find that during conversations, even with employees or students who should care about how they are perceived, there is a real lack of understanding regarding how they come across to others. If one considers that you are always trying to enhance your credibility and ensure that you are progressing in your job, then this is a problem. It has to become second nature that you consider how you are perceived by others. You always want to be perceived as credible so you should be “persuading” others of your credibility and professionalism in every interaction.

Of course, there is the hard-sell and the soft-sell! In general, an aggressive hard sell technique when you are trying to sell yourself as a credible, talented professional is probably not the best approach. But you need to have an awareness of the fact that every time you speak, each of your gestures, every facial expression and certainly your tone of voice, is being perceived by those around you and impacting your credibility and the openness others have to your ideas. This puts a different light on how you advance your career on a daily basis. We have to face the fact that if we are not able to intuitively and effortlessly be a credible and persuasive professional, then we are not optimizing our career opportunities. In some sense it comes down to the age-old term that I use all too often on my blog – self-awareness. For those of us for whom self-awareness is not our strength, we need to work hard at developing the habits of reading our environment, taking cues from those around us, and consciously, objectively assessing the impact of our words, expressions, and actions on others.

One more point and another reason this idea of selling came up (again) for my blog is because of the “flip side of selling” (i.e., “the buying side” or perhaps better stated as “being open-minded”). All too often I have been in meetings where people were trying to defend a position rather than trying to understand what the person across the table was attempting to convey. If you are trying to sell your own ideas at the exclusion of others’ ideas then it is most likely not optimizing the interaction for the good of your organization. In fact, selling your credibility and professionalism is dramatically enhanced by having an open-minded attitude and listening with intention. So perhaps this blog should be titled “Sell and be Sold” rather than sell, sell, sell.

So although we might not want to be in sales, we are. Think about how you create empathy with those around you and ensure that you are perceived in a credible, professional way in order to optimize your career opportunities. If you do this enough, it will become a habit and you won’t have to keep thinking about it even as you become effective at doing it.

No, I do not mean a traditional gift for the holiday season (in fact, I don’t think holiday gifts are appropriate for most workplaces or corporate cultures but that is a topic for another post). I mean something that will be much more valuable for them – learn when to ask your boss for help. And a closely related corollary – know when to inform your boss. An underutilized value an employee can bring to their manager and their company is knowing when to ask for help. This seems fairly simple on the surface but in reality it is quite complex and subtle. The reason it is important is somewhat obvious. The more often you go to your manager then the more of her time you take up, decreasing both your efficiency and hers. Generally companies do not actually care about what you accomplish but rather they care what you accomplish per-unit-time. Efficiency is critical. Of course, if you don’t go to your manager often enough then your work product suffers, some work needs to be redone, and again, you generate inefficiencies. You may also make your manager look bad up the chain of command; never a great idea. So why do I assert that this is a complex and subtle issue?

First, every manager is different in what they “want to know”. Some of them want more detail and want to give more input than others. So right away you need to be able to judge your managers state of mind and needs. Even more subtle, these needs can vary depending on the project, the other activities your manager is involved in, and perhaps the phase of the moon! In addition, your manager is likely to be too busy, with multiple demands on his time and looming deadlines so even if you know it is a good idea to connect, it may take significant effort. It is easy to interpret this as an indication that your manager does not want to be informed or does need to have input. However, when the project does bubble up to the top of their to-do list, it will not matter how busy they were when you did not inform them of a problem or ask for their help when it was needed.

This issue is also subtle because there is rarely a clear “right answer”. You must have the confidence to know when consulting your manager is not necessary and the humility to know when it is. There is simply a large grey area so the decision is dependent on your skills, your self-awareness, and even your managers personality. I have seen that many times very good employees need too much handholding from their managers and I have seen average employees try to go-it alone too often. Thus, as with many issues of performance and becoming a leader, self-awareness and awareness of others, your boss in particular, is crucial.

So how do you strike the right balance? Improve your powers of observation and your powers of inquiry without going overboard. Initially, ask your manager at the end of your consultations if they would have preferred that you had gone further on your tasks before checking in. But be aware that even your managers may give you a less-than-direct answer. Perhaps they are not sure about their answer or do not want to diminish your performance. You need to read their body language, their tone, and the outcome of your actions on the project. Independent assessments from a trusted advisor or mentor can be very beneficial in this regard.

