Kieran O’Connor: Top 10 Life Lessons For Engineers

Kieran O'Connor

1. Some things will always take longer than you first think

Hofstadter's Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.

I related to Hofstadter's Law the first time I heard it, as I'd already experienced projects that took longer than everyone planned for, even when they applied huge amounts of resources when deadlines started to slip. The truth is that if I were to repeat one of those projects now, even with my extra years of experience, I'm sure it would still take longer than planned.

What helps me now is to look at the ratio of what I/we can control and influence versus what I/we cannot. When the control/influence ratio was low on previous projects it was as if it were almost guaranteed to slip. This might sound obvious, yet a lot of truths are just that - very simple and obvious.

2. Reverse whenever you are stuck

This life lesson has a subtle relationship to the third in this top ten list.

As an engineer, you will very likely be part of a team. If you are given a timescale to meet, you will have a potential to meet it. If, however, you help to set the timescale then your potential of meeting it rises enormously.

My best example of this comes from my time with Jacobs Engineering which used a tool called ‘interactive planning'. We would bring the project team members together and then use a roll of paper pinned across a conference room wall to make a large-scale plan. Post-It notes would be added gradually to make up the key milestones and activities. There would always be some moving of the posts, as the team added in their expert knowledge. The plan would be transferred to an electronic plan afterwards.

Those planning sessions - that worked backwards from the planned end date - were always more accurate than those that were planned moving forwards. And the visual element of mapping out the plan, combined with the team collaboration element, were important.

So, if you ever find yourself feeling stuck, a ‘reverse engineering' mindset could be worth considering.

3. Professionalise your CV

“We don't know where our first impressions come from or precisely
what they mean, so we don't always appreciate their fragility.” ~ Malcolm Gladwell

You will have heard the saying ‘you can't judge a book by its cover' many times over. This saying has truth to it, as everyone has read a book or watched a DVD that looked great but didn't live up to the expectations the cover presented to your imagination.

I've sifted through more CVs than I would care remember and I am amazed at how many of them are such poor quality. The person behind them is probably of a much higher calibre than what is being presented. Poor quality CVs get the attention they deserve—not very much. The recipient of the CV thinks: ‘why would I invest in a person who is not investing enough in themselves?'

Employing a professional to rework your CV can cost £50 to £100, and it's a worthwhile investment as a poor CV will be quickly transformed. The professionals help to bring a person's best and most employable qualities to the surface and your new CV will inevitably make a great first impression. I took this advice myself and was amazed at the improvements. I had been underselling my strengths.

4. Be clear on the Better, Cheaper, Faster formula

Whatever areas in life you are operating in the chances are you will be engineering solutions based on Better, Cheaper or Faster. You might change these terms in certain contexts, instead using words or phrases such as ‘increased precision', ‘more cost effective' or ‘faster to market', but they mean much the same thing.

The modern engineer has many aspects to his/her skillset. One of these is the
ability to be able to respond the ever-changing world. What helps manage this evolution of change is gaining clarity under what weightings can be assigned to these three dynamics: Better, Cheaper, Faster. I worked on a pharmaceutical project in Dublin with a mission of making the product more profitable. It felt like the work broken down to:

60% - Faster
30% - Better
10% - Cheaper

This was the only project I have ever experienced in which there was an open cheque book approach to the budget. Most engineering assignments are not so clear on priorities, however, the clearer you can be regarding which dynamics drive your business, the better placed you will be to respond.

5. Seek out opportunities for leverage

Working hard is a given in engineering. It has been said that if you were just in it for the money you would pick another career.

‘Working hard' and ‘working smart' could be two ends of a spectrum. I have made a point of finding a way to strike a balance between the two so that I work smart most of the time and save the working hard for when I need to dig in. Being of Irish descent, from a line of farmers, the habit of working hard is engrained into me.

When I took on an engineering assignment in Norway I had my first taste of working in the oil and gas sector. I chose Stavanger over Aberdeen as so much was being invested in state of the art technologies there that my enthusiasm was more naturally engaged.

In my personal life, I once read that if you want to get excellent at something, go write a book on it. I wanted to get better at working smart so I wrote a book on leverage. It taught me more than I ever imagined.

