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Posts Tagged ‘excellence’

I’m 45 now, I’ve been an engineer for over half my life.  Bit by bit, I have passed into the second half of my career without ever seeing the change coming.  Every once in a while I run into a discussion, in person or online, about the Millenials as the “Me Generation”, about how young people today are all about their entitlement and their toys, and not about what they can do your their country — or, more likely, for their employer.  As some like to sum it up, “Millenials want bags of money or praise.”

The first time it happened, maybe five years ago or so — I guess by then I was considered elderly enough not to be considered one of the young whippersnappers anymore — I was quite shocked.  I was trying to recognize the young people I know, and failed.  I asked myself whether it was because I was so disconnected from them, but it just so happen that a good number of my friends are in their mid-twenties.

Now I’ve gone back to teaching and I look at even younger people in our Engineering Department.  Do these complaints reflect what I’m seeing?

In a word, no.  I think it’s absurd.

I’m not saying that there is no difference between young people in 2011 and those I taught in the late 90s, or my cohorts in the late 80s, let alone my parents’ generation.  Particularly in the way they have learned to learn, the way they work, their expectations of how things work, they obviously have been shaped by a different context.  They have grown up with different technology.

But I find the descriptions that have been attached to their supposed sense of entitlement and air-headedness completely unfair.  Do they have unrealistic expectations?  Of course — it’s part of that stage of life.  And let’s face it, the world they have been raised to expect changes even faster with each passing decade.

Do they need to learn critical thinking, hard work, self-reliance, initiative, resourcefulness?  About as much as 20-year-olds ever do, and maybe less than my students from the late 90s.

Do they have an inflated sense of entitlement?  Ha.  Less so than the Baby Boomers.  In fact, if anything the Millenials’ flaw in the eyes of most employers is that they aren’t quite naive enough about being taken advantage of.  I still wouldn’t call them savvy — that’s something that take more years of experience — but they don’t come in with the expectation that they should sacrifice everything to the altar of The Job.  I say good on them.

No, what I’m seeing is young people who want their choices to have a meaning, who want try many things, who want their efforts to be appreciated, and who are doubtful about how much they can trust what they hear from older generations.  Employers, give them a chance and give them some reasons to love what they do!

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Sigh.  Although my students do the best they can with the background they have, I continue to be stunned at the low requirements of the American education system. A sizable portion of college and university classes here are basically remedial high school. I’m getting lots of people in their second or third year in a four-year engineering program who have never had any statistics at all. They will have to take one stats class before they graduate, but it’s not prerequisite to many other classes so they tend to take it late in the program. It seriously limits their tools and understanding.

Let’s compare:

Requirements to graduate from Polytechnique of Montreal:

  • Need to have enough high school math, physics and chemistry to take the 2-year Pure and Applied Sciences program at a CEGEP (junior college)
  • There, 3 physics classes, 6 math classes, 3 chemistry classes, 1 bio class, plus 4 PE classes, 4 philosophy classes, 4 French classes, and some English (60 units total).
  • Polytechnique: 120 units of solid, wall-to-wall engineering.  No relief from any GEs or electives.

Requirement to graduate here:

  • No requirements on high school classes, though math, physics and chemistry are recommended.
  • 27 units of GE
  • 106 units of sciences and engineering including the same math, physics, and chemistry I had to take in junior college.

Conclusion: Canadian engineers graduate WAY more prepared.  I cringe when I hear people talking about how difficult the program or a class is.

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As in many other technical disciplines, it’s a frequent career path for engineers — almost required — to move from on from pure technical work (design, analysis, number-crunching, etc.) onto project management.

A long time ago as an undergrad in civil engineering, my course concentration was in construction project management.  I learned the crunchy part, the technical part of the work: cost estimates, budgets, schedules, systems analysis, the critical path method, all that good stuff.  But it turns out I didn’t learn, at the time, elements that in modern practice are considered part of a project manager’s job.

