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Engineers take a hard look at "soft skills"

Posted: 01 Dec 2000 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:engineering management? contract negotiation? soft skills? professional skills?

Reinert says, Soft skills are as important as engineering skills.
Managers note that things like leadership and knowing how to help the company win business never go out of style, even during boom times, when engineers might get complacent about these "soft skills." Engineering managers themselves often take refresher courses at critical times, such as just before closing a big contract.

"Before we went into negotiations with a customer last year, we took a course for a couple of days to brush up on our negotiating skills," said John Reinert, engineering manager at Aeroflex UTMC Microelectronics in Colorado Springs, Colorado. "We reviewed the basics: fallback alternatives, variations, looking at which specific things the customer might want most. It was similar to war games: If the customer asks this, what's our response?"

He noted that the negotiations "went very well," though he did acknowledge that they'll never know to what extent their negotiation studies facilitated that success. But he added that all the participants agreed that it was worthwhile, and would take the time to do it again.

"These soft skills are just as important as engineering skills," Reinert said. "At a startup or small company trying to win contracts, it's important to know how to use these skills very efficiently. Conflict resolution also comes into play during some contract negotiations, although most people think of conflict resolution [as something that happens] mainly within their own offices."

Being able to take charge of a project is particularly important at smaller companies. There, roles are often changing, and it's sometimes beneficial for different engineers to head projects at different times.

"We look for people who can lead a team, someone who can get a small teamfour to six peoplemotivated and a person who can quickly learn which people are best at doing what," said Kalani Jones, engineering vice president at Tachyon Inc. (San Diego). "It's hard enough to find a good engineer; finding one who can lead a team and speak well in front of customers is really hard to find."

Many engineers might downplay their need to understand the so-called soft skills, believing they are only necessary for managers. But even designers who have zero interest in management positions admit that in many instances, the skills needed to lead a design team are similar to those needed to manage a department.

"I think you can be a technical leader without being a manager," said Sean Haynes, senior engineer at Litton Marine (Charlottesville, Va.). "Being a manager has a negative connotation to me. To be a technical leader means maybe mentoring, or being someone people ask when they have questions. Technical leaders can also be someone who handles resource allocation, determining who is best-suited to do something. If you're an engineering manager, you do that on a grander scale, assigning who the technical leaders are, controlling money, doing administrative functions like reviews, appropriating time for people."

Much of the rationale behind working on interpersonal skills stems from the fact that the engineering world is quite different today from what it was in the '50s and '60s, when engineers could expect to spend their careers at one company, according to Vern R. Johnson, associate dean at the University of Arizona's College of Engineering (Tucson). He said that the growing trend in electronic engineering today is for recruiters to look for what he calls skilled/global engineers.

"Many employers choose to hire skills rather than people," Johnson said. "The new skilled/global engineers must keep track of what is happening in the global market to determine gaps in their knowledge, skills and attitudes so they will know where to focus their learning. They must become experts with career development so they can strategically plan their employment and learning activities, and they must learn how to learn so they can fill their learning gaps."

He suggested that engineers take a look at different areas of their professional lives, addressing different facets such as career skills, which includes resume writing and project management. Engineers should also maintain regularly a journal of their personal strategic plans and their career and technology ideas; a portfolio of their successful accomplishments; and a resume outlining their competencies and experiences, he said.

"People have to stay polished these days, because they can become obsolete, not because they lose their technical skills, but because their company does something that eliminates their job, a merger or something," said Joseph Lillie, area manager at Bellsouth in Lafayette, Lousianna. "The key non-technical skills I prefer to see people polish are public speaking, written communications and ethics. The goofball in that bunch is ethics, which I define as doing the right thing. But the key thing is that along with your technical skills, you've got to be prepared for the times when personal skills come into play."

One of the different techniques to achieve success is to constantly assess your position and the way you come across to fellow workers.

"Ask the question, 'How do you think you come across to your co-workers, boss or family?'" said Robert Cranston, senior engineer at Intelli-source Information Systems in Shrewsbury, New Jersey. "Great motivators and leaders often promote the importance of developing habits that encourage positive attitudes, enthusiasm and confidence. Once a habit has been developed, it will carry us through the tough days when fatigue or worry become our enemy."

Terry Costlow

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