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The Expanding Role of the Engineer: Why People Skills Matter


Product Design

It used to be easy. Well, at least, it was easy compared to today.

Engineers of old, meaning anytime up until the past 15 years or so, mainly needed to consider form, fit, and function when designing something. They had to make sure it worked technically. Obviously, that in itself is a challenge. But things have changed. Today, you still have to address those same factors during design. However, you also need to integrate input from a range of product stakeholders, including manufacturers, suppliers, and end users.

There’s no doubt being technically astute has always been an important trait for an engineer to have. But it’s no longer enough. Today, you need to initiate, foster, collect, and incorporate feedback as well as negotiate trade-offs amongst this broad range of stakeholders. You’re the bridge between what the business wants—revenue, profitability—and what the customer wants—performance, and exceeded expectations.

It takes soft skills to successfully navigate this politically sensitive discussion.

Soft skills can help you juggle and consolidate everyone’s input with finesse. The soft skills—as opposed to hard, learned, technical skills—are the personality traits and characteristics that make someone a good communicator.

Technically Minded

Perhaps unfairly, engineers and scientists are often characterized in the popular media as lacking these characteristics. In the past, they’ve been seen—of course not always—as the cartoon character Dilbert. Putting their heads down and doing their mathematical-formula-rich jobs as expected, then moving on to the next design.

Yes, you may often focus on, even get lost in, the technical details of design. That’s a good thing because yours is a highly technical job. However, your overall goal is to develop a design solution that meets all requirements and satisfies all constraints on time and on budget, even though they may compete with one another.

In the past, achieving that goal has meant ensuring the design solution doesn’t break, that it’s light enough, that it functions, that it generates a certain amount of power, and other such considerations. Today’s products, however, have significant operational and business constraints that impact the design solution. Product costs directly affect the slight margins companies are experiencing today. Small details in design geometry can post significant delays and costs in production, for example.

So while you still need to be good at math, you also need be able to seek out and gain feedback and insight from a variety of product and project stakeholders. That fact has major implications for you as an engineer in today’s world. Today, products are the—product, if you will—of more people than ever before working together to shape and design the final result.

More than ever before, those who purchase the end product—whether a consumer or a company—view their purchase as cementing an ongoing relationship with the product’s manufacturer. The stakeholders know from the outset how important such a relationship is. But, at the same time, they certainly need to keep manufacturing costs in mind.

And you need to take every single stakeholder into account.

Answering to Stakeholders

Stakeholders might include employees from the procurement department, who add input on potential suppliers and outline their costs. They might include the manufacturing engineers who need to be consulted about production; or service planners who have their own insights on maintenance feasibility that need to be taken into account. Stakeholders might include employees from the marketing department who have determined potential end users and can outline how the final product can best suit their needs. And let’s not forget the suppliers themselves who will need to be consulted about and updated on the parts they’ll need to supply.

You’re the hub in the middle of this wheel. You need to relate to the customers and other stakeholders. You need to be personal and engaging. You need to listen.

It’s a pretty tall order, depending on your personality type. Luckily, several organizations around the country train engineers and other business people in soft skills. Just like technical skills, you can learn—up to a point, of course—to become a people person. But furthermore, newly available technologies can empower you to engage and collaborate with those stakeholders in the right context, which could be collaborating on a 3D design or a bill of material or working together on a requirement or a cost estimate.

It used to be that you could set up detailed equations and formulas to predict the traits of your design solutions. However, not all enterprise characteristics can be quantified in numbers. Soft skills can be hard to quantify, but they are important.

Because you need to engage a broad range of stakeholders to develop well-rounded design solutions, you need soft skills. Just remember, “engineer as Dilbert” is a stereotype that many, if not most, engineers don’t fit. And even if you need a brush up, people skills are a learned skill, like so many others.

Do you think “people skills” are important to an engineer’s job? Why or why not? Has the role of engineer and the importance of an engineer’s personality changed over the years?

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