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By Teresa Jurgens-Kowal
Q: Your presentation on user experience was fascinating and touches on the theme of design thinking which is becoming very important for engineered products and services to be successful in globally competitive markets. Engineers might be unfamiliar with how important customer experience is. You discussed a few soft skills in your presentation. What soft skills would you recommend that engineering managers learn in order to be successful with customer user experiences?
A: When I am hiring team members, I think about two characteristics – humility and confidence. Humility is important as a listening skill. Your customers and clients really know much more about what they do than you do. It takes humility to listen carefully and ask relevant, probing questions. You really must listen for an answer instead of just trying to formulate a response. And you need to have confidence how you implement the methodology of the user experience process – inquiry and data gathering. With the right approach and process, you will get good answers. Pointsource is a company that states this well: “We have no idea what you need yet. But together, we’ll figure it out.”
What I’m told is that empathy is a better word than humility to describe gathering of customer insights. But using your empathy still means you need to be a good listener to get a good answer. It’s very important to communicate well as an engineering manager. Ultimately, we have to understand qualitative information to design products with a desirable set of requirements.
Q: As you discuss communication, how would you advise a young engineer interested in this field to learn how to translate qualitative information into quantifiable specifications?
A: First of all, there is no one size fits all solution. As I explained in the presentation, it’s important to tell the story. That is, the customer’s journey and the story describes his or her challenges. Once we can tell the story, we break it into steps. Then we can translate the steps into tasks and we can create a model based on these tasks.
Customers often don’t have the tools or training themselves to dissect the story. In other cases, they are too close to the story to see it clearly. As systems engineers, we help them translate their needs into product requirements. We use a design thinking tool called a customer journey map to track a user’s experience. With a customer journey map, we are looking for (negative) emotional impact or a break in the flow. We call these “red threads” and they offer opportunities for product solutions. We want to convert red threads into a green path (using a traffic light analogy) to make the flow smooth and straightforward. We also look at positive emotional states in their journeys so that we don’t inadvertently take the joy out of their work.
So we look at what the user expects and what the system does to better understand a customer’s journey or interaction with the product in their environment. We put these opportunity items into a backlog (using an Agile project management philosophy) and then the designers, developers, and engineers work on the given tasks from the backlog. We use the task flow to work on product development, product design, and quality assurance.
Finding bugs or interruptions in the work flow is an opportunity. We want to make the system better for our end-users because that makes a difference in people’s lives. For instance, we measure usability as a success factor. This approach isn’t a replacement for other methods of developing requirements, but it is a cross-check, a validation. It is a valuable tool in scoping and scheduling products cost-effectively.
Q: Engineers and engineer managers dream of working on things that make people’s lives better! What would you tell a young engineering manager to do if s/he want to work in this field? What skill should s/he gain?
A: I came to the field of customer experience from a background in computer and information science working at IBM. One of the biggest criticisms we had for our products was that they required too much documentation. The story I shared in the presentation about documentation is what drives me to seek better customer insights and user experiences. In the story, that specific toaster oven is an example of a poorly designed product.
If you put something on the bottom rack of the toaster oven, the oven might catch fire. But, if we put a bottom rack in the oven, of course, people want to use the bottom rack. The warning that the oven might burst into flames is buried in small print in the middle of a thick instruction manual. That doesn’t help users. Instead, we want things to be intuitive and simple. People shouldn’t need to read a bunch of documentation to do simple tasks.
So, a young person coming into this field needs to get grounding in data structure and information science. Another field that offers insights into working on customer experiences is cognitive psychology. It might not be a traditional class for engineers, but it teaches you how to be more empathetic and to analyze a conversation for customer needs, wants, and desires.
A hugely important skill for engineers is communication, especially writing. While I just discussed a need to decrease documentation, engineers still need to have good writing skills to communicate with other team members and customers. A lot of our follow-up “visits” with customers are not face-to-face. Therefore, being able to communicate well by phone or email is an important skill to master.
