Engineers can’t manage
Leland Teschler’s blog, “From the Editor’s Desk,” talked about a consultant who believes successful engineers lack the skills of successful managers. Readers tend to agree. They also seem to agree that the U. S. should use its natural gas for transportation and kick the foreign-oil habit.
Can engineers manage?
Truly good engineers know their disciplines well, have confidence in their skills, and are eager and effective at teaching those skills to others, either subordinates or superiors. So, if the purpose of a company’s senior management is a successful design project, this is the kind of manager they need. Too often, however, management’s purpose is not success, but to save face or live up to early commitments made by people who did not understand the problem. Engineers are not good at this role.
Engineers are logical, no-nonsense people and can be overwhelmed by new rules and regulations and a growing bureaucracy. They get discouraged and frustrated by a stream of ISO management reviews, new compliance requirements, excessive environmental restrictions, performance reviews, having to work for several bosses (customers, regulators, management), as well time and cost constraints. Too much time has to be sacrificed for new procedures and not enough spared for creative work. Engineers are simply better at managing projects than people.
I have seen many excellent engineers get bumped up to management and either burn out because they tried to do everything, or fail because they could not motivate their engineers. Our company loses a lot of brainpower this way.
One hurdle stopping engineers from becoming good managers is that when faced with complex problems, they tend to break them down, leaving out what seems to have no bearing on the situation. This is done to simplify things. But when dealing with complexity, you don’t know what is immaterial until you fully understand the problem. This is why some “solutions” wind up creating bigger problems.
I totally agree with the assessment that engineers want to do things themselves, or at least see their solution used to solve a problem. I see it daily in myself. I’m a manager at a large company and run my own businesses as well. I spend most of my time and efforts leading others but find myself quite often wanting to meddle in things I have already delegated to someone else. I have also found I am too quick to jump in and help when asked for assistance instead of pushing individuals to put in the extra effort to complete it themselves. I constantly battle these issues and am slowly learning to lead and listen without taking sole responsibility for the outcome.
Good engineers don’t shrug off responsibility, regardless of what that consultant thinks. Those who aspire to be managers are usually just looking to dump the work load on someone else. I am tired of managers who are more than happy to “delegate” to us engineers. They get all the rewards, we get all the work, responsibility, and heartache.
Natural gas: A viable option?
Yes, the U. S. should be using its abundant natural gas for transportation but not in the form of natural gas as your article suggests (“Should the U. S. Switch to Natural Gas for Transportation?” Aug. 9). Instead, it makes more sense to convert natural gas into a liquid fuel that can be used in existing automobile and truck engines.
I have been encouraged about the increased interest in using the Fisher-Tropsch process to convert natural gas, coal, and biomass into liquid fuels. Also an ethanol producer with a different process, Coskata, is claiming to be able to generate a gallon of ethanol using about $1-worth of natural gas. It makes no sense for the U. S. to be importing oil when we have abundant energy resources that can be converted into liquid fuels.
Once again, butanol is not mentioned as a biofuel. Everyone is so wrapped around the axle for ethanol when butanol should be the alcohol of choice. It can mix with or replace gasoline and it is made from the same feedstock as ethanol, yet has twice the energy yield. It does not require modified engines to use it and can be handled and distributed using the existing infrastructure.
The question asked in the title is a great one. I think the article effectively addresses technical aspects of natural-gas-powered vehicles and some of the challenges but misses the overpowering issues.
The current generation of cheap natural gas is mentioned but not discussed. Fracking has significantly reduced the cost of natural gas. Electricity generated using natural gas costs about half that of electricity generated using coal because of fracking. While many people wouldn’t think there are any problems from this, some have polluted water and land that was fracked. When a company says it is pumping proprietary chemicals under my house for fracking, I get a little concerned why they can’t tell me what is going into the ground under my house. But the cost advantages of fracked gas are so compelling that these and other issues will have to be resolved.
My answer to the question posed by the title is: absolutely yes. Unfor tunately, the companies selling me gasoline refined from crude at $4/gallon are not interested in selling me the equivalent in natural gas at $2/gallon or less. If they were, it would have happened years ago.
Fund research, not politicians
Since LPO was created and directed by political appointees and has been used as a way to funnel money to political supporters, it is no wonder the program received the lion’s share of funding and has had the lion’s share of corruption (“Two Sides of a Green-Energy Failure,” Aug. 9).
ARPA-E, on the other hand, appears to actually require engineering and studies, as well as industry-savvy reviews and competitive approval based on potential market impact. These are difficult to “justify” based on expected ROI. But ARPA-E’s basic R&D into prototypes that work, along with initial attempts to scale up into marketable products and systems, are exactly what we need and find so hard to fund.
Name withheld by request