General Engineering Introduction/Communication

Communication is critical within a team. When someone sends initiates communication with you, reward them with a reply. If they send a text, text back. If they send you an email, email back. If they leave a message, phone them. Not doing so is bad.

The role of the instructor is that of project manager. The role of the student is engineer. In addition there could be clients (people asking for the project to be done) and customers (people who will be using the results of the project). Communication with clients and customers must be done through the project manager (instructor).



Engineering performance is working together successfully. Performance is what is graded, observed and paid for. Performance success will initially bind people together into working groups, families and even nations. But performance alone can not sustain these bonds. Engineering does place performance success first, not friendship. But afterwards, something else has to grow. Teamwork itself can not sustained through performance success. The name given to this something else is respect but could also be described as discipline, forgiveness and "liking each other".

The problem is that performance has to be taught when kids are young. Music, sports, the arts teach performance. Initially adults sit next to kids and grab as much focus time as possible. The adults are sensitive to when focus is lost, and when inspiration, initiation and ego emerges. The adults then ideally back off and create a protected environment of emotional space, listening space and physical stillness space so the child can grow from the inside out. Some parents do this well. Some do it badly and the child ends up feeling like a trained monkey. Some parents don't do it at all. Some people are afraid to perform because they were raised where hiding and never attracting attention led to the emotional, listening and physical stillness space need to grow into a person. Some parents spend their entire lives in a childlike state where they grab all emotional, listening and physical space they can themselves.

Everyone has gifts. Follow the vector of criticism back to its source and you will find the gifts that originated it. Gifts are what grow in the emotional, listening and physical stillness space. But gifts cause two problems: one is the criticism. The other is discipline. Gifts cause the world to initially look messed up. Compassion leads to performance. Gifts initially seduce, but only performance matures them into something the world values. Discipline is performance with an expectation of delayed reward. Discipline understands that gifts merely establish uniqueness or personality. Discipline acknowledges that more than mere gifts are necessary in order to fully mature.

Gifts may not even lead to the physical world. They could lead to fostering relationships among people. So which gifts are necessary for an engineer? Any and none (no technical gifts). Some business people have a clear idea of what they want and then hire an engineer/artist. They should hire a reproduction expert .. a technician.People who don't understand engineers think of a chess match where the different pieces (engineers) have different expertise. They mix and match but end up with the same failure. People that understand engineers, also understand the open, creative nature of projects. They understand that sometimes the solution is hiring an engineer with no background, but listens well and gets everyone else to talk.

The best engineers believe they can do anything. They believe they can feel what is absent, what is needed by any group that will lead to success. And they transform themselves like an actor losing or gaining weight for the part that is needed. They learn the interpersonal, organizational or technical skills needed. Engineers believe they can learn faster than anyone, not that they can do the best job at any particular thing. Being the best is not necessary in engineering. Finding a starting spot, figuring out the next steps, establishing a vision of the future is all that is necessary.

Be Direct


When initiating communication, make it as clear as possible you want a reply. Give the other person a very clear reason, an obvious incentive and time frame in which you expect a reply. Trying to hide this information in an attempt to be polite, not offend or motivate someone always fails. Be direct first, become more subtle later .. after this course.

Civility and politeness are interpreted differently by different people, families, cultures and generations. Unless the person you communicate with is well known, their civility/politeness expectations are easily misinterpreted. Many times, civility politeness and humor have locked in ugly, dysfunctional behaviors that hard to deal with and work through .. even among people with good intentions. It is not the goal of this course to examine the culture, the civility, and politeness barriers. It is the goal to communicate facts. Be direct.

Many scientists, engineers and technicians have sacrificed emotional intelligence for something else. Many are born this way. They can not read body language, miss the subtleties of civility, and can not communicate like or dislike. An attempt at humor can confuse them. Don't play with them like a toy. Be direct first. Establish a working relationship first. Then take tiny, communication oriented steps.

Project Management


The project manager's (instructor's) role is primarily that of keeping track of problem statement/tasking, scope management, time management, feedback and assessment.

An engineer (student) communicates primarily with teammates. The team communicates with the project manager (instructor) about:

latest problem description/tasking

Weekly Cycle


The typical weekly cycle of a project reviewing previous tasks, documenting successes as tutorials, documenting failures on team page, deciding on the next weeks tasks, revising new finish/problem description/requirements, presenting new tasks and project revisions to the instructor. Most tasks should be individual and done alone. This means the next step is to split up and do the tasks and then create a weekly summary.



The most difficult part of this course is choosing a task. Each student must have a specific task each week. This task must be doable. Ideally 8 hours per week are spent on the task.

