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Engineering Culture

Engineering Culture

Engineers are so damn practical; give them a problem and they’ll just get on a solve it. The ultimate pragmatists; it’s not too hard to see why it often takes an external force to change the industry. Forever, (it seems), we’ve made do–  “Yeah, the processes/tools/practices being used aren’t the best- but we’re surviving and we’ll get round to sorting them one day”. Our companies are focused on engineering.

So why am I talking about this now? Well, the people behind one of the tools I use for the site- Buffer- have shared their 10 cultural values, and how they’ve integrated them into the company. I found two things fascinating about these- firstly the values themselves, which are pretty far removed from those I’ve seen at most company inductions. Secondly, and more interesting, is how much they’ve been thought about and thoroughly woven them into the way the company functions.

Take a look, and consider- does your company do this, and would it be a better place if they took a moment to reflect on the culture:

Choose Positivity

I nearly reordered this list so that I didn’t start with the one value I thought most likely to make your average engineer’s eye’s role. However, considering you spend most of you time at work, it makes sense that it should be a positive experience for you; not a room full of bitter complaints. There’s more to it than that though, positive environments are those where you’re more likely to feel safe to make a contribution- not shot down, and that makes it more likely that your employees will engage and start to improve the business themselves.

Default to Transparency

Did you know that an unexpected loss makes a much bigger impact than an unexpected gain? Providing people with a full view of what’s going on turns the unexpected into the anticipated. Transparency breeds trust, but it also opens up a process to comment and improvement. Buffer take this surprisingly far, up to and including publishing their salaries and telling their customers where their money is being spent. Exposing everything to your employees seems a risky business; but when I think back to all the times something’s been thrust upon me and I’ve thought “if only I’d been involved at the start”…

Focus on Self-Improvement

Engineering firms are kinda good at this. We have the whole culture of CPD where we focus on our professional development. Where I think company cultures fall down a little, however, is that focus on professional development. I’ve got a whole post about esoteric learning in the works, however the headline is simple: if you want your employees to innovate then you have to allow them to grow personally; giving them the opportunity to draw from outside experience will uncover new opportunities.

Be a No-Ego Doer

Or ‘be objective’; their suggested route is the ‘five whys‘ approach. The trick is to separate people from problems and solutions, thus removing a lot of the friction that can happen when adapting ideas. More importantly, though, it makes it easier to solve problems. This is something the industry as a whole is trying to deal with by establishing collaborative contracts. The fact is that when you’ve got a problem, the focus should be on solving it, not working out who was responsible.

Listen First, Then Listen More

You need to dig a little deeper with this one to realise why it’s important. In the original post the phrases “seek first to understand and then to be understood” and “everything is a hypothesis, and you could be wrong”. I’ve talked a bit about the way engineers talk to one another. However if you focus on creating a culture where people listen and think about how they engage with one and other, then you’re likely to enable the more meaningful interactions that will push your business further. Buffer posted a tone guide, which I thought made an interesting read- especially when I compare it to my time at McDonalds!

Communicate with Clarity

I’m willing to admit I’m not the most concise or clear communicator (and irony that isn’t lost on me). However engineering is all about experience and knowledge, and so engineers are pretty much automatically experts, even when they’re talking to each other (although especially when talking to a client). That means that communication is very important and making sure people are understanding the implications of your conclusions is essential for easy collaboration.

Make Time to Reflect

Those who do not learn from their projects are doomed to repeat them; or something like that. Retrospectives are so amazingly important that I’m surprised that doing them (and doing them right) isn’t built in to the way we work. At best I’ve seen retrospectives exist as a short explanatory seminar with maybe a few ‘discovery’ points; however I’ve never even heard of companies doing regular, disciplined and recorded reflection on their projects.

Live Smarter, Not Harder

This is literally the opposite of most engineering cultures I’ve come across, where people treat their evenings as a time to work without getting interrupted by e-mails. There are, however, tonnes of studies out there explaining why just throwing more of you time at a problem is pretty much the worse way to solve it. Productivity is not a function of time, it’s a function of your state, and taking some time to discover the conditions that make you work most effectively and then being empowered to affect them will help you beat all those weekend workers hands down.

Show Gratitude

‘Showing gratitude’ is a much more active way of saying what I think is the more important message: ensure people are appreciated. Engineering is a job people do because they’re motivated by their contributions, rather than money (else we’d all be investment bankers by now). This means that a culture of appreciation is important; not just being grateful for people that are taking the time to help you, but also those that are taking the time to argue, correct and challenge you.

Do The Right Thing

Out of them all, I think this is a cultural aspect that most engineering firms already value. There’s a lot of responsibility in designing the world around us and it’s something that we’re taking more and more seriously (especially with the advent of CDM, etc. where we’re forcing ourselves to look into the whole life of the structure.) However, we can always be better!

Just something to think about…

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