It’s hardly surprising; to this day, a majority of technical professionals learn project management on the job, through trial and error — lots of costly errors.  There are a lot of human, non-technical skills and tasks involved, the so-called soft skills: leadership, people management, client contact, networking, proposal preparation, finding new projects, keeping clients happy.

In truth, many of us take years to even start realizing that some of these are indeed part of project management!  For example, we keep hoping for the day the marketing personnel will learn to prepare proposals entirely without our help, without stealing our valuable technical time.

Consultants, you see, live and die by their “billable” (or “chargeable”) time: how many hours in a day do we spend working on something that advances a specific project and therefore can be charged to that client’s account?  How many hours in a day do we manage to get our salary covered by project work rather than to overhead?  Every employee in a consulting firm is acutely conscious of that percentage and every hour she has to spend on finding new work — networking, looking for leads, writing proposals, etc. — is an hour not spent on a chargeable project.

But it turns out it IS part of project management, as is keeping the client happy and informed, nursing bruised egos on a team, riding herd on sub-consultants, or negotiating with other project managers for common resources.  Yet most of us have to learn these skills by observation or by self-directed learning.

I spent 21 years out of school before finding a company where everyone, without exception, is sent for formal training before being given projects to manage. Even though by now I had done a lot of the self-teaching, I still learned valuable information on not only setting up a project right to minimize the risk of problems, but also — something usually neglected — on getting the project out of trouble when things go awry.

In addition, this company uses a coaching system in which every project has an assistant project manager to help with management tasks, ensure redundancy in case the PM is unavailable, and provide mentorship in learning the ropes. We have tools, we have support, we have a safety net.

The wonder, really, is that I spent so long and worked at so many companies without receiving the training or support.  In these places, you got technical training fairly easily, but you only received PM training as (a) a sort of accolade or pat on the back if you were doing well, or (b) a corrective measure if you were doing poorly but they still needed to keep you in the position.

Imagine that!  These companies all chose to let their professionals learn by making mistakes on their clients’ projects rather than get them trained, because of the training costs or because they were too busy putting out fires rather than planning ahead.  What a waste.

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Trash canSometimes people are just so strange. In case anyone blinked and missed it, we’re in the middle of a recession, an economic downturn, whatever you want to call it. A lot of people are out looking for a job (or two) as we hit higher unemployment rates than we’ve seen in decades. And yet, people who should know better still send crappy résumés and provide dumb answers in writing to the most obvious questions.

I can’t really give specifics, but I’ve just encountered stunning examples of job seekers shooting themselves in the foot. I’m not talking about just a little dull or lacking pizazz; I’m talking abysmal errors that are sure to make any reader flee. So let me quickly dispell a few notions about résumés:

  1. A résumé is not a 10-page list of projects. Unless you’re applying for a very specific type of job, such as faculty in a higher learning institution, keep it to a page or two. If it’s appropriate for your type of work, you can always submit a list of projects as a separate support document, keeping the descriptions short, sweet, and punchy. You can also add all sorts of detail on your Website. But your résumé? No, keep it brief.
  2. A résumé is not a list of previous jobs held. It’s a short space in which to drive home the point about why an employer would want you, and not somebody else, to work for them. Tell people about problems you solved, things you improved.
  3. Spell-checking is not optional.. And that includes correctly spelling the names of the person and the company you are applying to. If you can’t spell, do find someone who can.
  4. Visual appeal is not just the cherry on top — it’s the framework for your résumé. It must be easy to read and to recognize when left with a pile of other résumés, yet tasteful and professional. Stick to white or off-white paper of good quality but without ostentation; use crisp fonts that are easy to read, contrasting pleasantly to help direct the eye. Go read The Non-Designer’s Design Book, by Robin Williams; it’s inexpensive, easy to read, and tremendously useful. Hand-written résumés are right out. Seriously, people.
  5. Petulance is not endearing. No matter how justified you think you are about blow-outs with past employers, please don’t trumpet them proudly in your résumé, nor in your cover letter, your interview, your e-mails, etc. Particularly if you’re now applying to the same employer, for the same boss.

