Just One Question: What skills beyond technical do you think are most important for engineers to have?
Good interpersonal relationships, especially the ability to work with clients, associates at all levels, contractors, and the public in general; and the ability to express oneself accurately and concisely. Engineers must be able to apply these traits rapidly, under all sorts of working conditions. They must also anticipate the effect that these conditions may have on family and friends.
—Tom Streeter ’44 Tu’48 Th’48
The ability to communicate in a constructive way.
—Bob Sundblad ’44 Th’48
There is a great need in engineering for caution, deliberation, vigilance, and attention to detail. In structural work, the great failures, accidents, and catastrophes are invariably attributable to carelessness, laziness, and shortcuts.
—Sam Florman ’46 Th’46
Knowledge of accounting and the time value of monetary assets (engineering economy and basic accounting) and the ability to work with and manage people. The first is easy to learn from courses; the second requires interpersonal skills and usually some training.
—Hank Parker ’46 Th’47
It is important to be able to project our ideas, but perhaps even more important to be able to receive, respond, and, if appropriate, react to the ideas of others. The broader an engineer’s exposure to society, the more likely an engineer’s technical skills will be of value to others.
—Warren Daniell ’48 Th’50
Communication skills, both written and oral. Our company was involved in developing a portable instrument landing system for the Army. I had determined that the workload meant closing down part of a plant. The congressman whose district contained the plant wrote to our company president demanding to know why. Our president asked me to draft a response. I did that, making it clear that it was in the government’s best interests for the congressman to help keep our company competitive. The president not only signed the letter without changing a word, but told me how impressed he had been with it. We didn’t hear from the congressman again.
—George Hartmann ’49 Th’50
The ability to speak, to present lucidly, cogently, and clearly while on your feet in front of an audience. While the text may have been written in advance, it should not ever be read! Rather, the presentation should always be “said.”
—William B. Conway ’52 Th’54
Communication skills: speaking to an audience and writing.
—Bart Lombardi ’52 Th’54
The ability to communicate the outcome of his or her work to others (to all educational levels) in understandable terms. One of the most valuable parts of my Dartmouth education was the combination of the liberal arts undergraduate program with the graduate engineering program of Thayer. Many times in my 50-plus years since graduation from Thayer have I experienced the reaction, “Gee, an engineer who can write!”
—John Kennedy ’53 Th’54
Conceptual skills and human skills. These will make it possible to adapt technology to address real problems in economically and organizationally sound ways.
—John Ballard ’55 Tu’56 Th’56
Weaknesses in people skills tend to limit a person’s ability to perform well in positions of higher responsibility. A converse to this is that many persons with good people skills fail in positions of higher responsibility because of weakness in technical skills.
—Pete Knoke ’55 Th’56
An in-depth understanding of the human condition, hence the importance of the liberal arts to engineering.
—Emerson Houck ’56 Tu’58 Th’58
I’ve been teaching for 20 years (while working in private industry as director of engineering) in the technical management program at UCLA Extension and the University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering professional development department. Our courses help technical professionals transition into managerial/team leader roles. The most important people skills we teach are building interpersonal relationships, understanding and applying the theories of motivation (and demotivation), and using situational management styles that are tailored for the specific issue at hand. We teach the Johari Window concept for building interpersonal relations, the motivational theories of Maslow and Herzberg to understand the hierarchy of needs, and the “management grid” to relate the balance between a manager’s focus on both people and performance. I recommend reading The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker.
—Ron Read ’57 Th’58
Having an open mind in order to evaluate all aspects of a project and an ability to communicate your ideas to win acceptance and funding.
—Charles A. Schneider Jr. ’57 Tu’58 Th’58
Writing competence, verbal expression (being able to engage audiences), being interested in non-technical topics (engineers interface with a wide variety of people, many of them not technically inclined), being able to function well as a team leader or member as well as an individual, being able to recognize and act when opportunity knocks, and knowing the cost of things (having some financial sense). Honesty and ethics are also necessary attributes. Without them, you’ve got nothing.
—Jerome Allyn ’59 Th’60
A key skill is experience—the give and take of real life. Frequently in business, outcomes are not black and white but in-between.
