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Reading the Big Picture OPEN ACCESS

Textbooks don’t Teach Engineers Everything they Need to Know. Early-Career Professionals Discuss the Other Books that Influenced them.

[+] Author Notes

James G. Skakoon is a retired mechanical design engineer and a frequent contributor.

Mechanical Engineering 138(05), 44-49 (May 01, 2016) Paper No: ME-16-MAY3; doi: 10.1115/1.2016-May-3

This article presents views and experiences of several engineers. Experts point out that books about the nature and history of technology can help round out an engineering education. Spencer Bondhus, a B.S.M.E degree holder, has been developing new products in the medical device industry. Adam Leemans has completed a Master of Science degree in energy and sustainability. Jill Hershman, another B.S.M.E graduate, finds Fearless Leadership: High-Performance Lessons From the Flight Deck by Carey D. Lohrenz very helpful in broad engineering thinking. Maxim Budyansky, the chief technology officer and co-founder of Avitus Orthopaedics, likes to learn about different ways of thinking as in The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz and Become What You Are by Alan W. Watts and also from self-improvement books like Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.


“With textbooks, you tend to get a fairly narrow view,” said Kim Stelson, a distinguished professor in the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota.

According to Stelson, who has been at the university since 1981, books about the nature and history of technology can help round out an engineering education.

We’ve assembled a sample list, and Stelson, who's read most of the books, says they offer a broad view of engineering. “One book I found particularly useful,” Stelson said, “is Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down by J. E. Gordon. This book helps you apply what you learned in material science and strengths of materials to practical problems. It has a lot of concrete examples and is written with a very humorous tone.”

“And Petroski is brilliant,” Stelson added, referring to Henry Petroski, a Duke University professor of civil engineering and history who writes about technology in a popular style.

Petroski said that inventions, failures, the history of engineering, and the evolution of technology are the themes that run through most of his books. “These are all subjects that were not covered very explicitly, if at all, in my formal education,” Petroski said, “but I feel they are important for understanding the nature of engineering as a practice and a profession.”

There is no surprise, then, that Petroski's books figured prominently when we asked six successful early-career engineers what books have informed or inspired them.

But successful engineering careers involve more than technology, so it is also no surprise that their answers are as diverse as their own histories, interests, and goals. They read about business, innovation, management, leadership, even psychology.

On the following pages we present what those six engineers told us about the books that have influenced them and shaped their careers.

Since earning a B.S.M.E. degree from the University of Minnesota, Spencer Bondhus has been developing new products in the medical device industry. He is named as an inventor on 13 U.S. patents and was recognized by Medtronic with its Star of Excellence Award in 2013.

Throughout my life there have been certain books, especially relating to engineering, that have resonated with me. One, when I had just started to read, was Harold and the Purple Crayon. By drawing with his crayon, Harold could create anything—the moon for light, a path to walk on, a picnic lunch—if he could only imagine it. This was my earliest inspiration toward engineering; I wanted to create.

In my teens I started reading poetry, which showed me how structure can exist in places I didn’t expect.

This exposed the “inside” to me. There is something beautiful about the depth and flow and precision of a poem, how all the pieces fit together. People recognize this artistic quality in poetry, but most don’t see it in engineering. When I look at an assembly of parts, I look for the poetry in its construction.

Lately my reading has been mostly what you’d expect for an early- career engineer. One of the main advantages of a book is that it's an individual lesson that allows me to learn at my own pace. I can stop to think, reread, even skip ahead. Two books that come to mind like that are StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath and Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas by James L. Adams.

StrengthsFinder 2.0 enlightened me to the concept of strengths management. It is OK to have weaknesses, OK to let some of them remain so, and best to focus on strengths. For example, during meetings I often do not speak until I see how my strengths apply to the discussion. This punctuates my comments, making it apparent that I’ll say something worthwhile. Learning about strengths management helped me recognize and hone that skill.

Conceptual Blockbusting is a guidebook for the phrase, “Think outside the box.” Most people know they should do that, but their thought process stops there. This book defines how. Moreover, it applies to many areas of life.

