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Not Knowing is OK

Not Knowing is OK

Not Knowing is OK

It is OK to not know something.

This message goes out to all my novice engineers. It might seem like the above statement is anathema to engineers. After all, we are paid to know things. What we do is enormously difficult. No one expects anyone, not even senior engineers, to know everything. What your peers do expect is that you identify gaps in your understanding and then get help or do your homework.

As a novice, if you come to me and say, I don't understand something. I am going to respond with either a short answer (do this), a long answer (this is why you do this), or some references to authoritative resources (you can learn about this in these books). I might also say that, "I do not know. Let's go talk to this other engineer."

Your senior engineers want to teach you. They want the product of your labors to be good quality engineering. At a minimum they want the business to succeed. At a higher level, they believe that the practice of engineering serves people.

If you pretend to understand something, a senior engineer will sniff you out in two seconds flat. Depending on their character, they might be amused or they might be annoyed. It is better to simply state that you don't understand. I can work with that.

Here is the thing that you may not understand about this topic if you are novice. The issue is trust. If a novice engineer engages in a pattern of making assertive statements without a strong rationale, then you are going to start losing trust. The senior engineer will form the opinion that you make claims that you can't substantiate.

The job is hard enough. Help your peers to help you advance in the profession. When you do not know something, that's OK.

RE: Not Knowing is OK

This goes for intermediate and senior etc. level engineers as well.

Geotechs are notorious for making confident assertions about settlement calculations when never, in their entire careers, have they ever actually had measurements taken to compare their calculations to reality. Ditto for many other civil engineering disciplines.

RE: Not Knowing is OK

When I graduated from engineering school, some 50 years ago this past week, we were told that the most important thing to remember was that you don't know everything, and it's important to know what those limitations were, but that you also needed to know how to go about finding what you need to know when you actually needed it. In the real world, you're not going to lose points for having to stop and look-up what you need. This was a very good bit of insight to have, and it served me well the rest of my professional career. I only have one regret, that back in 1971, when I was started that first job as a working engineer, that we didn't have the internet to help us look-up all that stuff we needed to find winky smile

John R. Baker, P.E. (ret)
EX-'Product Evangelist'
Irvine, CA
Siemens PLM:
UG/NX Museum:

The secret of life is not finding someone to live with
It's finding someone you can't live without

RE: Not Knowing is OK

I've been working with my youngest son on this. He's inquisitive and imaginative. But he needs to learn to build the puzzle from the pieces he actually has.

RE: Not Knowing is OK

To know that one does not know is the greatest knowledge. Sadly this knowledge is missing quite often. With today's information tsunami, one need not know everything but definitely should know where to get that.

RE: Not Knowing is OK

Here's how I often put it:

"I don't know for sure. My gut feel is this- but here's how we can find out the right answer".

RE: Not Knowing is OK

As I have said before, the 1 hour course no college teaches is "What we did not teach you but one day you may need to know". People graduate every year with no real idea of what they should and should not know at that point in time. If they unfortunately get an employer who has no idea also, life will be difficult. That first mentor may be more important than your college or grades.

RE: Not Knowing is OK

We did get a class on doing engineering presentations; amusingly, we used overhead projectors that didn't even use transparencies, wha??!!

Of course, needed the refresher from Corporate Communications minions much further down the line, which was indeed much needed.

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies forum1529: Translation Assistance for Engineers Entire Forum list http://www.eng-tips.com/forumlist.cfm

RE: Not Knowing is OK

As a previous boss was fond of saying,

"How do you know what you don't know, if you don't know that you don't know it?"

My glass has a v/c ratio of 0.5

Maybe the tyranny of Murphy is the penalty for hubris. - http://xkcd.com/319/

RE: Not Knowing is OK

I attended a presentation speech by an Engineering VP of some company. He made the funny and profound declaration:

I am the luckiest manager in my company!
As I get older, I understand that there is more and more that I DO NOT KNOW.

I have kept that little jewel with me for decades.

Blue Technik LLC
Manufacturing Engineering Consulting

RE: Not Knowing is OK

Quote (That first mentor may be more important than your college or grades.)

I didn't realise that until a few decades after working... a tip of the hat to Arnold Crosier and Paul Krauss... both passed and long remembered.

Rather than think climate change and the corona virus as science, think of it as the wrath of God. Feel any better?


RE: Not Knowing is OK


It is OK to not know something....It might seem like the above statement is anathema to engineers.

IME that varies a LOT by office/employer. When high standards are enforced there's little room for bs. Unfortunately they often aren't, and many mistake an enjoyable culture and the ol' profit flowing in & work out for "good engineering" bc they don't recognize what isn't being done correctly. There's a ton of minutia in every detail of what we do from actual design to the processes we follow, so its easy to lose some.

My standard advice to juniors is to remain uncomfortable. Bounce around the industry and especially the mega-corps for the first decade learning the various processes. Don't be afraid to be pigeon-holed bc it means you are learning something at a deep level, you can always job-hop if it gets boring after 2-3 years. Don't be afraid of difficult bosses with high expectations including the ones who seem like asses, they will make you a better engineer even if you're uncomfortable or overwhelmed at times. Take advantage of the opportunities given, travel as much as you can to other locations, suppliers, customers, and even competitors to learn how others' work. Trust your mentors but also challenge them if they take shortcuts. Call out rules of thumb and unvalidated analysis as guesstimation, not engineering. Find and read the niche texts and studies for everything you do - get a library card and leverage worldcat loans or save a search on eBay/amazon for the $10 copy of that $500 text - old books are usually great too. Reading a text on bolted-joint design or the latest quality process isn't particularly enjoyable but may keep you from looking foolish or making a costly mistake. Most importantly - recognize that there are critical details in every task we do. Engineering aside, how you write a report and whether a single part is one CAD .prt or an assembly (ie. weldments, castings, forgings etc) is often critical to folks downstream. Ask yourself "where did I learn this?" and "is there a better way of accomplishing this task?" every single day, and review both your work and potential improvements with those around you. Ethical engineering is a team sport, there's no getting around that.