I would add that anyone who wants to become a leader should also have technical skills. When a developer tells me that a task is too difficult, I like to say, “Hmm, let me see how I can do this task.” Then, I can steer them in the right direction. I can demonstrate myself that the activity is really not too hard.
So, three skills are important as systems engineers focused on customer experience. First, being able to conduct user research effectively. Second, having an ability to manage and understand data. And, finally, strong communication skills.
As an afterthought, I’d also recommend that young engineers take a class in visual design or data visualization. Everything we are doing today is built on graphic displays so learning skills to better present information to a non-technical audience is differentiating.
Q: I’m an engineer and I know that engineering degree programs in college tend to focus more on technical competency. Lots of my friends have said things like, “I’m really smart and do great work, why do I have to fuss with soft skills?” How would you convince an engineer or engineering manager that communication and soft skills are really important for success?
A: From our domain, that’s pretty easy. We enable police, firefighters, and EMS personnel to do their jobs better. It really is a matter of life and death. At Hexagon, we know the work we do will literally save lives if we can help first responders do their jobs better. To accomplish that, we have to support real-time situational awareness.
People are the end-users of our products and communication is how we learn about people and behaviors. Team members that are removed from the end-user will not (necessarily) demonstrate humility and confidence. No matter what product you are making, you should not put pen to paper until you know what your end-user is going to do with that product.
Communication also drives systems engineering – the theme of ASEM’s conference. Team members are motivated to create sub-systems when they know it serves a larger purpose as a system. Again, a lot of our products are used by first responders and they really do save lives. Our team members and developers are motivated by that aspirational goal.
Q: Communication is hard for engineers, I think, because we are often introverted. What do you think?
A: (Laughs.) You probably can’t tell by my presentation, but I’m an introvert too. I have a colleague who calls herself an “ambivert” – meaning we can do an engaging public presentation, talk and listen to customers, or work with the sales team. But at the end of the day, the ambivert needs to recharge his/her batteries with quiet time reserved for reflection and thinking.
In some ways, I believe, introverts are better at conducting qualitative research and gathering customer insights. An introvert is always thinking but s/he is not thinking about what they’re going to say next. They’re thinking about the problem. There’s a great book called “The Introvert Advantage” by Marti Olsen Laney on this very topic.
Extroverts are good to have on the team as well because they are so good at talking to people. A hinderance for some extroverts is that sometimes they are making judgements while they or other people are speaking. I encountered an example of this on a recent project. We were working on documenting customer insights and had conducted more than 40 interviews with police officers through ride-alongs. One team member, an extrovert, complained that we just kept going back to visit the same customers over and over again. He just said this without thinking through the complete idea. I had to stop him and asked how many repeat visits he thought we’d conducted. When he considered the question, the number was less than 10%. Extroverts are thinking the idea through by talking about it – a “think aloud protocol” – while introverts are quietly listening and evaluating the conversations.
We need to build goodwill with our customers. We do sometimes return to customers for multiple visits to understand their needs, but we usually use different methods. The process to build effective user experiences involves customer visits to conduct ethnographic research, gain feedback on prototypes, and then test usability. That whole process relies on effective and efficient customer interactions. Success hinges on what you do with the data and how it’s useful at that stage in the process.
Q: What is the #1 piece of advice you’d give to a young systems engineer or engineering manager?
Get an internship. You need to figure out what skill sets you need in the field you want to pursue.
There are some roles that are generalist roles and you can learn those skills with on-the-job training. Then there are specialist skills. In the presentation, I talked about how we are engaged in studies on eye movement tracking and how important this is to designing intuitive software and hardware for police officers. That’s a highly technical skill that might require special and advanced education. An internship can help you determine what sort of job you might like and what kinds of advanced education or training is necessary to achieve that role.
Q: Thank you for your time, Amy. Your presentation was fascinating and eye-opening. I’m excited to learn that engineers and engineering managers have such an important role in building new products and systems that lead to satisfied customers.