—Barry MacLean ’60 Th’61
There are three: an ability to write clearly, an ability to make presentations, an understanding of the time-value of money and familiarity with various present-value calculations. When I was working for Frito-Lay, a writing consultant, Barbara Minto, taught us the value of holding “meetings to confuse.” She noted that if the decision-makers expect a recommendation that is different from the one you are going to present, you should not press for a decision. They will only turn you down. Instead, your goal should be to raise a question in their minds about the “expected answer.” I used this approach when presenting the unexpected conclusion the data was suggesting for a change in fuel in potato-chip cookers. Later, following up with this established uncertainty, I gained approval for the new option.
—Harris McKee ’61 Th’63
—Roger Schulze ’61
Communication, in all its forms, is important—being able to speak clearly with anyone, from the unskilled laborer to the CEO, and having writing skills in letters, emails, text messages, etc. It is also essential to be well informed about matters such as politics, economics, the arts, and sports. I spent 29 years in a technical/marketing position that I enjoyed, and I think that the liberal arts education I received at Dartmouth was very important to my success. I met people from very different walks of life and found that I was able to communicate with them on technical and non-technical matters equally well. I came from Hungary, where engineers (i.e., someone with a university degree) were looked up to not just for technical knowledge, but also because he or she would be considered a well-educated and well-rounded individual.
—Peter Tuschak ’61 Th’62
The same answers to the question when it was asked in the 1960s when I was at Thayer: communication and persuasion skills (written and oral), an appetite for continuous improvement, and an intolerance for “close enough.” Newcomers to the list: the capacity to appreciate diversity, the ability to think strategically, a willingness to tolerate ambiguity, the ability to see around corners, an interest and capacity to work collaboratively, a willingness to embrace change, recognition of one’s limitations, a capacity to learn from mistakes, the ability to build and exercise social and professional networks, the insight to know when technology may not be the leading pathway to a solution, and the ability to see situations through multiple lenses.
—Neil Drobny ’62 Th’64
Engineering investment math was one of the most valuable courses I took at Thayer. How to calculate investment returns, long-term costs of machinery, bond values, annuities, comparative costs of two manufacturing processes, loan costs, etc., turned out to be of far greater worth than the fluid dynamics course I took! Engineering is all about solving problems within a limited time frame at a budgeted cost.
—John D. Pearse ’62
To promote ideas and respond to criticism, an engineer needs speaking and writing skills. An engineer also needs the ability to evaluate an individual as to suitability for a given position.
—Richard A. Zartler ’62 Tu’63
I found interpersonal skills to be essential. I entered the workforce after grad school and Vietnam service. My career spanned many business disciplines since I worked with emerging technologies. For a long time I read business journals with significant psychology content. At the base level of technical management, you have to work with people. It is monumentally important in fostering a creative process that is timely and highly innovative. Ideas and creativity matter, and one needs to understand how to get the best of both staff and oneself. In today’s team-based environment, it is essential to effectively engage the entire group. One must be an enabler, striving to make team members the heroes.
—Ivars Bemberis ’64 Th’65
The ability to write clearly! All my career I’ve been rewriting stuff for engineers so the rest of the world can understand it. And the ability to speak in front of a crowd.
—Ward Hindman ’65 Th’68
The ability to: write a clear one-page memo; independently learn new skills and material; prepare a talk and deliver it effectively to colleagues, management, or customers; work in teams or with colleagues (one needs to be able to lead or follow as needed); be aware of knowledge outside of the immediate needs of the project. A breadth of knowledge enables “thinking outside the box” and prevents being blind to nonstandard ways to get the job done.
—Sidney Marshall ’65 Th’72
Communication skills. Social-interaction skills to function effectively as a team member up and down and outside the organization. Leadership skills, including focus and the will to make others successful. Business and finance skills to manage the interaction between science and technology and the real world. Marketing and sales skills, including the ability to understand the market value of products and services and sell that market value within and outside the organization.
—Tom Brady ’66 Th’68
—Bill Reilly ’67
The most important skill is writing ability, followed by a skill to work in teams. I developed both skills at Thayer as a student of Professor Robert C. Dean Jr., who constantly wrote me 10 pages of comments and guidance in reviewing a two- or three-page project report. He also guided my student colleagues and me in team internship projects. Professor Graham B. Wallis guided my doctoral thesis documentation and presentation. I also extend my indebtedness to Dean Myron Tribus and Professor George Taylor, who taught me “Engineering Economy,” which I have found of great value.
