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In my experience, practical engineering knowledge cannot be found in a textbook. Truth is, textbook understanding is antiquated. Technology inevitably moves too fast to be accurately captured in a textbook snapshot. In fact, most of the course-work covered in universities is at least 5 years old (more like 20) and renders any newly minted college graduate effectively useless in the real engineering trenches. In an effort to help my fellow engineers gain some practical knowledge (and help them justify reading my blog on the company dime!), I will share some of my favorite engineering tips and tricks in the coming months to help you bridge the gap between what you already know, and what you need to know. For the first “Tips and Tricks” entry, I want to share with you the best advice I was ever given: Your first slide needs work!
During my grad school days, I made a lot of presentations. I made presentations for my advisor, I made presentations for conferences, I made presentations for DARPA, I even made presentations about my presentations. For the first 3 years of grad school, my advisor insisted I send him the draft of my slides for him to edit. I would spend days upon days making very detailed slides focusing on the nitty-gritty of my research. By the time I sent the draft to my advisor, my presentation was, literally, a technical roadmap of all the work I had accomplished since the last presentation. Every measurement, success, and failure was cataloged to demonstrate my superlative scientific rigor. Like any good engineer or scientist, I was proud of my work, and darn-it, I was going to prove why others should be in awe of my accomplishments. Inevitably, my professor would send back the presentation within minutes with one simple comment: “Your first slide needs work”. Based on the comment (and his superhuman response time), it was clear that he hadn’t actually read the presentation. He simply opened it, read the first slide or two, and rejected it! I was furious.
This algorithm—I make a detailed technical presentation, and my advisor bounced it back with “your first slide needs work”—repeated itself for about 3 years. Until one day, I let him know of my displeasure for his disrespect of my glorious work. With a brash calmness, he explained to me, “Chris, I have no doubt that the technical details of your presentation are fine. Your problem is that you don’t see the big picture. You don’t understand that no one cares about your work! You need to justify to doubters, in the first slide, why they are going to spend their valuable time listening to you. Whether you like it or not, an engineer must always be their own best spokesperson. My best advice is: whenever you are making a presentation of your work, make the presentation for your boss’ boss. Your boss’ boss doesn’t want the details (and probably wouldn’t understand them anyway), he wants to understand why your work matters.”
My advisor was a wise man, and had clearly had this conversation with students before. Looking back, this advice was pivotal in developing in me the ability to keep my work relevant. Instead of just keeping my head down and solving problem after problem, I finally began asking harder questions. Why should anyone care? What is the impact of my work? Would someone actually buy this solution? When I freed myself of the arrogant approach of showing off my technical prowess, I began to learn how to sell my work to my boss’ boss. This was the single greatest lesson I learned in grad school…and now I’m giving it to you for free.
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