Fellow ASEM Members,
As the incoming President, I am honored and excited for the opportunity to build on the great foundation laid by my predecessors. In my new role, I will focus on enhancing communication, continue to work toward expanding the value of ASEM membership, and improve industry recognition of the value of ASEM. We are in the process of expanding our ASEM Strategic Plan with the addition of metrics that will be posted on the ASEM website.
I would like to welcome our new Board and Committee members. After our annual conference, the Board of Directors welcomed new members: Simon Philbin as Secretary; Teresa Jurgens-Kowal as South Central Regional Director; Yesim Sireli as International Director; Ean Ng as Conference Director; and Patricia Anzalone, representing Council of Engineering Management Academic Leaders (CEMAL). I would also like to thank all our continuing Directors for their ongoing support of ASEM and its mission. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge our outgoing President, Dr. Heather Nachtmann, who deserves a huge thank you for her leadership and contributions, guiding the society so ably during the previous year.
This year (2017) was an eventful and successful year as we engaged in various activities and several collaborations that are continuing to move the organization forward. We had a successful conference in Huntsville during October with record attendance. I would like to thank Dr. Bryan Mesmer and his staff for a job well done hosting this conference. During the conference, we recognized many members and professionals for their contribution to ASEM and the field of Engineering Management. I would also like to congratulate all this year’s award winners – Great Job!
We have an exciting year ahead of us with not one, but two international conferences. Be sure you check out all the deadline dates, you don’t want to miss out.
I look forward to working with and serving all of you as we move into 2018 together.
Frances Alston, PhD, PEM
ASEM President 2017 - 2018
We are deep into the final preparations for ASEM's annual conference. Our WHQ team and conference committee is in overdrive ensuring that conference is a great experience. Our registered attendees represent 15 countries, more than 30 different companies and agencies, and more than 70 academic institutions. I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible in Huntsville. If you haven’t met our leadership team, please introduce yourself. We are always looking for more engineering managers to join our leadership team (or simply to say hello!).
Speaking of our leadership team, we are excited to introduce our 2017-2018 ASEM leadership team. Simon Philbin is joining the executive committee as our incoming Secretary. Our membership elections also resulted in four new members with Ean Ng, Yesim Sireli, and Teresa Jurgens-Kowal joining our board of directors. Our officers will transition into their new roles on Friday October 20th during the IAC. I am sure they will find serving this Society to be as rewarding and leadership skill building as I have.
We are currently searching for a new Editor-In-Chief (EIC) for the Engineering Management Journal. Toni Doolen and Eileen Van Aiken have tendered their resignations as of December 2017. Toni begun her role as EIC in 2009 and Eileen joined her as a Co-EIC in 2012. The journal’s impact factor more than doubled from 0.250 to 0.548 during their leadership and its 5-year impact factor increased from 0.452 in 2012 to 0.932 in 2016. Their implementation of a strategic vision and efficient operational procedures have made lasting contributions to EMJ and all of the work that was published during their tenure. If you see Toni and Eileen in Huntsville, please thank them for their excellence in leading EMJ over the past eight years.
I am grateful to all members of our executive committee and board of directors for their dedicated service this past year. I thank Angie, Paul, and Bill for their significant efforts in supporting my role as President. Thank you to our ASEM membership for giving me this tremendous and humbling opportunity to serve as your 2016-2017 President. I look forward to continuing my ASEM service as Past President under the leadership of incoming President Frances Alston.
I am pleased to announce ASEM’s newest Professional Section – China, which was approved by our Board of Directors this month. Their local team developed an impressive application and formed a renowned set of engineering managers from academia, government, and industry to serve as the founding members of their section leadership team. Formation of this new section was spearheaded by Simon Philbin, Geert Letens, Steve Wang and other members of the ASEM International Committee and leadership team who formed and developed this significant partnership. We are very excited to see how ASEM’s global reach will expand with the formation of this new section. Congratulations to the new China Section’s Honorary President Jishan He of Central South University and President Professor Hong Ren of Chongqing University!