By incorporating the concepts of Conceptual Blockbusting into my thinking, I more easily break assumptions, or “blocks.” I can come up with more diverse ideas faster. People practice everything from golf swings to music, but they rarely practice thinking. Practicing to think creatively and flexibly is something Conceptual Blockbusting promotes.

Just the fact that I read a book doesn’t directly impress others, but had I not read books like StrengthsFinder 2.0 and Conceptual Blockbusting, I would not have some of the valuable skills that make me a better engineer.

Adam Leemans was the valedictorian of the United States Military Academy's 2013 graduating class. He was also an NCAA All-American triathlete and captain of the West Point Triathlon Team, which won three national long-course championships. In 2013, ASME selected him as its nominee for the New Faces of Engineering College Edition. He recently completed a master of science degree in energy and sustainability from the University of Southampton in the U.K. Leemans is currently posted in Colorado.

It's implied that Army officers should always be reading something to develop ourselves. Our superiors may ask us what we’re reading, and having a good answer sends the right message. And of course, it's useful during any discussion to refer to a book that you’ve read; it gives you a little more credibility.

The Army provides reading lists for each job area and level. One recommended read is Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury. I read it when taking part in the West Point Negotiation Project. This program teaches army personnel how to interact with foreign cultures during overseas deployments.

I was a plebe at the time, and I found Getting to Yes helpful throughout my West Point education. I applied its ideas during group projects—looking for mutual gain, seeing the other side's point of view, distinguishing between personal relationships and the problem to be solved. This made my groups more likely to come to a consensus rather than just bickering over details.

I decided mid-way through my West Point education to focus on energy, so I read The Quest by Daniel Yergin, which gives a broad overview of the field. It's long, so it took a while to get through. We don’t have a lot of free time at West Point. The first half describes the history, geography, and world politics of fossil fuels. The rest gives a vision of the future that transitions from the fossil fuel age to an electrical age, largely based on renewables.

As engineers, we don’t often think about how what we work on can affect our relationship with the rest of the world. The Quest pushed me toward working with alternative and renewable energy technology. These sectors allow us to invest in developments here in the U.S. rather than in some of the riskier overseas fossil fuel ventures.

One book I read in high school, Present at the Future by Ira Flatow, ignited my interest in science and engineering. I had become somewhat disillusioned with those subjects, feeling like I was just repeating what had already been done. But this book exposed me to the technologies of the future and I realized that we need engineers and scientists to make it all happen.

Classic Books about Engineering and Technology

Browse a bookstore or search Amazon.com for business and management books and you’ll see both the classics and current best sellers prominently displayed. But interesting books about engineering and technology are more difficult to find. Here are some worth a closer look.

Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas by James L. Adams.

Flying Buttresses, Entropy, and O-Rings: The World of an Engineer by James L. Adams.

Engineering and the Mind's Eye by Eugene S. Ferguson.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) by Richard P. Feynman.

The Existential Pleasures of Engineering by Samuel C. Florman.

Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down by J.E. Gordon.

The New Way Things Work by David Macaulay.

The Design of Everyday Things (also titled The Psychology of Everyday Things) by Donald A. Norman.

Invention by Design: How Engineers Get From Thought to Thing by Henry Petroski.

To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design by Henry Petroski.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig.

What Engineers Know and How They Know It: Analytical Studies from Aeronautical History by Walter G. Vincenti.

Jill Hershman is a systems engineer at Southern Company's Farley Nuclear Plant. She has been active in both ASME and the Society of Women Engineers, which recognized her with its Outstanding Collegiate Member award in 2011. She graduated with a B.S.M.E. from the University of Alabama, and is pursuing an M.B.A. through the University of Florida.

The majority of what I read is science fiction or historical fiction, often with a technology slant, like Dale Brown's or Tom Clancy's books. But I do read two or three nonfiction titles every year to get other points of view. These include engineering books, “thinking” books, and leadership books. Right now I’m reading Fearless Leadership: High-Performance Lessons From the Flight Deck by Carey D. Lohrenz, the Navy's first female F-14 fighter pilot.