—Joseph K. Nwude Th’69
An engineer who is interested in commercializing technology needs communication skills to be able to present his or her ideas to investors, partners, potential customers, and employees. Enthusiasm and tenacity for the project is essential. Without it, no one else will be excited either. A high level of integrity must be present, or the communication will not be believed. Personal care for the people involved with the project must be strong, or those around the entrepreneur will lose interest and trust. Combine these skills with solid knowledge of the engineering initiative and the competitive environment, and the chance for success is immeasurably improved.
—Bill Holekamp ’70
I went from Thayer School into medicine (surgery). My training at Thayer gave me the ability to objectively review large amounts of seemingly contradictory data. A scientist approaches interests with a different perspective than most physicians. My experience at Thayer was a great benefit to me.
—Peter Areson ’72 Th’73
An engineer must: be a good presenter in front of his team, her boss, or a customer; have team skills; and be self-starting, able to see the problem, decide on a solution, and work toward it without a lot of supervision
—Peter E. Brown Th’72 Tu’73
Presentation, project management (scheduling, budgeting, delegating, tracking), and listening skills.
—Chris Cain ’72 Th’71
Communication, otherwise engineering is worthless.
—Eric Kankainen ’72 Th’73
To be exceptional innovators, engineers need fundamental business skills: marketing, finance, economics.
—Mike Rieger ’72 Th’73
Great writing and communication skills. Accounting can be a huge plus.
—Bill Kellogg ’73
It has been my experience from 10 years in engineering positions and another 35 in energy technical consulting that communications skills are critical.
—Bill Veno Th’75
Writing with clarity and brevity and the skill to make presentations.
—Steve Askey ’76 Th’77
Creative problem-framing—the ability to set a problem broadly enough so that it does not force the solution into too narrow an approach but narrowly enough to accomplish a good solution in a solid time frame—is a valuable skill.
—Ron Shores ’76 Tu’78 Th’82
The obvious first answer is communication skills. Lapses in communication are frequently cited as a root cause for project failures, accidents, and people problems. Second is teamwork skills; you have to be able to collaborate and lead and persuade, even if you are not in a formal management or leadership role. Third, you have to be able to make decisions with incomplete information or conflicting data. In the energy industry, we often have to make high-dollar decisions with limited or incomplete data, so we are trained in techniques such as decision-risk analysis and probabilistic decision making. Most Thayer School grads have already gained experience making formal presentations (from ES 21 onwards) and working in teams. That gives them a grounding in several key areas needed for success beyond the Hanover Plain.
—William Fraizer ’78
Having good language skills allows one to understand better the culture of people from different countries and sometimes why they behave the way they are. Good language skills also allow one to mix with others—and, when one moves up the management ladder, to be more effective at managing a large multinational team.
—Lapyiu Ho ’78
The ability to communicate in a manner that a layperson can understand.
—Kay McKusick Ralston ’78
In order of priority: communication skills, relationship skills, and project management skills.
—Michael Geilich ’79 Th’82
Continuing education is important; never let your technical skills become obsolete. Communication skills are essential. Engineers need to state issues concisely and accurately, while being sensitive to the knowledge of their audience. Project management skills can and should be learned. The two main areas where I see engineers fail are an inability to plan a project properly and an inability to process change orders and manage change effectively. Engineers should be disciplined and demonstrate professional maturity when working with others, show respect for their opinions, not rush to judgment, be positive and energetic, lead by example, and view constructive criticism as a gift.
—Newt Green Tu’80 Th’85
Effective requirements gathering, which requires creativity and patience. Requirements (or at least an accurate problem statement and goal) are critical to get right as early as possible, but the folks responsible for providing them often don’t have a clear idea of what they want or need. A great engineer finds creative ways to elicit requirements (perhaps through rapid prototyping or simulation to better understand and visualize possible outcomes) and takes the time to iterate and uncover the true vision. And along the way, a great engineer can help to shape (and heal, if needed) that vision.
—Alison Vogel ’80
Working in groups involves a learned set of skills, including dividing the work, making sure everything is progressing on schedule, assessing risks, and reallocating resources to meet deadlines or future needs.
—Jeff Johnson ’81
The ability to listen, ask questions driven by curiosity (even if they are not exactly on point), model the operations at hand, and prepare a new and improved model. If people are smart and curious, they can learn anything. Applying the scientific approach to problem solving is tried and true.
—Toby Reiley ’81
Communication, written and verbal.
—Michael Adams ’83
Presentation skills and some basic financial modeling skills if they want to be entrepreneurial.
