In my house we’re a bit sentimental about cars. My parents loved road trips so much that by the age of 16 I’d been to to every continental state but one. Our family car had a name: Bessie. We’d say “Do you think Bessie can get up this hill?” when in the mountains or “Bessie is a bit overheated and needs to rest.” when encountered with the blazing hot desert sun for too many hours. No matter which car we had her name was always Bessie. And when a car had to go to graveyard in the sky we’d mourn her as if we’d lost a member of the family. You might think we anthropomorphize our cars a bit too much but see, my dad is an engineer. For 30+ years he developed prototypes for GM. He worked on the really innovative, progressive stuff that often never saw the light of day but would advance the field with every project he undertook. Because he was an engineer who was also a mechanic, he loved to tinker on cars which meant we never drove new cars except for the company car he was given to drive.
When I 16 learned how to drive a car. Along with braking, blinkers and the value of bumpers I was taught three additional things:
1. How to drive a stick shift
2. How to dutifully write down the mileage and amount of gas at each fill-up
3. How to listen to your car
Although all three have been very useful in my driving history it’s the third one that has had the biggest impact on my life. When I got my first car, a 1979 dark blue hatch back Aster, my dad sat me down to talk to me about listening to my car.
“Listen for an unusual noise.”
“Well, that can vary but mostly listen for a new noise.”
“ok. Listen for new noises and then tell dad.”
“Now, when you’re telling me about a new noise don’t tell me “The clutch is broken.” Tell me what it sounds like. For instance, when I accelerate I hear a loud noise on passenger side of the car near the front wheel.”
“OK. So I describe the noise or condition I am experiencing.”
And on and on this went. At the time frankly I thought my dad was a bit nuts and I hated driving old cars. I wished he did something else for a living like say be a banker so we’d have lots of money or be an artist because he’d be the coolest dad in the neighborhood. But alas, he was a born engineer. His predilection for this way of diagnosing actually started when I was probably no more than 6 or 7. If I was sick he’d ask me a number of questions that required deeply listening to what my body was saying before I asked him to take me to the doctor. “Does it feel worse in the morning or at night?” “Is the pain getting worse or better?” “Is it a scratchy feeling like sandpaper or more like you have a big golf ball stuck in your throat?"
When you have an engineer for a father you get cool drawings like this in your inbox with a request to talk about the potential problem with your trans axle when you have a few minutes.
What an Engineer Knows
As I got older and I moved into my career I began to feel like the luckiest girl in the world. I was finally able to see that what my dad gave me was far more valuable than an expensive designer purse or having that “cool" factor. He taught me how to listen and how to diagnose. I learned how to listen deeply. How to decipher the serious from the mundane. How to pull a part a problem to tell if there was more than one condition present. I learned how to not make assumptions but rather to observe first.
Although I work with people and organizations rather than cars, the training he gave me as a young child has become very critical to my career success. When someone comes to me with some sort of people, organizational and promotional challenge, I begin by listening and observing. I pay attention to what they say. I hear what they don’t say. I look out for nuances. I try to separate out complexities of a challenge and break them down into more manageable chunks. Now my mantra is:
Seek to understand then seek to be understood.
Why You Should Be Friendly With An Engineer
Growing up with a proudly geek dad is why I find myself most at ease with developers and other engineer types. Even though we speak different languages, me the language of emotional intelligence and organizational behavior, and they of machine behavior, we seem to process the world using a similar map. As an adult I am thrilled that I grew up with an engineer for a father. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
If you’re an engineer of any sort–thank you for using your talents to make our world a better, more workable place. If you're not one but know an engineer, take a minute to get to know the way they think.
You're sure to learn something new about problem solving. And that's a mighty powerful thing.