During my college years, a family friend asked what I was studying. They were quite surprised when I told them mechanical engineering — because they responded with, “But you are so good with people!” However, there is — or should be — a human side of product development that some don’t always consider.
I was proud of my math and science abilities and had to laugh about an engineer stereotype that would omit the need for communication skills. As I think back, I am reminded of all of the different ways throughout my career that I have benefited from strong working relationships. And I can say this with confidence: there most certainly is a human side of product development.
Successful, Fulfilled Product Developers Interact Frequently with Others
If we were to embrace the model of being secluded in the back end of a cubical farm maze, devoid of human interaction, we would not find success in our design activities and providing effective solutions for customers. We would also deny ourselves the sense of fulfillment that comes from team efforts and victories, as well as the growth that comes from overcoming challenges together.
Design challenges often extend beyond the typical meeting of schedules and getting widgets to fit together, often including the complexities of technology constraints, battles with software or hardware tools, and experiencing the joys of business travel and managing international suppliers and partners.
My career in the engineering field has been far-removed from the stereotypical isolation of a technical introvert. However, for the sake of full disclosure, I am indeed passionate about mechanical pencils, calculators, spreadsheets, and dual monitors but do not own a slide rule or pocket protector.
Anyway, in a company such as SGW Designworks, the product development process starts out with leaders to provide vision and prioritize efforts, who can build a team that includes skilled designers who not only apply technical expertise but also can coordinate and collaborate in their collective efforts. An engineer can gain a sense of fulfillment not only through solving demanding problems but also through interactions with team members.
Similar to a sports team or group of performers, contributors have strengths, weaknesses, and individual methods but through communication and building trust and awareness, teams compensate and deliver solutions far beyond what could be achieved by isolated individuals.
The Importance of Empathy and Trust in Product Development
One of my favorite aspects of being a product developer is customer interactions. The ability to project is key to delivering solutions, as we reach out to understand the desired results and look to provide solutions that a customer can be excited about and in some cases, may not even have anticipated. It is critical to have empathy for the customer in order for us to analyze their situation and work together in defining requirements to delight the end-user of the eventual solution. (These are just a few of the ways we strive to improve human existence here at SGW Designworks.) I am a gadget guy and really enjoy coming up with creative ways to address the essential elements of a design. All those years of playing with Legos, Tinker Toys, and in the woodshop really paid off!
As an engineer, I have had opportunities to represent my employer in working with partners, vendors, and contract manufacturers across the United States and several countries in Europe and Asia. I have been able to observe the nuances of how people work together and explore best practices in establishing meaningful relationships to get great business results. I find there is great power in looking for win-win opportunities in business. Good partners can become an extension of the designer, taking initiative to fight battles before designers are required to get involved. Establishing strong relationships of trust with people can promote a procurement person or contract manufacturer into an ally in the business.
One of my projects being built in China had a tooling procurement specialist brought in to help with the program. He was relatively new and inexperienced but willing and eager to learn. Over the years, he not only built up his own technical expertise but as we refined our working relationship, he came to understand my priorities and preferences. He was able to answer or filter out many toolmaker questions without waiting for time-consuming emails to get answered. His skills allowed him to drive solutions efficiently, later sharing what he had addressed and seeking confirmation from me on any additional information required.
The Human Side of Product Development: Establishing Relationships
When we explore the human side of product development as we interact with others, we establish relationships with people who are willing to expedite matters when obstacles pop up and endure inconveniences on occasion, as they know you are looking out for each other. My friend not only helped me drive technical matters but was also my translator and travel guide. He watched out for me and provided me with opportunities to experience and appreciate the local culture.
From a business perspective, I was blessed by his translating interactions on the assembly line. When workers are asked about the process – what they find challenging, what they like, what might make their job easier, the feedback helps the designer fine-tune the design, build process, and assembly equipment.
On a personal level, my wife and I were excited to present his family with a homemade baby blanket after the birth of their second son. I cherish his friendship and owe it to my career as an engineer.
Often workers can develop a sense of loyalty — and even ownership — as they realize that they are part of the solution and they want to make a consistently high-quality product. It is always a good idea for designers to do prototype builds themselves so they understand the merits and limitations of a process. This makes for a much more relevant conversation with the production line. All of these benefits are enhanced by building strength in our person-to-person interactions.
It is interesting to note that there are many customers of a product besides the producer of the engineered solutions and the end-users. There are designer coworkers of various disciplines who both provide their results and receive our contributions. There are close interactions with the businesspeople who discover market needs to share with designers and who will also communicate the benefits of the ultimate solution. Providing manufacturers with well-designed components and processes makes them more efficient and productive in meeting your needs. Design in isolation limits the ability to satisfy the demands of various customers. It really is all about the people, after all.
While we exercise precautions to preserve health during the current virus outbreak by sequestering ourselves from gatherings of people for the greater good, it makes me that much more appreciative of valuable relationships and the strengths that come from these interactions. I am looking forward to moving past this health crisis and the challenges it is creating.
As I start a new position with SGW Designworks, I am excited to learn more about the strengths, skills, experience and personalities of my new colleagues as we take on great new challenges in developing excellent solutions for our customers. It is a great opportunity to add to the pool of treasured personal relationships I have established and nurtured over the years. I have already enjoyed what I have learned and been able to share and it gives me a chance to celebrate the human side of product development.