5 Things Engineers Can Learn from Mothers
I was blessed with not one, but two parents who were equally amazing and critical to making me into who I am. Mom was (and is) the Bio/Med to my father's Engineering/Tech. She was the one who hauled me along on her college field trips, provided countless examples of creative problem solving in everyday life, and gave me my sense of humor. She taught me everything from baking pies to swinging a hammer, as well as some of the most critical engineering lessons I could never have learned out of a book.
As a young engineer, my tasks were straight forward. Model a part in CAD. Do a quick tolerance stack-up. Mail this file to Dave by Friday. As I became more senior, and my responsibilities grew, tasks became more complex. Make sure your parts matched parts designed by two other engineers. Get the files from Dave, Sarah, Mike and Linda and edit them into a report by Friday...and so on. Planning had become critical to doing my job. While there are a bewildering array of classes and methods on Project Management available, I take inspiration from Mom's Thanksgiving Dinner planning. At its peak, family Thanksgiving dinner was a three day event with at least a dozen different dishes that required revolving use of equipment, multiple procurement trips, checklists, workspace organization, and multi-tier team management. This same woman was a highschool science teacher for fifteen years. She taught up to 8 different classes in a day, 30 students each, including math, physics, chemistry, biology, with several at the AP (college equivalent level). She was working sixty hour weeks managing the equivalent of a small company's entire workforce, assuming the workforce was entirely made up of teenagers.
Most popular portrayals of engineers downplay the need for clear communication and writing skills. Like management skills, this need increases as your career matures. You realize that there is no invention or technology so brilliant that it doesn't require clear description. In fact, I have come to realize that the inability to communicate clearly and succinctly your work's purpose and value will kill its impact just as quickly as a scientific fallacy or miscalculation. Mom was the editor of all my writing from my critical highschool years onwards. Like many eager readers, I had a large vocabulary at a relatively young age, and I made the mistake of assuming that made me a great writer. My mother was lovingly brutal in correcting that assumption and making my writing readable. If you enjoy my pithy LinkedIn posts, or have benefitted from reading the hundreds of work instructions, experiment reports, white papers or meeting notes I have drafted over my career, you can thank her.
I need to call out another fallacy in popular representation of engineers- the technical genius who single handedly designs and builds complex electro-mechanical systems in a few days (I'm looking at you, Tony Stark). Any product of sufficient complexity and sophistication will exceed either the capabilities or time resources of any single person. This is true for motherhood as well. Many would think of my mother as a superhero for managing her job, five kids, a house large enough to house them all, and a whole menagerie of pets. What she really excelled at was passing on tasks that she was not essential for, and increasingly training others to take on more. Each of us five kids specialized in cleaning a specific room in the house. We learned to cook and prepare meals, do laundry, get ourselves where we needed to go (whether on foot, bike or bus). I also learned to shingle a roof, hang dry-wall, refinish furniture, and repair clothing.
I think about this when I find myself falling into the "super-engineer" trap. Those who become truly excellent professionally are those that identify their point of strongest contribution, become excellent at that, and (without any loss in confidence) allow others to step in and be excellent elsewhere. I don't spend much time in a machine shop nowadays, my multi-body dynamics modeling is a little rusty, but I have good contacts on call for both when I need them.
"Lay down some drop clothes before you start painting"
"Don't leave that on the floor in the middle of the hallway"
"Turn the pot handles away from the front of the stove."
There is nothing like a mother's ability to foresee and forestall disaster to prepare you for a career in a high-risk industry. Maybe it's the first hand experience of attending to small humans prior to their developing a sense of self preservation, maybe it's the exhausting work of cleaning up the inevitable messes, but motherhood gives you a unique perspective on risk. It does not surprise me that so many regulatory, quality, and safety experts in my industry are women. Thankfully, I believe my mother took a very healthy approach to danger. She did not forbid it, just trained us in how to avoid the worse outcomes. I had my own gloves and protective goggles from a young age. On countless projects, she would be the one who, while our impatient hands were itching to start, would sit down and walk us through all the steps of what we were about to do. I have found her patient voice frequently coming out of my mouth in the years since, "Did you check the calibration? Are the chemicals expired? Did you review the training document? Did you review the latest revision of the training document? Are you sure you turned the power off?".
There have been many times in my career that I will find myself flailing under to-do lists, interpersonal drama, deadlines, unexpected accidents, and the ever present questions of self-doubt and insecurity. There will be unknowns and challenges where my first impulse is paralyzing fear. The challenges of motherhood provide a brilliant sense of grounding. Where did I get the idea to do a PhD with two small kids? Knowing my mother went to college with all five of us kids along for the ride. How can I keep trying new paths in my work-life, with no clue if they are going to work out? It's what Mom signed up for when she had me and my siblings.
My mom gave birth to five kids in six years. She has patched up broken bones and the house she lived in. She has lived through (literally) floods, earthquakes, fires, and lightning strikes. She has repeatedly reinvented herself throughout her life, learning new skills and pouring herself into her work and her family.
On the days I can remember that, the spelling mistakes in the memo and the missed zoom call don't loom nearly so large in my mind.
Happy Mother's Day, Mom, with much gratitude for everything you taught me.