One of the “thinking” books is The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems by Henry Petroski. This book compares what scientists do with what engineers do. Petroski points out that scientists often get the credit, but engineers do a lot of the work. In part, it's a call to action for engineers to take more credit. I haven’t seen this bias directly in my industry. But after reading this book I notice news stories are more often about scientific discoveries than engineering feats. This was my first read by Petroski, but I’ve put more on my reading list.

Another of the leadership books is Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. I viewed his TED talk, thought it was interesting, and read the book. The premise is that idea generation isn’t just a random thought or single event like a eureka moment. Instead, there is a method to it, an organizational scheme, a process. Johnson offers several models of how people get to ideas, innovations, and solutions. I like, for example, the concepts of the adjacent possible (What's the next possible thing we can do?) and exaptation (How can we apply what we’re already doing to something else?).

I have always been fascinated with our journeys to space and to the moon. In high school I read Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by James Lovell and Jeffrey Kruger. It's a narrative told from the point of view of all the people, including those in mission control, who figured out how to get the Apollo 13 astronauts safely back to Earth. It stresses the importance of not working in a silo—involving people in brainstorming and collaborative teamwork to solve a problem. It spurred my interest in space, and that is what led me to become a mechanical engineer. Some of my college projects were even related to space flight.

I really enjoy what I do. The industry I’m in may not have the cachet of going to the moon or Mars, but my work impacts people day to day—making sure they can turn on their lights, something that everybody needs.

Maxim Budyansky is the chief technology officer and a co-founder of Avitus Orthopaedics, a Connecticut-based medical device start-up. He won first place in ASME's 2010 Old Guard Oral Presentation competition for a talk about his senior design project. His graduate school project team developed an affordable maternal- and newborn-screening kit for the developing world, and won a $10,000 prize in a video competition sponsored by ABC News and the Duke Global Health Institute.

I am an entrepreneur with very little free time, but I still enjoy reading. I like to learn about different ways of thinking as in The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz and Become What You Are by Alan W. Watts. Also self-improvement books like Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. Every human being should read that book.

My master's program in bioengineering innovation and design at Johns Hopkins combined engineering, medicine, and business. I realized then that I enjoyed the business side of developing products. That requires creativity and innovation, too.

One of the program's professors recommended a new book or two for every course. One was The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen. The Hopkins program preaches and preaches about understanding the need. As an engineer, you might think you know what something needs to be, but you’re not the user. This book explains how important it is to get things into users’ hands as soon as possible.

Another book I read is Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History ofInnovation by Steven Johnson. It presents ideas we don’t much think about. Like how important working environments are to innovative thinking and to generating good ideas. And how important timing is. If YouTube had come out ten years earlier, it would have been a massive failure because the Internet and the hardware and software infrastructure just didn’t exist.

Creation, in general, is one of my passions, whether it's technology, art, or music. As a kid I had a whole world of LEGOs and was always building something with them. I absolutely love Invention by Design: How Engineers Get From Thought to Thing by Henry Petroski. It has accounts of what I think are marvels of creation. The craziest thing is that these are all objects we take for granted, but are really ingenious—the zipper, the aluminum can, the paper clip.

They are so incredible because they’re so simple to the user. But simple doesn’t mean easy. Simple sometimes is very difficult to develop. You don’t even think of these as inventions, and yet so much work went into getting them where they are. Like how much to etch the top of a soda can so it is easy to open, yet won’t burst under pressure. Every engineer, and especially every designer, should read this book. It makes you appreciate the world we live in.

Twishansh Mehta

Twishansh Mehta manages supermarket refrigeration operations at Loblaw Cos. Ltd. in Brampton, Ont. He is the 2015 recipient of ASME's Old Guard Early Career Award, which recognizes engineers whose careers have advanced quickly and who have shown leadership in both ASME and community activities. He currently leads ASME's Community Development Team.


