I was at our annual international conference a week or so ago and it got me thinking a lot about diversity. No, I don’t mean the politically correct ethnic or cultural diversity that most of our large corporations bend over backwards to make it appear that they care about. I don’t care much about that – we all came out of Africa, just at different times, and it is just stupid to think that we are different just because of what we look like.
No, what I am thinking about is engineering diversity. I think it is very important for many engineers to know about other fields and I think it is vital for any engineering manager to know something about many engineering disciplines. Granted, we need some of those very specialized engineers to stay within their narrow focus, but for most of the rest of us, exposure to other fields can only help.
My undergraduate degree is in ocean engineering. How I stumbled upon that field I can’t really say, but I am glad I did. OE encompassed civil engineering (steel structures, concrete structures, and even soil mechanics), mechanical engineering (thermodynamics, machine design, and materials), naval architecture (ship design, ship motions, hydrodynamics), and a good smattering of science including physical, biological, and chemical oceanography. For those of us going into oil or port design, our electives stressed civil; for the others more naval architecture courses. Either way, we came out pretty well rounded and with a good sense of at least the important topics in the other engineering disciplines.
The importance of getting this understanding of other areas of engineering was manifested in the initial concept of integrated product teams, IPTs. In the original incarnation, rather than in today’s bastardized form, the IPT was made up of engineers, designers, cost people, even marketers who, together, brought forth a product, idea, or whatever. The team was strengthened by the diversity of outlook and experience in the members. Today an IPT of, say, structural engineers is a group of structural engineers. Okay, sometimes it is good to get them all together, but it loses the whole idea of integrating diverse ideas and talents. Of course the initial idea died because it was just too hard to do.
Which brings me back to the conference. The society (SAWE) is, I think, unique in that all the members are involved in one way or another in mass properties (mass, weights, centers of gravity, inertias etc.) but we all come from different industries and interests. I think that no place else can you sit in the same chair and in the course of one morning listen to papers on oil rigs, submarines, lunar probes, fighter jets, and the newest airliner. And that is the strength of such an organization, its diversity. While we all do similar jobs, the cross-polination between industries lets you discover new and better ways to do things, and gives you other benchmarks against which you can measure what you’re doing. Besides, it gives you new perspective on what you might be considering your old boring field.
So what if you don’t have such an organization? Well, I encourage you to seek out other aspects of engineering that either interest you or that you think might have applications or at least lessons learned that you can use in your own field. Learning new stuff in engineering can only be to the good, whether you are seeking new methods or processes, or if you simply need a new perspective to get out of the stale rut for a little while. And the more you do it, the more diverse your knowledge and the better equipped you will be for the future.
What do you think? What other field has interested you and helped you gain a more diverse outlook?