Random Ramblings on LabVIEW Design

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Saying "I Don't Know" will make you a better engineer

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Hello My Darlings,

Before I dive in, I just want to acknowledge some of the nice people who have reached out to me. You know who you are and I just wanted to say I always appreciate your kind words. I'm awkward around people saying nice things to me, so sometimes I think my gratitude doesn't always come across.


Nearly 20 years ago I worked for a company that made aerospace transducers, it was structured in such a way that it gave me an insight into what makes a good engineer. The task in hand was mainly a packaging exercise to mechanically fit various temperature and/or speed sensors into various packages. The company had over 10 mechanical engineers feeding work into me (a test engineer) and my mate Dave who handled all the fixing (welding, vacuum brazing and the like). 


Dave and I talked and came to the conclusion that some projects went well and some went badly and that you predict from the engineer which would go badly and which would go well. It soon became obvious that our list of "good" engineers vs "bad" engineers was the same. You could without fail pin a disaster on specific people. But more interesting was the commonality of the excellent projects. There was one engineer (let's call him Nigel [for that is his name]) who's projects were always a dream and the one thing that made him exceptional?


He would come down from the office and include us in his projects....


It's a little thing, but it meant that the tests were designed with my equipment in mind and the metal fixing was designed with consideration for Daves requirements. He had the humility to say "I don't know", you're the experts.


Active Participant

Well said.

Sam Taggart
CLA, CPI, CTD, LabVIEW Champion
DQMH Trusted Advisor
Active Participant

This just happened to appear in my feed on linked in.  Seems appropriate.


Sam Taggart
CLA, CPI, CTD, LabVIEW Champion
DQMH Trusted Advisor
Active Participant

I'm off down the pub and will read it more carefully tomorrow.

This stood out tho'

"Moreover, when the employee's competency is overrated by colleagues and management, it contributes to keep the person blind to see their own weaknesses. "

Thanks for sharing.

Active Participant

Agreed, but does saying "I don't know" make you a better engineer or does being the sort of person that says "I don't know" make you the better engineer?


Apologies for another rant, but it is Steve's fault really as he blogs about the most emotive subjects. 


The business I work for would benefit massively from some of the senior engineering staff learning that one.  The problem for me is the associated propagation of misinformation.  I have often seen a manager leave a meeting/discussion with a misinformed opinion of a situation thanks to a senior engineer stating his or her opinion on a subject in which he or she, comparatively to their seniority, has little or no experience.  The management for good reason gravitate towards the opinions of the senior engineers as more often that not they are going to be on the money, but on the occasions when the engineer should have said "I don't know" or simply kept quiet then misinformation is propagated into decisions going forward and .... well who knows what the implications might be.


I am all for everyone being able to throw opinions into discussions, but hearing "I don't know" or "I am not sure I am the correct person for you to be asking" would go a long way.


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Steve Said

"does saying "I don't know" make you a better engineer or does being the sort of person that says "I don't know" make you the better engineer?"


In the article it's the latter I think. it was definitely the sort of person.


Saying "I don't know" in these situations is actually more like...


I don't know and the organisation is decent enough to let me not know without costing me "reputation".


Or on a personal level....

I don't know and I have the self confidence to think that's OK.


Or on a stroppy git level....

I don't know and I really don't care whether that's a problem or not!



Proven Zealot

My god Steve, you don't half dip into some serious social and psychological issues with these blogs.


Well, while I agree that people who are able to say "I don't know" where answers are actually being expected are generally the best to work with, I think it's the accumulation of a large amount of personal growth.


When kids do something good, we tell them they're great. (I'm a believer that this is nonsense)


Then we spend lots of time forcing them to grasp the idea that valuation of their performance in tasks thrust upon them (school, work) and valuation of themselves are actually separate.  Lots and lots of people never make that jump.  The fact that so many adults still misapply praise to a person rather than to a deed is a depressing fact.


Being able to proclaim "I don't know" with authority shows that they have left this childish notion behind them (or have not been raised with this silly notion in the first place) and have decided to face reality instead.  In the end, reality always wins anyway.  But we can at least acknowledge which rules we're going to lose by.


I don't tell my kids they're great when they get good grades or tidy their room (my kids may tell you this makes me a terrible person).  I tell them they've done a good job.  But if they decide to share some of their pocket money with a homeless person out of charity (as a random example),  that's a different matter.
Active Participant

Intuitively I 100% agree with you Intaris, I say intuitively because I've never really broken it down like you have in your excellent reply. I've always valued strength of character most (including humour, kindness, thoughtfulness, independence of thought). I think this should lead to a robust ego and a robust ego will allow you to declare you don't know without fear or favour.

Maybe in another blog post we should look into how egos are kept strong and signs that there is something wrong ego-wise.

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The inevitable follow up question is: what are you going to do about it?


In my experience, the response usually boils down to:


- this is what I'll do myself

- this is who I'll ask

- er...not my problem


All of them are valid responses which have their place. In a big enough organisation, knowing who to ask is often an invaluable skill. Your example of Nigel is a case in point, and everyone benefits from it.


Figuring out what you can do yourself to attack the problem is pretty much central to innovation. Without people saying, "hey, I don't know about that...but I can maybe figure it out if I read up about a few things and do some experiments", we wouldn't make leaps in technology like we do. Just make sure you ask yourself whether there isn't someone better placed to do it!


But sometimes - and this is one thing I often suffer from not doing - you have to make a rational decision about whether it's sensible to do anything at all, given that most people probably have to work to a budget, to deadline, with finite people and with a long list of other problems that may take priority.

Active Participant

Here is some inspiration for your next blog post..


Sam Taggart
CLA, CPI, CTD, LabVIEW Champion
DQMH Trusted Advisor
Active Participant

I think the key information I missed out on was that we were outside of the domain expertise of the engineers. So they knew little about testing or metal joining. We essentially were a service to them.

So within your own domain (or even a domain you're interested in) you should balance asking for help with independence and learning. But these guys were mechanical engineers and they preferred the comfort of sitting at their desks to getting off their bums and talking to people.

Funnily enough I was talking to a friend of mine who's a director of market research for a large company. The major breakthrough for them is to get the researchers off of their computers and putting them in front of customers.

Seems getting away from your desk and talking to people is also important.

Active Participant

This is a nice bit from the intro.


"Many of us insist the main impediment to a full, successful life is the outside world. In fact, the most common enemy lies within: our ego. Early in our careers, it impedes learning and the cultivation of talent. With success, it can blind us to our faults and sow future problems. In failure, it magnifies each blow and makes recovery more difficult. At every stage, ego holds us back. "


Great point. I have similar experiences in my career. The best engineers I have ever worked with (my opinion)were ok with saying they didn't know something. I live by that lesson today & it has made me a much better engineer (also, my opinion).