The task can result in massive amount of notebook writing and minor updates of wiki page tutorials.

Or the task can result in lots of tutorial/team/individual weekly wiki page edits and no notebook writing.

Or the task could result in a blend of both.

It is important for individuals and the instructor to know what the problem statement revision and the tasks are for each week.

It is important for students write in their notebook as they are doing and to document everything done with video/pictures/words as soon as they are done.

It is dangerous to ask the instructor to tell you what to do. It is dangerous to ask the instructor to list off 15 things to do that you can pick from. The instructor may propose idiotic solutions that you then idiotically try to make real rather than come up with something realistic. Engineering starts when the team proposes tasks and lists of things to be done to the instructor. Asking the instructor to make this list will result in a loss of engineering respect.

Instructors often reject tasks for these reasons:

  • research is in the name of the task without any apparent knowledge of how research is to be done in an engineering context
  • not enough justification of group tasks
  • creates unnecessary dependencies
  • scaffolding not justified by the project
  • gifts and talents not being fully leveraged
  • finish definition not clear
  • requirements unrealistic
  • problem definition needs to be harmonized
  • people are not assigned to the tasks
  • requires materials that are not available

Instructors will reject tasks with a reason. They will then expect a short discussion. But don't expect a discussion about the tasks or task details. At best the instructor will give a thumbs up or down if you recite the details. Creating a conversation about task details begins the transfer of engineering responsibility, increases the instructors engineering reputation, but doesn't help you out.

Team Dynamics


Managers grow suspicious if a team is instantly united in a design/solution to a problem. They want to see disagreement, misunderstanding and ego invested ownership of ideas before the team unites.

So worry about: (from the book "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team")

  • stopping the argument before the argument exposes all the facts
  • Majority tyranny and consensus mediocrity
  • Absence of trust—unwilling to be vulnerable within the group
  • Fear of conflict—seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate
  • Lack of commitment—feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organization
  • Avoidance of accountability—ducking the responsibility to call peers on counterproductive behavior which sets low standards
  • Inattention to results—focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success

Remember that management sometimes secretly puts different groups of engineers on the same project to see if they come up with the same facts. This means that there is less inherent security, future projects may go to someone else, someone is going to fail, management doesn't trust the teams that are in place, and working as a team has not evolved well within the engineering firm.

Learn now to make decision trees and matrices.

What follows below are descriptions of the feelings, the emotions and behaviors to expect on a team.



"Nice to meet you. Yeah, I'm not sure why we are here either. I'm afraid this might be a lot of work."

In the formation stage, team members get acquainted. Team members begin to learn of one another's personalities, abilities, and talents, but also of one another's weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. Figure out if teammates personalities are "cave dwellers" or "communicators." Or take one of the many personality profile tests.

Individual team members are typically shy, reserved, self-conscious, and uncertain. Facilitate discussion by having each member go through these ice breakers. Encourage everyone to speak while quieting some who might tend to dominate the conversation. Then begin to focus on the project finish tasks, requirements, project description and previous documentation.



"Do I have to work with this team? What did I do to deserve this? There clearly aren't any super-heroes on this team. How are we supposed to solve this messy problem? We are supposed to do what? By when?"

Generate as many ideas as possible. Do not worry if ideas are too trivial, ridiculous, pie in the sky, radical, impossible. Record all the ideas. Maybe write them down to reduce ownership. Continue gathering ideas until the group is exhausted. Discuss and clarify each idea on the list until the most promising idea or strategy emerges. Everyone takes a break, talks about something not related to the project.

Engineering teams are formed around unsolved, open-ended, perhaps impossible problems.

It is not necessary for team members to like one another or to be friends. Tension can be very productive.

Everyone must learn the art of constructive dialogue and compromise.



"You know, I think we can do it. True there are no super-heroes, not by a long shot, but once we stopped fighting and started listening to one another, we discovered that these folks have some good ideas. Now if we can just pull these together ..."

"Norms" are shared expectations or rules of conduct. All groups have some kinds of norms, though many times unstated.

The more a team works together, the more they tend to converge toward some common perspectives and behaviors. Team members begin to accept one another instead of complaining and competing. Rather than focusing on weaknesses and personality differences, they acknowledge and utilize one another's strengths.



"This is a fun team. We still have a long way to go, but we have a great plan. Everyone is pulling together and working hard. No super-heroes, but we're a super team."

In this stage, teams accomplish a great deal. They have a clear shared vision. Responsibilities are distributed. Individual team members accept and execute their specific tasks in accordance to the planned schedule. They are individually committed, and hold one another accountable. Team members "pitch in" to help one another, doing whatever it takes for the team to be successful.



