Mar. - Apr. 2002
Learning Outside of the Box
by Vern R. Johnson
Regardless of whether you are just beginning your engineering career or have been practicing for years, education must remain a consistent priority. For successful technical professionals, learning progresses in three distinct areas:
Technical Vitality — From Getting Knowledge to Using It
Engineers typically initiate their journeys to technical vitality in college, if not before. But colleges focus on imparting knowledge. College students spend a lot of time solving carefully selected problems that focus on technical knowledge in a specified discipline. As working professionals, however, knowledge alone is not enough; real-world problem solving requires not only the ability to retain knowledge, but also to draw upon a wealth of knowledge and put it to use. Intelligence is the ability to use one's knowledge to solve real problems. In essence, successful technical professionals develop the faculties for intelligently using their knowledge.
Technical vitality also involves developing and maintaining flexibility. Because technologies change rapidly, engineering professionals must be able to move into new areas and adapt or bolster their knowledge banks easily and willingly. As careers progress such flexibility becomes more challenging; it's the "old dog-new tricks" conundrum.
Sphere of Influence — From Being Led to Leading
When most engineers begin their careers, they are probably happy to work — at least for a while — as "apprentices." In this role, they learn, practice and gain from more experienced mentors. They eventually become better recognized as individual contributors, and they may even begin to feel a sense of accomplishment. But successful technical professionals don't settle for that warm and fuzzy feeling; they expand their influence beyond themselves by seeking opportunities to demonstrate team leadership and influence the work of others.
Intellectual Maturity — From Student to Independent Learner
Learning takes place in three ways:
Many professionals are content with being students; it's comfortable and easy to learn from others. But being a student implies being bound to an educational system to meet learning needs. Intellectual maturity expects more than this boundary. Of course, successful professionals continue to learn as much as they can from others, but they also pursue learning in the latter two ways. They seek opportunities to try new things from which they can learn and they take time to pause and reflect on what they are learning.
Perhaps even more importantly, though, successful technical professionals take time to reflect on how their knowledge base relates to the projects they are working on. They aren't afraid to ask for help when they don't know the answers, but they first think the situation through and attempt to answer questions on their own. They become independent learners who take an inventory of their existing knowledge and weigh it against what they don't know to see how close they can get to awareness before seeking help.
When professionals progress from being merely students — whose learning is directed by others — to being self-directed independent learners, they will be able to commit to things based on their own judgment, rather than acting on the advice of others.
When the three measures of learning are plotted in a Cartesian coordinate system, a three-dimensional box results that is bounded by Vitality = Knowledge; Influence = Self; and Maturity = Student. Engineers need to develop in each area until they can easily function outside of this limiting mental box.
Vern R. Johnson is Associate Dean Of Engineering at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz., and is IEEE-USA's Career Activities Editor. This article is adapted from materials in his book, Becoming a Technical Professional (Casas Adobes Publishing, Tucson, Ariz., 2000). For more information, go to http://www.dakotacom.net/~capublish.