How to speak and think like a (world-class) engineer

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Strand Aerospace's design team consist of the right balance of youth and experience.Strand Aerospace's design team consist of the right balance of youth and experience.Strand Aerospace’s design team consist of the right balance of youth and experience.

By Alvin Ung

The latest salary survey published in the Wall Street Journal noted that engineering graduates in the United States will earn far higher salaries than the typical new college graduate.

While that could also be true in Malaysia, it’s also true that many of the 20,000-odd students who graduate with an engineering degree from local universities are not working as engineers. They might end up in a manufacturing or maintenance company with little career progression. Others look for jobs outside country.

Naguib Mohd Nor, the chief operating officer of Strand Aerospace, dreams of the day when engineering graduates will be able to work at the top end of the engineering value chain, by focusing on design and analysis work. This is called “pure play” engineering services. Much of the work involves brainpower – people working on computers doing product design – rather than walking the factory floor with a clipboard.

The beauty of engineering services is that you aren’t stuck working for one company: you can work offshore for huge companies who dominate the aerospace and automotive sector – estimated to surpass RM960 billion by 2020. India dominates the sector with specialist engineering firms such as Mahendran, Satyam and Tata.

What’s the catalyst for developing high-value engineering services in Malaysia?

“In engineering services, you must have large numbers of people who possess specialized capability and general ability. And the secret to building a world-class engineering firm – besides developing capability – is the ability to think and communicate,” Naguib said.

But isn’t that fairly obvious? No, says Naguib.

“We found that the biggest handicap of Malaysian engineers, whether they’re from Imperial College or local universities, is that they do not communicate very well. And it has nothing to do with the mastery of the English language,” Naguib said.

Naguib explained that most of the French and German engineers have bad grammar yet they can think well: they are able to communicate, collaborate and receive technical instructions in a structured manner.

In contrast, most Malaysian engineers speak good English but they simply expect to receive instructions. They don’t make decisions, nor are they able to articulate a certain philosophical approach toward developing a process or solution. “They end up spewing data instead of developing solutions in collaboration with others. That’s a big problem,” Naguib said.

The problem is magnified when you are working ten thousand kilometers away across multiple countries with different cultures such as the Airbus environment, added Addi Faiz Adnan, a client manager at Strand, who worked many years in Europe. “Even the most simple thing can go wrong. You say one thing, by the time it reaches Europe, they think it’s something else,” he said.

Strand Aerospace has been given training grants by PEMANDU to expand its in-house training programme to train engineering graduates from government and private institutions – up to 300 people by 2014. “By training 300 engineers, our goal is to create a pull factor for international engineering companies to move to Malaysia,” Naguib said.

The courses offered at Strand Aerospace are technically complex in terms of engineering, but deceptively simple in terms of communications. Instructors highlight the need speak slower and more deliberately. Engineers are asked to consider what comes out of their mouth, and to speak what is really in their mind, not just off the top of their head. Engineers are told to stop mumbling.

There are grave consequences for not speaking or thinking clearly, says Naguib, especially in an aerospace environment where there is virtually zero tolerance for errors. For example, Airbus rejects certification or analytical reports that are inconsistently formatted – a sure sign that the report has been cobbled together without clear overall thinking.

“Engineers who don’t speak clearly or precisely don’t understand what they are saying or doing. Therefore they are not able to accept responsibility for their design or product. And when people don’t accept responsibility for what they do in an engineering environment, then the product is questionable,” Naguib explained.

“You need cultural awareness to become a good engineer,” rejoined Addi. “If I trust you, and you trust me, then we are in a better position to do the work together.”

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