Grahic Jump Location 

I decided to move toward management while I was still an undergraduate. My volunteering and leadership opportunities through ASME played a big part in that because I saw the positive effect those activities could have on others.

I am in graduate school right now, and working as well, so there isn’t much time for extra reading. But before I started grad school a friend in a Ph.D. leadership program suggested several books, one being Good to Great by Jim Collins. Many of the book's example companies have failed since it was written, so I was skeptical. But when I compared the book's messages to what has worked for me on teams I’ve led in school, for ASME, and in the workplace, I found that Collins's ideas make sense. Like being humble, for instance. Or dealing with the truth, which sometimes means looking at the negatives. Or staying disciplined without wavering from the goal, which is what I think may have happened to some of those companies.

Another book I read is Good Leaders Ask Great Questions by John C. Maxwell. The person who hired me out of school was a vice president who commanded a certain level of respect. I noticed how he always asked questions, especially in meetings.

I’m a shy, introverted guy, and in school I read textbooks and figured out my own answers rather than approach somebody. But when he asked questions, it showed he was thinking and also that he cared. So I started to ask questions, too. This book is a validation of that.

Recently, I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I never thought of my introversion as detrimental. But neither had I considered how extravert-oriented our society is until reading this book, even though a large percentage of us are introverts. Quiet says that being an “I” is OK. (Maybe even better.) And we also need better mentorship by introverts to introverts, which is something I try to do.

In my current ASME volunteer role, I am tasked with creating interest and excitement for mechanical engineering. While looking for helpful resources, I found The Engineering Book: From the Catapult to the Curiosity Rover, 250 Milestones in the History of Engineering by Marshall Brain. It describes a wealth of engineering marvels arranged chronologically. This book can do wonders for telling stories to younger people about engineers. I wish someone had told me when I was young that so many great achievements throughout history are actually attributable to engineers.

A few months ago I rereadTo Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design by Henry Petroski. I’d first read it in high school as a sophomore or junior when I was figuring out what my career should be.

I had aspirations at the time to become a doctor or surgeon. But both my parents are engineers, so engineering was in my blood. I read this book to learn what engineers do from a perspective different from my parents’. Reading it helped me realize that engineering was the route for me.

Petroski writes that failures are inevitable, and that there are always going to be unforeseen circumstances. But perhaps the best message from To Engineer Is Human, at least for this point in my career, is the importance of explaining things in layman's terms to people who might have no knowledge of what you’re talking about. For example, Petroski is able to explain the 1981 collapse of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkway by using a simple analogy of people hanging on ropes. Being able to effectively communicate like that is crucial.

Ahmed Farag is a subsea engineer for BP and works on offshore projects in the Gulf of Mexico. He was president of the student chapter of ASME at Georgia Tech, which has the largest undergraduate mechanical engineering program in the U.S.

Grahic Jump LocationAhmed Farag is a subsea engineer for BP and works on offshore projects in the Gulf of Mexico. He was president of the student chapter of ASME at Georgia Tech, which has the largest undergraduate mechanical engineering program in the U.S.

Another book I like is Engineering and the Mind's Eye by Eugene Ferguson, in which he relates engineering to artists. Engineering isn’t just a combination of science and mathematics: there's an art to it. I read the book my junior year of college during a course on philosophy. The class was taught by an MIT engineering graduate and former engineer turned professor of philosophy.

This book wasn’t assigned for the class, but this professor recommended it to me to show how art can broaden an engineer's thinking. Much as an artist does, engineers need to visualize and replicate their thoughts to get them across to others. Although this book was written before the widespread use of 3-D modeling, the basics are the same, and this book does a good job of showing you how.

We often don’t realize the importance of reading something until after we’ve read it. I’m a subsea wells engineer for BP working on our deep water operations. When I was recruited on the Georgia Tech campus by BP, I knew they’d had the mishap [Deepwater Horizon]. But as To Engineer Is Human makes clear, accidents are inevitable.

So the enthusiasm of the recruiters for their jobs and their company was more important to me.

Copyright © 2016 by ASME
Topics: Engineers , Leadership
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