Harry C. Stonecipher
The Boeing Company
"Communications and Engineering:The Long and the Short of It"
Washington University School of Engineering
Engineering Students Receiving Advanced Degrees
St. Louis, Missouri
May 10, 2002
Good afternoon, graduates, and congratulations to each of you on your achievement in earning an advanced degree from one of the finest engineering schools in the world.
Archimedes, who was the first great engineer, famously said, "Give me a lever and I will move the world."
What are the levers that move the world today?
Certainly, technology is a lever. It is an essential tool in lifting productivity and - therefore - living standards around the world. But, for purposes of analogy, let's take a closer look at the different parts of a lever? You have a pole, which has a short end and a long end. There is a heavy weight at the short end, a light weight at the long end, and a fulcrum in-between.
Where would you put yourself in this picture of a simple (first-class) lever? If you should come to resemble some extremely bright but less-than-happy technocrats that I have known, you would put yourself at the short end of the stick - bearing most of the load and not getting enough of the credit. You would be a more than a little resentful in thinking about the light-weight figure - some manager with little or no technical expertise - who is pushing down at the opposite end of the stick and claiming too much of the credit for himself.
Is there anything you can do to avoid this situation in your own career, whether you go into business or stay in academia as a teacher and consultant?
The answer - and it is one that I have long espoused in talking with engineers and other technical people - is simply this: Don't fall into the trap of being an out-and-out TECHNOCRAT! Take a more holistic approach to problem solving. To go back to the lever, if the short end of the stick is technological expertise, then the long end is a thorough knowledge and understanding of real objectives of your business or enterprise. The fulcrum is your ability to balance the two, and . . . still more, to communicate with others.
You can be the most brilliant scientist or engineer, but if you are unable to communicate clearly, your best ideas are all too likely to fall on deaf ears. At the very least, if you have a hard time communicating with people outside your own area of expertise, you will spend so much time and energy struggling to sell your idea that you will wind up feeling frustrated and bitter. Like the Dilbert character in the cartoon strip, you will resent your boss and all the other people who quote JUST DON'T GET IT close quote. I have seen this happen to some extraordinarily talented people.
If you are a technocrat, you must ask yourself: Why don't they get it? It may be that you are speaking the wrong language. Mathematics is the language of engineering. It's the language of finance and accounting . . . and of computing as well. But ordinary people don't talk to each other in complicated sequences of zeroes and ones. They use English - or some other non-mathematical language.
Let me say a few things about the realities of life in the corporate world today. Over the past ten years or so, companies have opened up tremendously. They are much less bureaucratic and much more human today than they used to be. That's the good news. Wherever you go, you are likely to find excellent programs aimed at accelerating your further development. At Boeing, we are investing more money and effort on people than ever before. We think that we have the best leadership/learning center in the corporate world. One of our overriding goals is to turn as many brainy technocrats as we can into innovative and globally minded leaders with a strong business mentality and focus.
The bad news is, you can still fail. Wherever you go - whether to Microsoft, Boeing, or any other company - the SYSTEM is not going to save you from yourself. It will let you succeed but it won't proactively save you from any shortcomings in inter-personal skills, communication skills or leadership skills. It is up to each person to make the most of his or her opportunities.
Now I have a confession to make: For much of my own career, I was an unrepentant and unreconstructed TECHNOCRAT.
The turning point for me came in 1982, when I was running GE's aircraft engine division. Fortunately for me, GE had an enlightened policy of encouraging its executives to broaden their horizons. In truth, even though jet engines were about as good as it gets if you like the excitement of high-tech challenges, I felt that there was something missing in my mental makeup. So I signed up for a month-long sabbatical at Dartmouth, and I signed up not just for me but for Joan, my wife, as well. We moved into a college dormitory. And WE . . . LOVED . . . IT!
Before we even got there, we had to read about 30 books, reaching across a vast range of subjects. Then we entered a novel situation, for us anyway. The head of the religion department would teach the Bible; the head of one of the earth/anthropology science departments would teach Big Bang; and the class would go from there into a breakout session on how the universe was crafted - whether it was according to Big Bang or the Book of Genesis.
Every time you have a conversation or go into a meeting like that, you aren't judged on whether you win an argument or not, but on whether you can contribute to understanding . . . and begin to look at a complicated issue from perspectives other than your own.
I came out of Dartmouth feeling that I had really and truly changed. I had discovered a wealth of new interests. I had ceased to be a technocrat. Without a doubt, Dartmouth gave me the energy and confidence to go on and do certain things that would otherwise have been beyond my reach. I had always been interested in leadership - why some people succeed in that role and others fail. Now I became passionately interested in the subject.
Certainly, part of leading is being a teacher, just as part of teaching is being a leader. If you choose to stay in academia, you can become a better teacher - and a better leader to your students - if you set out to learn more about the world that awaits most of them upon their graduation. I am speaking here of the world of business, commerce, and social issues.
Someone once said, There are certain things that cannot be taught; they can only be learned. There is some truth in that. However, art, literature, and history often provide the next best thing to actual experience. They teach us to look at things from different perspectives and to communicate in new and different ways. Finally, they give us added capacity to learn from our experiences, to connect with others and to continue to grow as human beings.
The novelist John Hersey began a book ("A Single Pebble") with the simple but inspiring words, "I became an engineer." You have done even more than that. In earning advanced degrees, you have put yourself at the leading edge of a great profession - one that teaches people to think and analyze problems in the most scientific and objective of ways.
One of the greatest attributes to an engineering discipline is that it teaches us to think in logical terms . . . not abstractions.
But communication skills . . . interpersonal skills . . . and the ability to respect the views of others . . . no matter how abstract they may first appear . . . are also worthy of your consideration and dedication.
So, in closing, let me just say: If you can combine this powerful thinking ability with an understanding and appreciation of others . . . and with an ability to communicate . . . then, truly, you are on your way not just to a great career, but to a rich and rewarding life.