Great minds think alike, or at least great engineering minds do. Asked what advice they'd offer to engineers just entering the profession, two Design News award winners stressed the importance of interdisciplinary work.
"There are still some 'spec book' engineering schools, but most engineering programs today are focused on creative problem solving and interdisciplinary research," says Design News' 2004 Special Achievement Award winner Tony DiGioia.†
"There is a role for those who want to do more spec-type work," he adds, "but it's very difficult for an engineer to become successful today by focusing only on his or her specialty. You have to be able to deal with business people, lawyers, and those in other professions, and the more experience an engineer has in interdisciplinary work, the better off they are."
DiGioia, who is both an engineer and a surgeon, developed Hip Nav, a computer-based planning tool that has reduced by half the number of dislocations that occur within one year of hip implant surgery.
"The most important skills you can learn in an undergraduate engineering program are creative problem solving, and the discipline of lifelong learning," DiGioia adds. Those two will allow you to go into any area, whether medicine - like I did - or business or engineering."
"Establish technical expertise," counsels Paul Bevilaqua, "then watch 'Survivor' on TV." Bevilaqua, voted 2004 Engineer of the Year by Design News readers, is Chief Engineer for Advanced Development Projects at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. His team designed the lift-fan propulsion system that provides the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft with both vertical lift and supersonic flight capabilities.
Paul Bevilaqua (above), 2004 Engineer of the Year, and Tony DiGioia (below), 2004 Special Achievement Award winner, stress interdisciplinary work and creative thinking for success.
"Younger engineers tend to believe that if they create brilliant technology, they'll be successful," he notes, "but success is only partly based on what you know," Bevilaqua observes. "In our business - government contracting - it's more important to deliver a sufficient solution to a problem that a customer cares about than it is to come up with something brilliant when there's no buy-in."
"You have to look 'outside' to see why anyone should care about what you're doing," Bevilaqua continues. "You have to understand the market, appreciate the importance of selling, and be good at team-building - or at least working as part of a team. Probably all three of those skills could all fall under the heading of team-building."
Bevilaqua says he and other alumni of his engineering school were invited to judge senior design projects. "We saw a team of four, another team of three, and a third 'team' in which one student did everything. Our company hired that student, but he didn't last very long. He thought he knew best about everything and wasn't willing to listen."
He adds, "You have to know when to put your foot down - when you're dealing with an issue around breaking a part or killing a pilot - and when it's just not that important, and it's okay to concede a point."
Bevilaqua and DiGioia concur on the importance of thinking creatively. "A lot of a young engineer's experience in school consists of being given a question and looking in the chapter for the answer.† Here, you have to come up with your own questions - and it's important to ask the right questions," cautions Bevilaqua.
"The four years of undergraduate study are unique years, but it's easy to get focused on what you're doing and miss the rest of the experience," says DiGioia. "When the opportunity presents itself to take courses outside the engineering discipline, in art, or music, for example, or in a different science, you should pursue it.
"The best way to keep your creativity sharp is to be challenged by something outside your comfort level," DiGioia adds. We all get into routines, but it's amazing what you can learn, or learn about yourself, when you step outside your comfort level. Focusing on things that are challenging keeps you in that mindset of continuous learning."