In summary, always consider the need to take up your managers time. Their need to be informed and your need to get advice are both important. Constantly ask yourself if your awareness of self and others is accurate. And in the end, be sure to learn from every interaction.

Last year I wrote about some of the lessons that can be learned from a music festival called Floydfest in the Appalachian Mountains near Floyd, Virginia. This was illustrative of the more general point that we should always be learning and learning should happen everywhere. The festival was a role model for many business concepts (https://jeffglass-engineeringmanagementblog.com/2012/08/). This year, not so much. Of course the situation did not fundamentally change from last year to this year but some external events and internal decisions conspired to make the festival a real challenge this year. But the point is still the same as my blog post last year – you can learn from every experience! So what happened?

If you live on the East Coast, you know that the weather this past spring and early summer was not typical. The amount of rain we had was much, much greater than usual. As such, an outdoor music festival probably needs to consider this as a potential issue and have contingency plans for handling the crowds during a rainstorm. And to be fair, I am sure that Floydfest leadership did consider this as it has rained many times during the festival in the past. Thus, achieving safe electrical power in a rainstorm, stages that can protect people and equipment, and temporarily halting of the festival all seemed to be considered and utilized. But something that might be loosely considered a local “Black Swan” event occurred at this year’s Floydfest and it was not in the contingency plans. The concept of a Black Swan event involves an ultra-low probability event; an outlier. It is an event “that is unpredictable yet has wide-spread ramifications. Not only are Black Swan events difficult to predict, but [Nassim Nicholas] Taleb also argues that we human beings have certain psychological limitations and biases that prevent us from foreseeing these events, while also thinking that the events were perfectly predictable after they occur” (http://www.black-swans-explained.com/). There are many articles about Black Swan events so I will not try to cover them here (as recently as the terrible floods in Colorado last week and as general as “rogue waves”; phenomena have been described by the Black Swan concept). If you don’t know about Black Swan events, start reading up on them because every manager should be aware of this concept (rogue waves are pretty interesting too so you might want to check them out). My interpretation of this in an engineering management context is that we need to be careful about relying on our analytical tools when predicting the probability of an event. This is not related to the tool itself but, as always, it is the assumptions we use in the tool. For example, most of us have experienced a very surprising coincidence in our lives. Perhaps you meet someone from your home town on the other side of the world in an airport. The probability of such an event may seem vanishingly small, entirely unpredictable. However, if we consider the total number of possible encounters across the entire population and the amount of travel the entire population participates in, it is clear that someone at some point in time is going to run into someone from their home town somewhere on the other side of the world. It is just a matter of time. So when planning for the future as an engineering manager, one must consider not how to predict what ultra-low probability events will happen but rather are your processes robust and flexible enough to overcome a Black Swan event? Since the event is not predictable it is not useful to conduct scenario planning and try to have the right contingencies for the event. So how is all this related to Floydfest?

In the middle of the festival, on top of a ground that was already saturated and a water table that was likely higher than it had been in decades, a monumental rainstorm struck the area overnight during the festival. It rained for hours and turned fields being used for parking into literal mud-pits http://www.roanoke.com/living/music/2107669-12/rain-wreaks-muddy-havoc-at-floydfest.html). Even walking at the festival became impossible with mud up to a foot deep on the main walking path. In between almost falling multiple times and losing a shoe to the mud, I took the opportunity to do a little research during all this – i.e., I went people watching! But the main problem was the parking lots. Cars were stuck everywhere and numerous accidents littered the parking lots on festival grounds. Near misses of cars sliding into pedestrians made the situation undeniably dangerous. So leadership of the festival did the prudent thing; they shut down all parking near the site (including handicapped parking and prepaid expensive VIP parking). They began busing people to and from very remote (but relatively safe) parking lots up to an hour away, not including the wait times. The situation was so dire that volunteer workers were taking the buses into town to go to Laundromats to clean and dry their sleeping bags because their tents had filled up with mud! I spoke to some people who wasted more than 3 hours driving to the remote lots and waiting for buses to bring them to the festival. VIP customers that paid hundreds of dollars for special parking and closer access to the performers were being turned away from their usual parking areas and being told to drive up to 60 minutes away and then take a (yellow school) bus back to the festival were confused and frustrated (OK, they were angry!). What went wrong? Was it just bad luck or could it have been handled better?