—West Griffin ’83 Tu’85 Th’85
Communication, presentation, and basic business or economics skills.
—Alexander Stein ’83 Th’85
Problem-solving skills, communication skills, the ability to translate between user needs and engineering specs, and the ability to frame trade-offs between functionality and cost in alternative designs.
—Christine Bucklin ’84
Solid communication skills, leadership skills (to motivate and guide teams), and innovation skills (being creative, taking risks, making decisions, not fearing mistakes, and extracting important insights from those mistakes).
—Eric Schnell ’84 Th’85
As the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company, I believe one needs problem-solving, innovation, and communications skills. Problem-solving is about having a process to identify issues or opportunities, create potential solutions through broad and diverse input, evaluate the pros and cons, and make and execute a decision. Thayer has this as part of its curriculum, but this is a skill that should be refined throughout one’s career. Innovation is critical to an organization’s long-term success and sustainability. Some engineers confuse innovation with invention. While innovation often includes some invention, it is not a requirement. Some of the best business successes I have experienced were highly innovative in that they uniquely and profitably solved a real customer issue in a manner that had not yet been utilized in that space (but was often used in other spaces or applications). Today’s need for speed in decision-making requires that engineers (and non-engineers) are comfortable and adept at communicating in writing and in presentations up, down, and across organizations.
—Dave Swift Th’84
People and management skills.
—Ann Weaver ’84
Concise writing skills, good practice management skills (tracking time for billing purposes, timeliness in communicating with clients, delegation when appropriate), the ability to step back from a problem and rethink the approach, the ability to work collaboratively, and good presentation skills.
—Lisa Wade ’85
Engineering design of anything has become such an interconnected web of dependencies among technologies that you’re going to have to form alliances with others, leverage their abilities (which may exceed your own in many areas), deal with all of the quirks and foibles that come with real people, and bring your own messy self to the table and expose it for what it is. Having a sense of self-worth that’s grounded in reality is critical. I’ve learned to separate what people think about my work from my own personal worth as a human being. That’s allowed me not to be defensive when some design of mine is criticized. Confidence comes with both accumulated success and a few really spectacular failures that teach that you can screw up badly and not have it be the last word. I’ve also had the highly useful experience—at least in its preparing me to run a small business—of having terminal cancer. It drives home the point that one day the sun will come up, you won’t be around to see it, and the earth will still continue to function. Humility is key to getting things done, and I’m not sure where it’s taught other than the school of hard knocks. But when you can accept blame and give credit away, you’ve taken a big step on the road to effective leadership, whether or not you have the official title of leader.
—Eric D. Overton ’87 Th’89
Basic business acumen, including Accounting 101, Internet Protocol 101, and knowledge of how to build a business model, read a financial statement, build a team, and manage a project.
—Jim Bramson ’88
You need a keen sense so you can read your team and differentiate true supporters from those who pretend to support you, influencing skills to get a team to buy in to your point of view, and courage to make bold decisions and stand by them. You also need to practice consistency and do what you say.
—Sumit Guha Th’88
Communication skills—for presentations, team discussions, business cases and plans, and patents. Engineers need to convey the big ideas without having to tell a linear story. They need to answer the questions: Why is it good? What do you need to succeed? What is the time line?
—Andrew Shepard ’89
The ability to clearly and concisely communicate complex ideas will make or break your career.
—Todd Donovan ’92 Th’92
Although I retired from Navistar several years ago, my first thought is a second language. This is so important in today’s global market. Learning Russian (which I am still learning) was very beneficial when we opened up business opportunities in Russia.
—Jim Bradley ’94A
I’ve been active in pollution prevention and sustainability for many years and believe that all engineers should work with a sustainable mindset, finding the process or design that results in the least environmental impact while remaining cost effective. Both environmental and economic mindsets are critical to ensure long-term viability of engineered systems.
—Gene Park ’94
Communication skills and interpersonal skills.
—Carmen Manoyan Th’96
The ability to draw together concepts from disparate fields to solve problems. Engineers “connect the dots.” Also, communication. If you cannot effectively communicate the concept, it doesn’t matter how good it is.
—Kyle Teamey ’98
Communication skills. How can engineers positively impact society if they can’t make themselves and their ideas understood?
—Amanda Plagge ’03 Th’04
Communication is not solely about speech and PowerPoint; it is in notebooks, drawings and schematics, software documentation, assembly instructions, test procedures, scribbles in the margins, readme.txt, even comments on websites. Communication to yourself can be important, too, when you are puzzling over a design or notebook many years later and wondering, “What was I thinking?”