If the team was successful, there is a definite feeling of accomplishment, a buzz, even euphoria, by the team members. On the other hand, an under-performing team will typically feel anger or disappointment upon adjournment.

Working Together


What does a team working together look like? What are some of the things that good teams share in common?



Typically arguments start off with each side using all silence to think about their argument. Active listening requires:

Don't interrupt, disagree or evaluate
Nod your head, say "yes", "uh-huh" .. create brief acknowledgement events
Repeat what they said from their reference frame
Ask open-ended questions such as "Sounds tough. What happened?". Don't ask yes or no questions that have to be answered yes as in a commodity sales technique.
Pause, wait for meaningful dialogue, wait for the rant to evaporate
Be Brief in response ... talking a lot is an attempt to control situations
Mirror, Paraphrase what they are saying
Give feelings a name good example: "You sound pretty hurt about ..." bad example "You don't need to feel ... "



Praise is something that needs to be served like food in a restaurant. It takes planning, forethought and humility. There is an art to praise. For example, you watch somebody perform. Afterwards you meet the person and say politely "I really liked what you did." This is not praise. It implies judgement. You were measuring against some standard. The performer is not inspired, but suffers through the violence civility often requires. But suppose you said instead, "Your performance reminding me of how my wife looked at me just before she gave birth to our second child." Or you say "When you hit the fast loud section, I could feel my fingers trying to play the cello again. You have inspired me to go back and play it in a different way. Thanks." Tell a story that reveals a little about yourself and how what they did moved you.

Check each other's Work


Checking each other's work is not:

  • peering over someone's shoulder while they are physically doing something and watching
  • comparing opinions, watching YouTube videos together or sending random clips to each other

Checking each other's work is:

  • following their success tutorial, clarifying, shrinking, correcting English, adding sections where you discover they skipped steps, or where other's are not going to be lucky and are thus going to experience issues
  • following their failure tutorial to collect more detail about the steps, different paths that lead to the same failure mode, the variety of failure modes that the same steps lead to, etc.

Harvest opinions


Talking to each other too early causes problems. It harmonizes opinions, reduces creativity, and enables bullies. Concentrate on questions, write opinions in isolation, non-verbally, organize them and then discuss each. Don't make conversations a contest of will, loudest, "best" opinions.

The easiest way during a presentation to lose respect is to show a single solution or design. Someone will ask, “Did you consider any others?” You answer “No” and try to go with the presentation. They ask “Why did you pick this one?” You answer “It seemed the best.” Someone else asks “Why is it the best?” and you known you've lost respect. You say "There wasn't time." They ask "What was more important?" Be prepared to talk about priority decisions. Show that the decision "There wasn't time" was debated and that spending more time here was considered .. rationalize everything. Play devils advocate. Don't force the instructor/project manager to do this.

Compare top 10 lists


Engineering is putting together top 10 lists independently and then comparing. Or Engineering is one person putting together a random list and then everyone on the team voting. There has to be some process that for better or worse can be described. The decision making process can be criticized without loosing respect. Respect is only lost when there is no decision making process that can be verbalized and debated.

Tell the Atoms What to do


Wandering around a junk pile together searching for different pieces of wood that might work is not engineering. Drawing what piece of wood is wanted, comparing drawings, picking one as a team and then sending one person in search of the piece of wood is engineering.

Drawing a picture of the cardboard boat is engineering. Letting the existing seams and dimensions of the cardboard determine the boats structure is pure art, not engineering. Imposing a design upon the card board is engineering.

Focus on the Problem Statement


The problem statement, project description, requirements, and/or finish list is the raw material from which the tasks spring. Most of the time team members split up the obvious tasks. Any engineer can tell you that multiple people can easily cripple a project. This is why many like to work alone. But this leads to crafting, not engineering. The modern world requires people to work together more and more.

Dealing with Problems


Team Cohesion is very important. Expect tension. Working through this tension is the single most important objective of this course. Do not record emotions in your engineering notebook. Record facts. Read the sections below. If none of these speak to your issues, read or scan this wikibook called Managing Groups and Teams to find discussion starting points. Then start a conversation with your instructor.

Chop into smaller Problems


Problems with people are often caused by problems with the project. Try to visualize tasks rather than deal people first. People problems will emerge from the task assignment process.

Problems of what to do to push a project forward are tough. Chop the problem into the most simple steps possible (KISS), name the steps, try to do them in the moment to see if they are really the tip of another huge pile of steps. Dig deeper. Or imagine extremes (Reduce to the Absurd). See what breaks, what concepts fall apart. Try first focusing on the project before deciding there is a people problem.