If the rain and resulting “mudfest” was not really predictable, if it was a local, let’s say “mini-Black Swan,” event, what could the organizers have really done differently? It is all about process. That is, if the actual event is unpredictable then your processes must be set up to react quickly, flexibly and effectively in the event of a crisis. I think this also implies that you need to have a way to move from a decentralized empowered management style to a centralized, command and control style in short order. Exactly how centralized you need to be depends on the scale of the Black Swam event. If the entire festival is experiencing the crisis then control needs to go to the top; to those with the visibility to see the entire picture, from the venue to the artists to the vendors to the attendees. This change requires GREAT communication and clarity about how decisions will be made in a crisis. Your front-line staff that have the most interaction with the customer need to know what is going on, how their jobs have changed and how to respond to questions. I noticed that when staff were clear and empathetic, the customers were reasonably satisfied, even when being told very bad news. When the employees had an attitude of: “good luck, we don’t have any idea what is going on either” (yes, that is a quote) then the customers became rather belligerent. Staff had no directions to the new locations for parking, no idea which buses to take to get to the right parking area and in some cases, no idea that different parking solutions even existed! So it seems that the leadership did not disseminate the decisions effectively and did not train the staff how to manage customers in the face of bad news. In fact, why didn’t the leadership also communicate directly with the customers when they determined that the situation called for drastic measures? They had emails for all of the attendees and many of us were finding ways to check email during the concert (including a VIP booth just for that purpose and a special internet company tent that gave free Wi-Fi access that was full of attendees throughout the festival!).

In summary, analytics are great but they cannot predict everything. Understand that extremely low probability events can and do occur. Especially in the world of technology and engineering we should not fool ourselves that probabilities tell the whole story. Black swan events do happen. They are not predictable but you can still prepare for them by being flexible, responding quickly to your environment and developing a process for how to make and implement decisions in a crisis. Great communication will also be critical.

As promised in the previous post, below is part B of an insightful piece from guest blogger, Brandon Sights, on how he has used his MEM degree and generally how to apply yourself and navigate various opportunities in your organization….

How I Have Used My MEM Degree (Part B) by Brandon Sights


In order to complete the MEM program at Duke, you must be able to communicate effectively. This is not typically a strong skill for engineers, especially when communicating with people outside of the engineering department. In several instances, I have utilized skills learned in the program to effectively communicate with various stakeholders, including customers, fellow engineers, marketing personnel, and members of the upper management in both Trimble and our largest customer.
My job often takes me to a customer’s farm where I spend time observing, diagnosing, and fixing problems that the support team has been unable to resolve. This means that I have to be able to communicate with the farm manager to understand what is important in terms of fixing their problem, while discussing the issue in non-technical (software and control systems), yet agriculturally correct, terms. This skill was discussed in several classes, including Commercializing Technology Innovations. In that class, my team contacted laparoscopic surgeons to better understand their needs with regards to hand held tools that could improve patient outcomes while reducing costs. Because we were unable to discuss specifics about the device that we were evaluating the commercial potential of, we focused on the surgeon’s needs in the hand held laparoscopic tool space, as described with a surgeon’s vocabulary. Being able to communicate with customers about their needs, utilizing vocabulary specific to their situation, is a tool that I learned in the MEM program.

When I am fortunate enough to spend time with farmers and farm managers, I try to gain a better understanding of several aspects of their experience with our products, including:
• Outcome versus expectations, beyond just the problem we are working on that day.
• Features they wish the products had.
• Features they wish the products didn’t have.
• Their level of comfort with new technologies that we might be able to implement to bring value to their operations.

These topics were covered in several courses, including Marketing, Designing the Customer Experience, Project Management, and Innovation Management, and this is one area where I believe my MEM degree sets me apart from other engineers. I understand that the most important aspect of my job is making the customer’s experience with our product the best it can be, not just checking boxes next to a list of tasks every week. This primary reason for creating a product in the first place also translates into how I deal with our largest customer.