There is lots of great information about our upcoming International Annual Conference in this month’s eNews. Details about industry tours, workshops, speakers, sponsorship information, and the newly released program schedule are now available on ASEM website along with registration and hotel information. I cannot wait to visit with all of our members who are able to join us in Huntsville.
I am sure all of our members from the United States are looking forward to the upcoming 3-day Labor Day weekend. We can feel the heat breaking slightly here in Arkansas. Our entire leadership team hopes for a safe and quick recovery to our South Central members who have been impacted by Hurricane Harvey.
(This piece was submitted for an earlier Practice Periodical and was set aside due to space constraints; my apology. ~ TSK)
Workshop Held: Thursday, Oct 27, 2016, 9:30-11:45am
Workshop Delivered by: Dr. Alice F. Squires, Washington State University (WSU)and Dr. Jim Boswell, The Aerospace Corporation
Workshop Vision and Purpose
The American Society of Engineering Management (ASEM) Systems Engineering Workshop was held in Concord, NC during the ASEM 2016 International Annual Conference on Thursday morning, October 27, 2016. The workshop addressed early phases of the systems engineering life cycle starting from identifying the right problem, deficiency, or opportunity to developing an initial system functional architecture.
The vision for this workshop was to provide a sample approach (one of many) that included a minimum subset of the initial steps needed for defining a set of system level functions in support of a desired system capability for a known and well-understood system. To relay the concepts, a system of low complexity was chosen for the example, a coffee maker, and teams were encouraged to use a commonly known and understood system of relatively low complexity that they defined, to go through the steps as the workshop progressed.
To this end, the goals and outcomes of the workshop were:
– Use the five ‘whys’ to narrow in on the root problem
– In the voice of the customer
– Listening to both wants and needs
– To be translated (later) to the system requirements
– Address how the system will work in its intended environment
– Identify the capabilities of the system
– Include feedback
– Bounds the system within the intended operational environment
– Defines the external interfaces to external systems and users
The workshop balanced topic presentation with active learning through group work and team reporting. The entire report (PDF) is available here: ASEM2016SEWorkhopReport.pdf
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. Grand Central Publishing: New York (2016). 303 + xv pages. US$28.00 (hardcover).
Like many companies today, ExxonMobil’s new campus at The Woodlands, Texas, features an open work space without traditional offices. The theory behind open work spaces is to drive collaboration and the chance encounters that will trigger an idea that leads to the next great thing.
Unfortunately, as Cal Newport argues in his new book, “Deep Work,” such open work spaces not only fail to drive magical chance encounters but are indeed quite harmful to the productivity of workers. Newport defines “deep work” as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit” (pg. 3). He contrasts deep work with “shallow work,” defined as “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted” (pg. 6).
The full book review (PDF) is available here: ASEM_Book_Review-Deep_Work-TJK.pdf
Please note that there is still time to register for our last webinar in the four part webinar series on Management Practices of Learning from Errors in High Risk Industries. Details below.
August 8 - Management practices of learning from errors in high risk industries (Nicolas Dechy, Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire) - 1:00 PM EDT. Register here: https://www.asem.org/event-2568621
August 8 - Management practices of learning from errors in high risk industries (Nicolas Dechy, Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire) - 1:00 PM EDT. Register here: https://www.asem.org/event-2568621
As part of our selection process of the annual ASEM Eschenbach Award for the Best Engineering Management Journal (EMJ) Paper, I recently reviewed all papers in the 2016 volume (28) of the EMJ. There is a great array of current EM topics covered in this issue including a special issue focused on military applications in engineering management. I know selection of this year’s best paper will be difficult for the selection committee as the quality of the papers in this issue is excellent. Thank you to our co-editors, Toni Doolen and Eileen Van Aken, for their outstanding leadership of EMJ. The 2017 Volume 29, Issue 2 is now available at Taylor and Francis online.