Consider hiring a professional to help you with your résumé. For $100 to $200 you should be able to get something good. No, the pro can’t write it all for you; for things pertaining to your own area of expertise, you know more than the résumé writer. But do listen to him or her on their own area of expertise!

Bottom line: we all need a bit of help in a job search, because looking for work is not our job! But there is no excuse for sabotaging one’s own job-seeking effort with a wretched first contact.

Links of interest:

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Here are some free online learning resources you can use to do some research, improve your skills, and share information.

I like using free e-books, slide presentations, images, and videos to find cool ideas, information, and resources.

  • Scribd — a place where you can store documents online and browse what others have uploaded. I’ve found many useful e-books there.
  • Free-eBooks.net — more e-books, with a dedicated and more organized browsing system.
  • Project Gutenberg — digital versions of public domain texts, which means most of the classics, among others. Project Gutenberg aims to make the contents of our libraries available for free to the widest number of people possible.
  • ManyBooks.net — an extension that builds on the Gutenberg Project and other sources to offer texts in many different formats.
  • The Best 6 Sites to Get Free Ebooks — on MakeUseOf.com
  • SlideShare — A place to store slide presentations, such as PowerPoint, Apple Keynote, iWork, Word, or Open Office documents. I’ve found many a useful and interesting presentation there. Slideshare also lets you share and embed slides into other sites.
  • Flickr — the well-known photo storage site not only lets your store, organize, and share your images; it also has a neat Creative Commons section you can search for images from others which you can legally reuse (read the specific conditions applicable to the images.)
  • YouTube — not just for stupid pet tricks and movie previews; under categories like Education or Science & Technology you can find very interesting material.

And tools to get more tools:

  • Feed43 — If you have a little familiarity with HTML and carefully read the instructions, you can create feeds from sites that don’t already provide them; then you can route the feeds to your favourite reader.
  • MakeUseOf.com — a blog dedicated to scouring the Web for more tools of all kinds. Every day you get links to new resources.
  • Free Download A Day — daily suggestions of freeware and shareware you can use.

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ada byron lovelace

So here we are — today bloggers are celebrating the heritage of Ada Byron Lovelace and other “techie” women in science, technology, engineering, and medicine. I picked women I admire and whose excellence inspired me through the years.

Marie Curie

Maria Skłodowska Curie, the Polish-born physicist and chemist who pioneered research in radioactivity with her French husband Pierre Curie, was the first woman to win a Nobel prize and the first person of either gender to win two Nobel Prizes (Physics, 1903, with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, and Chemistry, 1911, by herself). She won many other honours for her work and is an icon of women’s excellence in science.

Her sister Bronisława was a doctor, her elder daughter Irene would become a Nobel-prize winning chemist herself, and her younger daughter Eve a famous writer, publisher, and top NATO and UNICEF staff.

Thea Foss

Theah Christiansen Foss was a Norwegian immigrant to the United States who would go on to found the Foss Launch and Tug Company — now Foss Maritime, the largest tugboat company in the western U.S. The company’s official colours are still the same white with green trim Thea Foss used to paint her first rowboat. From rowboats she graduated to shipyards. The Thea Foss Waterway in Commencement Bay, Tacoma, is named for her.

Eleanor Helin

Pioneer asteroid researcher Eleanor F. Helin passed away this winter. She worked at Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) and discovered or co-discovered 872 asteroids in her lifetime, as well as several comets. Asteroid 3267 Glo is named for her (“Glo” was Helin’s nickname). She did an amazing amount of work that rarely received the limelight but contributed enormously to our knowledge of the Solar system.

Rose-Aimée Lamontagne

Sister Rose-Aimée Lamontagne of the Sisters of Charity of Québec was my mathematics teacher in Secondary 3*. She was a wonderful woman, a free-thinker marching to her own beat, passionate about teaching and about science. She made fantastic efforts to help every student according to what he or she needed to get as far as possible in life, not just in terms of technical education but also in life skills and ethics. We remained close friends from 1978 to her death from cancer in 2002. She was a great person who taught by example, and passion, not just by words.