The largest customer of the Precision Agriculture Division at Trimble is a large manufacturer of heavy equipment. The machines that they sell often cost an order of magnitude, or more, than the Trimble products that are installed on them. Over the course of the last year, when integrating our products onto new platforms, or troubleshooting existing problems, I have discovered that although the farmer puts a huge emphasis on how our component of the total product performs, the resources allocated by our largest customer to ensuring our product exceeds the farmer’s expectations are lacking. This is because they are looking at our components in terms of revenue, not in terms of user perceived value. Because of the discussion on customer touch points in Designing the Customer Experience, and the benefits of favoring customer retention versus customer acquisition (it’s cheaper and more profitable) from Marketing, I have focused the discussion related to fixing the problem I have been testing in Arizona on the importance the auto guidance system plays in the farmer’s ultimate decision to purchase one or more pieces of equipment from our largest customer. Communicating this fact effectively has also used several skills I learned in the MEM program.

Already three times this calendar year, I have found myself leading the effort to resolve high visibility issues with our guidance system on one of our customer’s most important product lines. Each time, I have had to take complex control system data and system performance analysis, and communicate it to various stakeholders, from engineers to executives. In order to do this effectively, I have leveraged the report structure utilized in Project Management, and lessons from Presentation Zen, that was studied in Designing the Customer Experience. These resources have greatly affected the quality and effectiveness of the message I have presented. As an undergraduate engineering student, and an engineer, I often only focused on finding the answer to a given problem for myself (or for a class grade). Rarely did my answer need to be explained. One of the biggest lessons I learned from the MEM program was that there may be several answers to a given problem, because of the tradeoffs to fixing the problem that go beyond just the engineering analysis. The customer experience, profit margins, and intellectual property rights are three aspects which also need to be considered when making a recommendation. Being able to recognize the other, non-engineering, constraints that affect the resolution to a problem has enhanced my ability to create and communicate problem resolutions to all the different stakeholders. The “Analysis of Alternatives” section of the report outline in Project Management is the epitome of this ability to think about, understand, and make decisions based on the tradeoffs of different solutions. Communicating and convincing people that the chosen solution is the best solution is a difficult task, especially if they are biased towards another answer. In order to overcome this problem, I have utilized what I learned from Designing the Customer Experience to create presentations that thoroughly explore the tradeoffs between solutions. These presentations have been used with little modification all the way up the chain of the command of both companies. The Marketing Director of Product Management at Trimble even asked in the middle of a meeting who did my great slide designs, so I loaned him Presentation Zen.

Intellectual Property Law

While still working as a senior software engineer, I accepted a stretch assignment as the free and open source software (FOSS) representative. The role was a great way to combine my software engineering background, with the coursework from the Intellectual Property Law course, and required me to work with people from different functions throughout the company. I often found myself involved in detailed discussions of intellectual property law with engineers and project managers who had never considered the subject. It also helped me to understand the importance of ensuring that a company does not find itself in a litigious situation due to improper use of open source software packages. Overall, my efforts helped two projects deliver their systems on time, and elevated me to a position of intellectual property law authority inside of Autonomous Systems. I also saved the corporation money by performing the initial data gathering and assessment of open source licenses, saving expensive lawyer billed hours. I recently interviewed for a similar full time position at Trimble, Open Source Software Architect, but turned it down because it would have taken me away from working on vehicles on a regular basis.

I have also used lessons learned from Intellectual Property Law while trying to get my own startup company, inSightful Robotics Corp., off the ground. From using Non-Disclosure Agreements when sharing information with potential collaborators, to making sure to mark documents and emails as “Proprietary,” IP law has been a huge concern for the young company. However, the most comprehensive use of the material in Intellectual Property Law took place when I filed a provisional patent. Based on what we learned in the class, and with Dr. Boyd guiding me during my Independent Study in Entrepreneurship, I searched existing patents that may prevent my filing, drafted the initial description, diagrams, claims, etc., and took my draft to a respected law firm to finalize it. Even though they only had to make a few minor changes to the provisional patent filing, they still charged me the full law firm price. When the time came this year to file a full patent based on the provisional patent, I used what I learned in Commercializing Technology Innovations, and the fact that a recent court decision failed to uphold a similar patent for a competitor, to decline to spend the resources to file, on the grounds that it would not have been defensible. Having IP law knowledge saved inSightful Robotics Corp. time and money.


