By Stuart Cameron, formerly Chief Engineer at Doosan Babcock
In the latter part of my career I was often asked, ‘What makes a successful engineer? And how do you educate one?’
I believe that successful engineers share certain characteristics an expert with a broad base of knowledge, a strategic thinker with an eye for detail, an innovator and a communicator.
The education of an engineer should be designed to instil and develop these skills.
To my mind, specialisation for an engineer should not come at the cost of broad understanding. In the real world, engineering challenges do not come neatly labelled “civil”, “mechanical” or “electrical”. In fact, the most innovative solutions often emerge when ideas from different disciplines collide.
A good example is a winner of the Royal Academy’s MacRobert Award – the i-LIMB Hand – a prosthetic device that looks and acts like a real human hand. It has five individually powered digits, heralding a new generation in bionics and patient care. That innovation was made possible by bringing together cutting edge mechanical and electronic engineering with ground-breaking software and state-of-the-art plastics.
Of course, it was designed by a team of engineers who each had their own specialism. Success relied on communication and co-operation between them; it required that each understand the technical language used by the others, and the basics of each field.
An engineer cannot be an expert across the board, but a great engineer is equipped with enough knowledge of each field to understand how the system operates as a whole.
There is an analogy here with physicians. We recognise that before a doctor can specialise, they must understand how the whole body – the whole system – works. In my view, that same breadth of knowledge should underpin the education of the engineer.
Of course, engineering is about far more than knowledge. An engineer’s core business is to turn theory into practice; to translate scientific progress into commercial and social value. This requires more than technical competency. It requires an ability to juggle the competing demands of a project – managing risks, controlling costs and keeping to a schedule. In other words, it requires an ability to combine high-level strategic thinking about a system with a scientific precision on specific issues.
The ability to think strategically cannot be learnt from a book; it has to be developed through practical experience. It can only be achieved through “learning by doing”: getting students to work on real engineering problems and properly consider the consequences of their approach.
In an increasing number of universities this process is guided by real-life expert practitioners, Senior engineers from industry are appointed as Visiting Professors, to enrich the undergraduate curriculum with experience of real-world engineering problems.
‘Learning by doing’ breeds another skill in engineers: the ability to innovate. Successful engineers are not only competent, they are inquisitive, interrogative and creative. These skills cannot be taught – there is no recipe for innovative thinking. But it is possible to create an environment in which innovation can grow and flourish.
We must create a learning environment in which students are encouraged to challenge received wisdoms, in which examinations reward novel solutions to old problems and in which students have no fear of making mistakes.
More and more innovation takes place in the sphere of applied engineering, rather than fundamental science. In past centuries the greatest innovations were intellectual. Today they are technological or organisational; they are in the domain of the engineer.
The next crucial engineering skill I want to discuss is very different – it is the ability to empathise and communicate. That means engineers must appreciate the social, political and even emotional context of projects and design solutions that meet those human needs.
They must also be able to explain the benefits that a project can bring in order to align diverse parties behind it.
There are few areas of Government policy, for example, that do not have an engineering dimension to delivery. An increasingly important focus is for the professional Institutions is to actively get involved in designing policy. In areas like this, engineers must be aware of the political and human implications of their advice and proposals – technical perfection is insufficient.
I believe that it is time to reconsider what constitutes the skill-set of a successful engineer.
I believe there are four crucial ingredients:
• a broad-based technical competency.
• an ability to think strategically: breaking down a challenge into component parts, understanding the commercial constraints, and managing risk effectively.
• a willingness to question and disrupt accepted norms, to bring new ideas and innovation.
• a sensitivity to the human context of every project, and a capacity to build support.
Together, these add up to create not only a successful engineer, but in fact a successful leader, whether in business, politics or academia.
An engineer who has learnt to question accepted norms, who has spent their career developing new ideas and embracing the risk of failure is a leader equipped to define a bold and radical vision.
An engineer who has learnt to understand the human context of every project, who has worked at building teams and support, inside and outside their business, is a leader equipped to align an organisation behind a common goal.
And an engineer who has learnt how to think strategically while considering the details, who has practised by making mistakes and solving problems is a leader equipped to execute solutions with control of costs and risks. In my view it is the duty of every professional, at the right point in their career, to pass on their expertise and experience to the next generation.
That is why I believe that engineers who develop these attributes, who equip themselves as leaders, have the ability and the opportunity – more than any other profession – to make an enormous impact on the world around them.
We need to foster better education and training which satisfies the aspirations of young people while delivering high calibre engineers and technicians that businesses need – need to inject real world engineering practice into the student experience and we simply must succeed in creating a more diverse profession. It is vital for the long term health of the engineering profession that we build on the enthusiasm and interest we find among students.
We also need to develop the role of professional leadership bodies – engineering by its very nature is a collaborative profession. Engineering is starting to be properly recognised for its essential contribution to society but more work is required to raise the profile further. The challenges are to improve public understanding of engineering, increase awareness of how engineering impacts on lives and increase public recognition of our most talented engineers.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IES.