Danielle Zaikoff

Danielle Zaikoff is one of the pioneer women in Québec to obtain an engineering degree. She was the first woman (1970-75) to become a member of the Board of Directors of the Ordre des Ingénieurs du Québec (OIQ, Quebec Order of Professional Engineers), the self-governing professional licensing body in charge of regulate engineers and engineering in Québec. She was the first woman to then become president of OIQ (1975-76), then president of the Canadian Council of Engineers (1978); her career included many other firsts. Thanks to her example (and to my parents’ confidence in me), I never questioned whether a woman could be an engineer and excel.

Kathryn Foster

Kathryn was my co-worker for nine years when I was in Seattle. She is one of the best engineers I’ve ever met, and definitely the best field engineer I know, period. Although she had a background of broad interest in sciences, she was working as a house-cleaner until she decided to go back to school and earned her degree in civil engineering at age 40! She obtained her professional engineer license a few years later and proceeded to kick butt as a superb, eminently practical and sensible engineer. She also acted as the office IT manager for over a decade, reconfiguring servers on the fly.


* In Québec we have Elementary Grades 1-6, Secondary 1-5, CEGEP or junior college 1-2 or 1-3, then university; so this would be equivalent to Grade 9 in the U.S. Incidentally, I like this system better; it groups students by more similar ages and it lets them do the really stupid stuff and the floating before they hit university. Between a different organization and better funding for student loans and scholarships, 48% of Canadians have a college or university degree, compared to 39% of Americans. Among people less than 45 years old, the proportion of college or university degrees is higher among women than men (this is reversed for ages 55 and older.)

Links of interest:

Ada Lovelace Day sites:

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The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.
— Carl Sagan, Cosmos

A few days ago, the free online video service Hulu made Carl Sagan’s 1980 science series Cosmos available among their releases (also available through Google Video).

This is the most recent release, containing Sagan’s 1990 updates as well as recent intro comments from his wife, writer Ann Druyan.

In 1980, the landmark series Cosmos premiered on public television. Since then, it is estimated that more than a billion people around the planet have seen it. Cosmos chronicles the evolution of the planet and efforts to find our place in the universe. Each of the 13 episodes focuses on a specific aspect of the nature of life, consciousness, the universe and time. Topics include the origin of life on Earth (and perhaps elsewhere), the nature of consciousness, and the birth and death of stars. When it first aired, the series catapulted creator and host Carl Sagan to the status of pop culture icon and opened countless minds to the power of science and the possibility of life on other worlds.

Carl Sagan was an astronomer and a writer who did enormous work to popularize science. He died of pneumonia contracted during his fight against myelodysplasia (a form of anemia) in 1996 and I was very sad when we lost him.

This weekend my husband and I watched a few episodes of Cosmos, dreading how old news it might seem after three decades, but the series has aged reasonably gracefully. I wish certain sections were presented in a different order, but I believe it continues to be an excellent introduction to the intricate interconnectedness of humanity’s scientific quest, and the beauty of the universe.

I was 15 when the series was first aired. Sagan’s memorable “Billions and Billions” — with an emphasis on the Bs he reportedly added so there would be no confusion with “millions” — and his beatific gazing at starscapes, the Vangelis soundtrack, and the voyages of the “spaceship of imagination” were among the high points of an otherwise dreary year in high school. The handful of astronomy nerds I hung out with — Nathalie, Christian, Alain, Marc — talked animatedly about the episodes the next day, straining our then-limited knowledge of English. The next Christmas, mom gave me a copy of the book based on the series (there is a bit of irony in this) and later on I used the contents in many a class paper.

Hulu is co-owned by NBC Universal, News Corp. and Providence Equity Partners, and operated independently. Cosmos was first broadcast on PBS.

Links of interest:

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