Flying back to Colorado, I’m in a good mood, despite my sore head, neck, and wrist. The data we have collected is exactly what we need to explain the tradeoffs in solving the problem we traveled to Arizona to test. The MEM degree is exactly what I needed to perform well in this role. Skills learned in the program will help me convince all the stakeholders of the best solution, the solution that best meets the customer’s needs and situation. Just in time to fly on to the next challenge.

We are very fortunate to have a guest blogger today, Brandon Sights, a graduate of Duke’s Master of Engineering Management program (the distributed version – http://memp.pratt.duke.edu/distance). While having dinner with Brandon recently in Denver, he started recounting all the ways he had used his MEM degree and I could not resist asking him to write them down to share in this post! The anecdotes are very insightful and provide excellent teachings for all early career engineering professionals, not just those who have an MEM degree. There is a lot to cover so today I will post Part A and next time we will finish off with Part B. Thanks Brandon!

How I have used my MEM Degree (Part A) by Brandon Sights


I’m sitting in the cab of a tractor in the 113 degree heat of the Arizona desert, trying to figure out what just happened. A few minutes ago, my head was slammed against the pillar and my wrist was bent impossibly backwards trying to keep myself from being thrown from the cab. A few days ago, I had voluntarily slammed my own head against a table in the Chicago-Midway airport when I heard that the problem we are working on now in Arizona was going all the way to Italy, to the chairman of the conglomerate that owns our largest customer. The head of our division was flying to Italy as I was flying back to my home base Colorado. That was how I found myself today at the proving grounds of our largest customer, reeling from both physical and mental pain in a tractor nicknamed “Sweaty Betty,” because the air conditioner struggles to fight the heat outside.

A little over a year ago, I had joined Trimble Navigation as a software and control systems engineer in the precision agriculture division. Now, I am leading the effort to meet the needs of our largest auto-guidance customer. I negotiated my move to Trimble Navigation during the final residency week and graduation from the Master of Engineering Management (MEM) program at Duke. Since then I’ve tackled numerous problems, often traveling to places I’d never heard of before, and immediately being thrown into sink-or-swim situations directly in front of a customer. The last year feels like a blur. Luckily, I have been able to utilize skills learned in the MEM program to plan ahead (to plan is everything), to think on my feet (but a plan is useless), to communicate effectively with different types of stakeholders, to maintain the focus on customer needs, and to appreciate that I’ve found work that suits me.


One of the most important skills that I learned in the MEM program was discussed during the very first day of the first residency: Self-Reflection. This was also a major theme of Dr. Ryan’s Management in High Tech Industries course. It wasn’t that I completely lacked this skill before joining the MEM program; I simply didn’t put much weight into my own opinion. Luckily, many of the activities and workshops in the MEM program, such as the Strengths Finder 2.0, Myers Brigg, and team feedback exercises, such as those in Project Management, helped me to understand myself better. In the end, I placed a heavier emphasis on evaluating my choices and actions, and combined that evaluation with the new things I learned about myself to make changes in my career. The largest change I made was moving to Trimble Navigation just after graduation from the MEM program. This change was largely influenced by new insights into what made me tick that I recognized while taking Management in High Tech Industries. For example, I realized that I had two major components of my personality that were not being met before moving to Trimble: Achiever and Responsibility. The job at Trimble promised me the freedom to produce as much as I wanted, whereas my previous job was very stringent on the number of hours that a person could work in a day without violating federal contract law. Also, in my previous positions it seemed nearly impossible that I would soon find myself in a true ownership situation for something that really mattered to the company. Plus, the organization and communication structure were very hierarchical, not a great place for someone with a “just git-er-done” attitude.

In direct contrast, I can now work as hard as I want to achieve a given goal, and my efforts will be appreciated. I have directly responded to emails from the Vice President of Innovation with suggestions and even corrections to his documents, based on topics covered in Innovation Management, such as creating an effective innovation pipeline, and received responses from him encouraging more input and personal interaction. Further, I have quickly found myself responsible for making our largest customer in the Precision Agriculture division happy with one of our most important products. This is another area where I have used self-reflection to improve.