6. Be brilliant at the basics

One thing I've realised over the years is that those who are ‘brilliant at the basics' are the ones who I've found the most impressive and professional. This is true both in my profession and in my long-standing hobby as a martial artist.

I recall in the early days of my career how one of the more experienced engineers, who I admired greatly, could strip engineering problems back to the core principles and concepts. He taught me that when we get back to these the solution tends to reveal itself.

A martial arts master I trained with usually answered questions with a question. Initially this was somewhat frustrating, but over time I came to see that he was teaching me how to ask the questions that would tap into my best resources. He was teaching me the essence of learning how to learn.

7. Progress not perfection

It may sound counter-intuitive but I have discovered that a perfectionism mindset does not engender perfection or even high quality results. I believe instead that all successes are made up of many smaller successes and it is the focus on these small, incremental improvements that makes for high quality results.

The story of Thomas Edison and his light bulb experiments is often used as a motivational tool. He did not believe in failure. The story goes that it took 999 attempts before the 1000th bulb design succeeded. His brilliance was in seeing each result as infinitely useful. He held 1,093 US patents including many related to sound recording and motion pictures. He even invented a battery for an electric car. This was in the 1870s.

Seeing each outcome as a result helps us to develop the idea that there are no mistakes…only opportunities to maximise learning.

8. Be an energy giver rather than a taker

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

As an engineer, you have a choice to be the person who makes working environments as enjoyable, supportive and good-natured as possible. You could describe this as having a positive mindset.

You can also do the opposite, but please be mindful: people have enough work to do without feeling that you are adding more work to their load. The predicament that I hear from people is that they don't want to be false and pretend to be happy when they aren't. I wholeheartedly agree.

You could use the Losada Ratio to work with this. It is based on the idea that anything less than a 3:1 positive to negative ratio leads to unhappier environments. As an example, people working for forward-thinking organisations such as Google tend to work with a ratio of approximately 6:1. The thing is that the ‘1′ aspect is every bit as important as the 6. Being a pragmatic person who voices their concerns is very important. Constructive feedback helps a person keep a healthy Losada Ratio: healthy for them and healthy for their colleagues.

9. Never ‘need' the job

It seems the universe has a sense of humour; trying harder and wanting can seem to push your goal further away. For example, whenever a person really ‘needs' a job, they can counter intuitively get in their own way. You will discover that you will attract the best jobs, roles and positions when you have the freedom to opt for the opportunities that are based on growth potential rather than the larger pay packet.

The biggest underlying factor here is having the finances to make this possible. It helps to create an investment mindset so you can build a firm financial foundation.

I recommend reading The Richest Man in Babylon by George Clason. It teaches the dynamics of finances through a series of parables. One of the key things I learned from it was saving and investing 10% of everything I earn. This has proven to be highly effective from my own and other people's experience. The main message is that the percentage is important but the time element is critical. Compound interest taps into time so even if you can't do 10% straightaway, adopt the saving habit as early as possible starting even with 1%. You can increase the amount you save each year.

So, it is a useful idea to underpin your expertise with a strategy for working towards financial freedom. Start this as early as possible and reap the benefits later.

10. Find your formula

As an engineer, you will have been working with formulas for much of your life whether you are conscious of them or not.

The nine items on this list plus this last one make up a formula that I have used as an engineer and that formula has supported me very well. One measure of this is that I have always left a job or role of my own accord. I have never been dismissed.

There is generally a two-part formula in life:

What works for other people generally + what works for you specifically.

We have formulas for just about anything in life. When it came to writing my book ‘The Little Book Of Big Leverage' I had three main phases:

First: spending time in the local library. Being surrounded by books really helped the early brainstorming phase.

Second: in sunny California, away from distractions. I did a lot of detailed and diligent work while also having a great vacation; it was an ideal balance.

Third: back in Scotland living life while I applied the concepts. This was the refinement phase, where I applied a Thomas Edison mindset.

These phases helped me come up with a formula that worked for me. If you look, you will see that every success in your life is based on a formula. If you want even greater success, maybe it would be a good idea to become more conscious of your existing formulas?

Kieran O'Connor Chartered Design Engineer and author of the book The Little Book of Big Leverage.