We are terribly saddened by the death of one of our past leaders of ASEM. Joette Sonnenberg made significant contributions to the engineering management field and to ASEM as a Society. She will be missed by all who knew her.
As I reviewed this month’s eNews, I was struck by ASEM’s tagline, Serving Engineering Managers Worldwide. I am very proud of ASEM and how we have expanded our global reach while continuing to preserve our EM community. No matter how much we expand, I continue to interact with and grow from my interactions with EM pioneers, practitioners, and students. I believe it is the diversity of our membership that bring a unique professional opportunity to our members. ASEM is an organization of practitioners and academics, diverse technical skills, many generations, and wide array of cultural backgrounds. All of the makings of a great team. ASEM strives to bring value to all of its members. If you would like to get more involved with ASEM or have ideas on how we can increase value to our members, please let me or any other members of the ASEM leadership team know.
By Paul Kauffmann
A delegation from ASEM recently visited China as part of our ongoing collaboration efforts with the Division of Engineering Management of the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE). The CAE is a highly-regarded organization and is roughly equivalent to the National Academy of Engineering in the US. Details on the meetings and the various initiatives will be provided in the next E-news. The purpose of this article is to provide one global perspective (in this case, China) on engineering management and the scope of areas generally considered under our EM umbrella. This question is an important one for the society since we are currently working on the next editions of the Engineering Management Body of Knowledge (EMBOK) and the Engineering Management Handbook. It is critical that these revisions reflect the global views and implementations of our profession.
Photo credit: Simon Philbin
The meetings with the CAE were held in the context of an international conference covering several critical topics: Engineering Science and Technology Development Strategy- Clean Energy Technology and Engineering Management.” Along with the CAE, the other co-sponsor was the Shenua Group. If you Google this firm you will see it is the largest integrated coal and mining organization in the world with 210,000 employees. So what is the first “take away” from this basic information? Considering that the CAE has a Division of Engineering Management and the Shenhua Group (a major industrial presence in China) supports a major conference (attended by three Nobel laureates) with engineering management as a focus, a logical conclusion is that the importance of EM is well recognized and has a high profile in China.
The second take away is based on a sample size of n=1 (this conference) and involves the question of what China considers to be engineering management. We have this good-natured debate within the society. Some of our members are “people and team” oriented, some are “systems” oriented, and still others might be “quantitative methods” oriented (e.g. risk, decision science, etc.). I was curious if there was a particular spin at this conference. Based on the papers/ presentations, one could make the argument that this group sees EM covering these key areas:
This conference appears to be an indicator that the China perspective of EM is doing well and is big picture oriented: innovation, strategy, project management, and broad science related disciplines. We look forward to growing our collaboration and involvement in China. Globally, it is critical the society stay abreast of these evolving views and we particularly need our practicing professionals from all countries and parts of the world to get involved and provide input to the next editions of the EMBOK and Handbook. Please contact me or Hiral Shah if you want to become involved.
Registration for our 2017 ASEM International Annual Conference is open! I realize as I look forward to our conference each year that it feels like a family reunion where I get to catch up with old friends and meet new colleagues who are also passionate about EM. I hope to see each of you there. Huntsville is a great town, especially for engineers! Our IAC committee has planned an excellent technical program coupled with lots of opportunities to enjoy yourself with fellow EMs.
Our ASEM Delegation to China received a warm welcome from the Chinese Academy of Engineering. I love the photo below of our Executive Director Paul Kaufmann and Associate Executive Director Dave Wyrick on stage discussing the importance of EM towards building clean energy sourcing around the world. What a distinguished panel! More details about our partnership will be published in our upcoming issue of the Practice Periodical.
Please take the time to nominate your fellow ASEM members for a 2017 ASEM award. Nominations are due June 30, 2017 and are summarized below. As summer approaches, I hope you are able to relax and rejuvenate as we work to make the world a better place through EM practice.
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