The Engineering Comfort Zone

Many women in engineering do not spend their childhood tinkering in the garage or shop, but there is no time like the present to work on gaining hands-on experience.
SWE Leadership Summit Update

By Mary Foss, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Technology at Weber State University and SWE Faculty Advisor

The Engineering Comfort Zone
Mary Foss

I remember the moment clearly.  I was interviewing for a job at a manufacturing facility and was taken on a tour.  I stepped into the boiler room where thousands of square feet were dedicated to 13 500 horsepower boilers, heat exchangers, 10,000 gallon storage tanks, and more multiple effect stills than I could count.  I might as well have been stepping onto a different planet.  There was piping going everywhere and PLCs hooked up to everything keeping the complicated orchestra going.  It was very hot.  It was very noisy.  I was officially out of my comfort zone and I was offered the job.

This wasn’t my first job.  My first job was a climate controlled cubicle farm that was quiet.  It was far away from manufacturing and in fact existed in a separate building that was driving distance from where things happened.  I had an impressive title there, Design Engineer and the work I did there was important.  However, there is not a day that goes by that I’m not glad that I chose to move on.

For many, the completion of an engineering degree is the culmination of an inordinate amount of hard work.  Countless hours are spent going over examples from books, lecture notes, and pages and pages of hand calculations to solve a problem.  As a result, we are accustomed and comfortable with that environment.  We search for answers in reference materials or in a carefully designed experiment where we hope to have a tidy amount of knowns and unknowns.  Early in my career that’s what I thought an engineer was supposed to do and so that is what I did.  I occupied myself with things that I could read and analyze and rarely left my work area.  What a shame!

The ability to solve a problem starting with the fundamentals of science in a theoretical manner is certainly what make the skills of an engineer sought after and indispensable to the manufacturing world.  Our broad knowledge of physics, statistics and material properties allow us to see the world from 10,000 feet, however our technical and theoretical knowledge can also be our bane.

So much of manufacturing begins with understanding.  A lot about a process can be understood through careful and meticulous data analysis, however, if we dare to leave the comfort of our computer, a whole new world of understanding opens up.

It took a while for me to feel at home in this new environment.  It was intimidating as well as humbling.  I aced my thermodynamics course but when it came to seeing a heat exchanger up close and personal and trying to figure out a problem it was a different story.  Solving the problem on paper came easy to me as a student.  Solving the problem when it is right in front of you was a completely different animal.  Making this jump as an engineer is scary but it is also worth it.  In the end, what you can accomplish and learn will allow you to develop professionally and I bet you will enjoy it along the way.

Many women engineers do not spend their childhood years tinkering in the garage or shop but instead are perhaps encouraged to pursue engineering after demonstrating an aptitude in science and math.  Regardless of your hands-on background, there is no time like the present to work on gaining or expanding it!  So, if you want to step out of your comfort zone, which may be the 6 foot fabric wall that encases you, here are a few steps.

  1. Observation

The art of observation is certainly a skill that everyone can benefit from.  Being observant can allow you to learn and understand more than just what is on the surface.  When it comes to a manufacturing process investing time in observing the process is time well spent.  Differences between operators may become apparent that would have otherwise been missed.  Design flaws become instantly obvious and sometimes so do solutions.  Hone your skills in observation.  Your ability to analyze a process and observe it can generate new questions and allow you to challenge your own understanding and perhaps ultimately improve the process by your new gained knowledge.

Do your observations match up with your analysis of the process?  Are there any gaps there?  What makes sense?  Why are things done the way that they are done?  With a little bit of time in quiet observation you may come up with some good questions.  And perhaps, if you are lucky, questions that have yet to be asked by anyone.

  1. Know the People that Know

Many times the person that understands a process the best as well as what its limitations are and what might be done to improve it is the operator.  The operator is comfortable with the process and may have experience with the process beyond your years.

The relationship between the operator and the engineer can take many forms.  However, the most productivity occurs when this relationship is collegial.  You may have to work extra hard to break down barriers to make the relationship work but consider it a worthwhile investment.  Understand that the barriers are very real and they may be in place not because of you but instead of because of others with your same job title.

Consider what motivates he or she?  How can you help make the process and thereby their life better?  Earning the trust and the respect of the operator is an accolade that every engineer should pursue.

  1. Climb the ladder and Open the Door at the Top

One of the best parts of being an engineer is having the freedom to be curious.  In fact, most industry pays you to be curious, though probably worded in another way.  A good engineer is always asking why.  Why are things the way that they are?  Is there an applicable history?  Has the question been asked?  Has the question been answered?  Is the answer still relevant today?  Is it worth asking it again in light of modern technology?

The good news is, the outlook for a curious engineer is bright.  There are so many questions that cannot be answered in a google search.  There are so many places that engineers have yet to go.

I remember climbing a ladder that led to a platform at the top of a 12,000 gallon tank.  I had a distinct feeling that I had no business being up there.  In fact, I probably got a few sideways glances from an operator passing by.  Infuse an element of exploration and adventure into your workday by going to the places that you have never been.  See what is behind that door you have never opened.  Piece together in your head how everything in the facility fits together and earn your pay by being always curious.

  1. Get behind the wheel

Sometimes the best way to get out of your comfort zone is to dive in head first.  During an annual plant shut down I had organized a multitude of projects to be completed.  After checking in on status everything was going smoothly and there was nothing left for me to do.  A mechanic tossed me the keys to a skid steer and suggested I move the dirt that had been dug up from a plumbing project and drive it into a dump truck to haul away.  Honestly, I thought he was joking.  I had never driven any kind of heavy machinery.  What business did I have trying to drive into a dump truck?  Well, he wasn’t joking and after a few loads I did get the hang of it and finished up my day with a little bit wider comfort zone.

It can be easy to get bogged down by meetings, reports, and paper-work.  Your ability to improve all of these areas will benefit with an increased understanding of the hands-on aspects of your job.

Read Mary Foss's blog post about returning to work after a career break.