—Alex Streeter ’03 Th’05
The most successful, both financially and productively, engineers I know are great communicators and orators. If you can explain your ideas and get people excited about your products or skills, it’ll make all the difference.
—Laura Weyl Th’08
Seeing the big picture. Many engineers over-analyze situations prior to even asking if they are solving the correct problem. A concrete example: optimizing trucking routes without looking into aerial freight. Many engineers struggle to maximize their impact. It’s critical to work cross-functionally. It’s more realistic for an engineer to talk marketing than for a marketing expert to talk chemical engineering.
—John Engstrom Th’10
The ability to communicate. As part of my job, I perform failure analyses on products that have failed development tests or in the field. In the few cases I’ve been a part of, the root causes of these failures are very subtle, and finding them can often take joint input from experts of different fields. It’s critical to my job that I both communicate my technical understanding and receive other viewpoints so that everyone has an accurate portrayal of the failure and we decide on the best corrective action.
—Sam Peck ’10 Th’13
Customer interaction and sales skills are important. Meeting skills are also essential. What you bring to the table is the only way upper management, coworkers, and production workers interact with you or get to know you. You need to have a positive attitude, be able to think on the fly, and know when to ask for something and when to wait. Another essential skill is the ability to give and take criticism of ideas. In design reviews, it’s important to critique in a way that will be meaningful to the designers, not put them on the defensive.
—Matt Strand ’10 Th’12
Interpersonal skills, management skills, and the ability to look at the bigger picture beyond the technical complexities of the project.
—Saryah Azmat ’11
Engineers need the ability to think on their feet and solve small and large problems, keeping in mind constraints such as cost, time, and ease of implementation.
—Pruthvi Desaraju Th’11
If it is an engineering student’s goal to work in industry, start a business, or commercialize discoveries out of academia, then a fundamental understanding of business principles is key.
—Kevin Isett Th’11
Successful engineers I’ve seen know not only how to collaborate with other engineers but also communicate technical decisions with other shareholders, such as business owners, very well.
—Jincheng Li Th’11
The ability to communicate coherently to both a layperson and another engineer without direct experience with the system. Also, the humility to recognize that a plan can be flawed.
—Max McClorey ’11
Presentation/communication ability, business sense (such as an interest in innovation and new ideas), writing ability, and working on a team.
—Alison Stace-Naughton ’11 Th’13
It’s important for engineers to be able to empathize with the people they’re designing for. They need to be able to look at a problem from the perspective of their clients and find solutions that best fit the needs of the users. My team did a fecal microbiota transplantation project for our ENGS 89/90 project, and we were hung up on how to eliminate poop odors to reduce the “ick factor.” When we spoke to gastroenterologists, they told us, “We deal with awful smells all the time—that’s not an issue,” and we decided to channel our energies to more useful purposes!
—Sharang Biswas ’12
Communication across teams and people of different backgrounds, the ability to present persuasively and effectively, and management skills.
—Ermira Murati Th’12
Oral and written communication skills.
—David Wu ’12
A good sense of humor and lightheartedness are key to being able to blow off steam and get along with colleagues. Unforeseen problems with designs crop up all the time, whether or not it is of your own doing. When it is of your doing, accept the blame, work through it, and move on. It is necessary to be self-critical (of ideas), accept criticism, and give constructive criticism. What really makes a company fly is the team. Being a constructive member of that team helps everyone succeed.
—Preston Manwaring Th’13
The skill that I find valuable is the ability to venture into uncharted territories. I am a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan and some of the research work that I am developing has few precedents. Sometimes I dig information from forums, blogs, and interest groups to find out how to proceed. I have been thankful for my ENGS 89/90 courses in which my team and I took on a problem that few solved before: building a hull-cleaning robot. It was frustrating at first to have no textbooks to follow. It was extremely rewarding to learn how to divide and conquer an unprecedented problem. I learned the Tao of figuring out how to build a system with no guidance, and it has been really valuable to me in my research.
—Yuan Shangguan ’13 Th’13
Interpersonal and communication skills. You can’t learn how a system works and potentially improve it without being able to learn from others or articulate your ideas. Organizational skills are important as well. You have to know how to prioritize what about your systems, processes, etc., are most important.
—Deidra Willis ’13
—Benjamin Cunkelman, M.S. Candidate