When I first started at Trimble, the auto guidance partnership with our largest customer was quite abrasive, with the rapport between the participants lacking. When I was tasked with leading the weekly auto guidance status meetings from the Trimble side, I originally continued the practice of treating the meeting as a conflict instead of a collaboration. Upon reflection, I realized that this attitude was only harming progress, and so I made an effort to change not only the tone of the meetings, but the whole collaboration, into an open discussion with the focus being a joint effort to make progress and solve problems. I put together a list for the director in charge of collaboration between the two companies of the common reasons why joint efforts between companies have poor results and also made recommendations as to how we could improve the effectiveness of the collaboration, all based on the curriculum in Innovation Management. Communication and effectiveness improved immediately. The Director of Quality at Trimble, who sits in on most of the weekly status meetings between the companies, commented to me that the meetings were the only ones that felt like a team working to resolve issues together. Clearly, self-reflection has made a big difference in my happiness and effectiveness at work.

[In the next installment Brandon will share his thoughts on Communication and Intellectual Property. Stay tuned for Part B next week.]

The renowned author Malcolm Gladwell has a book titled “What the Dog Saw” which is a compilation of his New Yorker Magazine articles. One of these articles (Open Secrets: Enron, intelligence, and the perils of too much information, The New Yorker, January 8, 2007) intrigues me with how it applies to engineering management. In this piece he describes, based on Gregory Treverton’s work, Puzzles vs. Mysteries. He applies these terms to various situations such as analyzing information on the location of a terrorist or the collapse of Enron. A puzzle has a specific solution that we are trying to “find”. With more data or the right data, one can solve a puzzle. A mystery on the other hand is unsolvable. We can only make educated guesses as to what is behind a mystery. For example, the future cannot be definitively determined no matter how much data we gather. Our predictions may become better with more data but it is still a probabilistic issue whereas a puzzle, with enough data, can be definitively solved.

From an engineering perspective I would say Gladwell’s argument is similar to saying that a puzzle is deterministic whereas a mystery is stochastic.

The search for an individual is a puzzle. They exist in a specific location but you do not know where that is. The more data you collect about the individual (think Osama Bin Laden or a fugitive) the closer you are to determining their location. The data collected electronically attempts to narrow down their whereabouts to a particular region, making the search much more tractable. This vastly limits the data needed and the search can move into a different type of data collection; direct surveillance for example.

Gladwell argues that Enron may have been more of a mystery than a puzzle but we have treated it like a puzzle. That is, Enron’s activities had many open-ended and uncertain outcomes. The leadership did not attempt to hide information that would have solved a puzzle for the investors and thereby would have uncovered a house of cards. There is no doubt that the leadership pushed boundaries but it seems they were not illegally hiding information that would help solve the Enron puzzle. Rather, perhaps the financial situation was so complex that it was a mystery – the outcome was uncertain regardless of how much information was available. Predicting the future of Enron would have been probabilistic, even if you had all the information that came out in the trials.

Regardless of what you feel about Enron or the words “Puzzle” vs. “Mystery”, there are some learnings for us here in the context of engineering management. As managers or as educators, our goal is to take the mindset of the early career engineer and move it from a classroom orientation to a leadership and customer orientation. Doing this includes moving:

– from closed-ended problems to open-ended problems
– from solving problems to defining problems
– from gathering more data to working with imperfect data
– from technical solutions to customer solutions

I think this is similar to moving from a puzzle mindset to a mystery mindset. This is exactly what is needed as we move from a classroom problem-solving orientation to a real-world leadership and customer orientation. People are complex and messy. There’s no deterministic solution to most problems that require or involve employees. Even customers are known to misunderstand what they need. I think it’s fair to say we are moving from a deterministic to a stochastic mindset as we become more adept at working with people and real world engineering issues. Perhaps the trick is to do that while simultaneously treating the people as real, important, feeling individuals; not a set of probabilities. That is called empathy and is a major part of leadership. But that’s a discussion for another day.