The Brilliant Problem


Research has shown groups as well as individuals evolve. Chickens are a great example of this. Chicken breeding has resulted in egg laying hens that will peck each other to death unless their beaks are trimmed. Modern chicken breeding has started to promote groups of 9 to 12 hens that lay more eggs collectively than other chicken coops.

This research has also been applied to people. In-group evolution is what is dealt with below, but instructors are beginning to try and figure out how to evolve groups.

Brilliant people can be seen as the individual hens that lay more eggs. Instructors and companies are more interested in fostering groups that work well together. This is partly the reason why there are just rewards for documentation in this course, not successful project completion.



There are some people that have one gift only. They are stuck. They are single minded. They are not stubborn, they just are really clear on what they want to, can do and will do. Changing them into more broad minded engineers is not your task. Find out what they are good at, relate it to the team project and then give them their task. Talk to your instructor if this becomes too frustrating.

Typically stuck people become technicians rather than engineers, although sometimes they are so brilliant they are closer to a scientist than technician.

Person Disappearing


Always negotiate a task for yourself each week. Ideally this is done with your team and presented to your instructor. If this is impossible (everyone disappears) then do this individually with your instructor.

Then contact the people that disappear. Don't ask why. Say "what can I do for you so that we are successful as a team." Say "We miss you, we need you, what are your plans?". Say "We need to give you a task, but you are not hear to communicate with his." Do this through your schools LMS (Canvas, Blackboard, etc.)

If they don't respond, then talk to your instructor. Most likely you will be asked to assume they have dropped out. Reorganize the tasks of the project. Let your instructor and the rest of the college (student support services) do their job.

Don't for a moment think that you did something to upset them that caused them to run away from class, waste money and potentially ruin their opportunity to become an engineer. Most of the time, some part of their own life has fallen apart. Don't assume it has something to do with you.

Ground Rules


Establish some ground rules that everyone can live with.

Slackers & Hard to Work With


Slackers were identified as the number one problem by the NSF in the US when introduction to engineering courses were created between 1995 and 2000. But cave dwellers can become hard to work with. Don't start bad habits in this course.

Couch Potatoes & Hitchhikers


Couch potatoes and hitchhikers are people that cause serious problems the group has to deal with. Read this to figure out how to handle them.

Be Yourself



  • There are people that bond over hard work.
  • Others bound over the etiquette, civility, and politeness of shared emotions.
  • Still others bond by poking at each other's interests, expectations, and the bigger picture of scope and flow.

On Time

  • Some have a problem of being on time (setting priorities) to meetings with unknown people.
  • Others have a problem of being on time with people they know.
  • Others use being early or late to add order to chaos.
  • Some don't know how to end conversations politely.


  • There are people that learn new words from conversation and those that learn them from books.
  • There are people that have to repeat something out loud to someone who listens before "they remember it" or "it becomes real". Others have to read it in Wikipedia to remember or make real.

Emotional/Logical Intelligence

  • There are people that can count steps/lamp posts/cars while thinking with emotion about something else.
  • Others believe truth only exists when a single emotion completely takes over every word and thought.
  • There are people that can feel multiple things at once and choose what to do based upon the options presented by these feelings. They regard those that can half feel one option as stupid.
  • Others see a thousand options and sort through them with an intuition cultivated by outside direct and indirect experiences while sprinkling a single emotional faucet over them sparingly. They regard those that feel their way through life as unthinking.


  • There those that don't trust anything coming from isolated depths, and value only that which emerges from the ecstatic mountain tops.
  • There are those whose motivations originate outside of themselves in the possibilities, success probabilities and personalities surrounding them.
  • There are others whose motivation starts internally with an emotion ... a muse, outrage, terror, praise, beauty, etc.


  • There are those who repeat exactly with different emotion expecting a reply in kind.
  • Others respond with a slight logical twist and appreciate a response with another type of twist.
  • Others respond with a delay and need to be listened to without interruption or they won't talk at all.
  • Still others respond by trying to create/control an agenda .. through all sorts of techniques including changing the subject, bait and switch, rhetoric, debating, etc.

Even Stranger

  • There are people that can predict others behavior before the other person is conscious of their own intentions.
  • Others turn into Wikipedia on any subject such as describing when liquid appears to flow up hill (capillary action, Siphon, Bose–Einstein condensate, Leidenfrost effect) off the tip of their tongue.
  • Some find which of the above is missing at the moment and perform the missing role ... without knowing it.

It is the mix that is necessary. Everyone has a style, every one of us has a role and purpose within a team. Be yourself. Loudly.