Back to School: The 3 Things That Engineering Taught Me About Succeeding in Business
With the new school year starting next week, I caught myself thinking back to my university life. I graduated from Engineering Physics (Queen’s University) in 1995, and then headed out west for some fantastic skiing and a Masters in Engineering at the University of British Columbia. Three days after I finished my Masters, I was contemplating taking a position at a local engineering company and my mother called. She said five simple words that changed the rest of my life:
“Why don’t you come home?”
And so I did and took a job in IT consulting. Almost 7 years of university schooling, thousands of hours in labs and studies and to this day I have never worked one day as an engineer.
But now as a business leader in technology, I realize how studying as an engineer has helped me be successful.
1. Fast-to-Fail, is Fast-to-Succeed.
Freshmen Engineers at Queen’s have to complete a ritual called the Grease Pole. The Grease Pole is a goal post from the University of Toronto Varsity Stadium that was stolen by Queen’s Engineers in 1955. Each year the freshmen are put into a grease pit (full of lanolin, mud, water, and “other” disgusting substances), and they are tasked as a group to organize, climb, build a human ladder to get to a tam (hat) that has been nailed to the top of the 30 foot pole. This is a difficult challenge, because as a large group you need to figure out the right structure to build, and also the right group of people to use in that structure.
Since I have been through this terrible ritual, I can tell you that no matter how much talking, planning or organizing you do, the only way you get to that tam, is to:
- Quickly prototype an approach
- Try it
- Fail miserably, which usually ends up with you at the bottom of the pit, under mud and water and three or four people on top of you
- Quickly realize why that approach failed and then adjust and try again
Although exhausting, eventually you figure out how to get to the top of that pole, and then get out of that pit. A shower has never felt so good in my life.
Business is full of many failures, and it is actually through these failures you often learn to succeed. What I have learned is that for fast-to-fail to work, you first have to encourage risk-taking. And to establish a culture of risk-taking, you must support your people through the toughest failures.
Takeaway: encourage risk taking but ensure support your people through tough failures to achieve ultimate success.
Note: For another example of why fast-to-fail works, look at this great experiment run by Tom Wujec (renowned speaker on innovation and fellow at Autodesk) called the Marshmallow Challenge.
2. Copy What You Can
If you were lucky in engineering you had what we called “cooks”. These were past labs or exams from someone who graduated before you, that were passed down from generation to generation of students. “Cooks” or short for cookbooks, were an essential part of the day-to-day of studying engineering. No matter how hard you worked, you just did not have enough time to do everything from scratch. You needed a head start in working through labs, finishing assignments or studying for exams. And the honest truth is that by using cooks you learned what you needed to know. (As an aside, there is a cool new company called flashnotes that is a marketplace for students to buy and sell their old notes and study tools, if only we had this resource back then.)
In business, especially in technology, there is a tendency to think we can build it all ourselves. But soon you realize that the best companies focus in on a few things they can be the best in the world at, and borrow, beg, copy the rest. In Good to Great, they talk about this idea as the hedgehog concept – that chapter is worth a read or reread at the very least.
Recently due to the innovation of cloud applications, many “copyable” solutions can be used as a service. Whether it is sendgrid.com for email infrastructure, teamcity for continuous integration, or user assistance applications like intercom.io, you can now leverage best-of-breed software for areas of your product that are not part of your “hedgehog”.
Takeaway: know what you can be the best in the world at, and copy/source the rest – no point in re-inventing the wheel, unless you are Elon Musk.
3. The Playing Field Isn’t Level
My masters work involved building a supercritical water oxidation reactor to dispose of hazardous chemical waste. One of the issues in running experiments, is that we had to use sapphire windows to “see” into the reactor, and they would crack under the high temperature and pressure – at $4,000 per window, a costly replacement to make each experiment.
I had a call with Sandia National Laboratories (US competing research group owned by Lockheed Martin) to find out how they are running so many experiments, considering the high cost of replacing the sapphire windows. When I asked them how they deal with this problem they just replied “when one breaks we go to the drawer of sapphire windows and replace it”.
Just because you are facing tough problems in your business, doesn’t mean your competitors are. The playing field isn’t level – don’t assume your challenges are the same as your competitors. Let your customers and market dictate the pace you need to move to be successful. Sometimes that means you have to work harder or smarter, just to get to a “level playing field”.
Takeaway: don’t get stuck assuming everyone else has the same problems. Find your own “drawer of sapphire windows” to give your business a competitive advantage.
Although I am sure there are more things I learned while studying Engineering – like how I should never, ever take a job involving semiconductors or quantum physics – these were three of the top things that came to mind.
Have a great back-to-school week!