RE: Not Knowing is OK

At my first job, a director in the R&D division was famous for asking questions he already knew the answer to, just to embarrass the presenter. Later, when he applied for a director position at my new company, I interviewed him, and he lied to my face about leading a tiger team that solved a serious yield problem with our sister division's debit card chip, not knowing that I was actually on the tiger team, and it was my effort that found out the root cause to the yield problem.

I think BS'rs exist continue to exist; what's her face that started Theranos, for example.

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies forum1529: Translation Assistance for Engineers Entire Forum list http://www.eng-tips.com/forumlist.cfm

RE: Not Knowing is OK

There's always high-level exceptions. Within otherwise great companies I've seen several instances of a fairly low-level fraud getting an overly ambitious but ignorant executive behind a project on the basis that it was going to earn gazillions, and the exec bullying others into going along with it until things fizzle. That's essentially what Theranos did - convinced quite a few powerful people that they were going to earn billions based on a magic box, and bank on the powerful people not wanting to admit their ignorance and mistake. IME with the lower levels in everyday business tho, frauds and their shoddy work stand out like a sore thumb if everybody else is doing world-class work.

RE: Not Knowing is OK


everybody else is doing world-class work

I think that's a utopian dream; we all know the 80/20 rule; I think that applies to people as well. Additionally, everyone has strengths and weaknesses; even the best teams do not have fully interchangeable "world-class"ness in every endeavor. Even then, world-class mail-room clerks are hard to come by; in other cases, too many world class cooks spoil the stew with their egos. A team that works well together can often do better than a team of "world class" stars; "Money Ball" comes to mind.

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies forum1529: Translation Assistance for Engineers Entire Forum list http://www.eng-tips.com/forumlist.cfm

RE: Not Knowing is OK

Somewhat agree. A century of quality studies have shown that process drives outcome more than the people do. A company full of mediocre staff that are held to high standards by process may not revolutionize the world with new technology, but what they do will be done very well. I've known a few companies at that level, and usually there's at least a few folks doing revolutionary things among them.

RE: Not Knowing is OK

People "held to high standards by process" are generally disincentivized against innovation.

As Scott Adams of Dilbert fame aptly put it, a successful innovation gets you a certificate of appreciation in a handsome plastic frame. A failed innovation is rewarded with a pink slip. So, what's in it for the innovator?

Chris DeArmitt (demon3 here) wrote an excellent book called the Innovation Abyss. A very good read. He takes this on in detail and I agree with many of his conclusions.

There are some people in process-driven organizations who TRY to do "revolutionary things", because that's in their nature. They usually burn out and become part of the herd, or they move on- often after being given a push- because they don't fit the "workplace culture".

It's been my experience that employees aren't idiots and don't like being treated as if they were idiots. Some structure and process is both good and necessary. Too much process turns people into robots, with only the "programmers" getting to exercise any creativity. And that desire for control is frequently the actual source of the problem.

RE: Not Knowing is OK

I will have to check out his book and report back.

IME when folks start griping about structured process hampering innovation its usually because there isn't enough process, not too much. If there was an understood process that fit the situation at hand then folks wouldn't be griping (they'd be working), hence the need for more process. Many companies/managers don't understand that its perfectly ok to have multiple processes accomplishing the same goal. Process steps are rather irrelevant so long as the team understands them and produces common deliverables at the end - high quality documentation, high quality products - high standards. Many also fail to recognize the need to adapt process over time, when process inhibits work they blame the existing process rather than realizing that they are usually missing one - regular (biweekly or monthly) process change control boards.

The major innovators in any industry are typically the large, highly process-driven companies. Having worked for a few of their research depts, a pet peeve of mine relevant to both innovation and process is the term "R&D" simply because those are two distinct processes with different deliverables, and companies with a "R&D" dept usually do neither well. Personally, I have never felt treated like a robot or idiot due to either process, quite the opposite actually. A thoroughly organized company allows employees the freedom to focus on their work which leads to more innovation. In those environments my workday is usually predictable a week or three in advance and though they may involve long hours (ie international projects), the stress is much lower and the work-life balance better. Its like a spreadsheet - it allows me to do more, faster, with less stress and better quality than simply using pencil & paper alone. Less-organized companies are employee-killers because you're constantly in a rush to put out the latest fire. Stress remains comparably high and work-life balance usually sucks so you end up with apathetic employees who have to say "f-them, I'm going" because theres no good way to plan a vacation or take a kid to the dentist. Good luck finding time daily to work on that next innovation in those environments, assuming you're relaxed enough to let the mind wander to creativity.

RE: Not Knowing is OK

On knowing and not knowing, love this zen reference, huge relevance to the ways of engineering:


The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as space. How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?

RE: Not Knowing is OK

Thomas Telford started life as as stone mason; the guy who designed the crystal palace was a gardener, Larry Page and Sergey Brin started google in a garage; Bill Gates and Paul Allen for Microsoft; Jeff Bezos started Amazon in a garage; Elon Musks way of thinking / engineering is basiaclly the antithesis to most 'top of the industry' engineering; the Wright Brother's, high school drop outs, certainly weren't using 'top of the industry' process.

Wonder where the modern world would be if all of these guys had been crushed by MBA-driven big corporate processes?

RE: Not Knowing is OK

Good engineering process is driven locally by engineers not management, finance, or otherwise.

It doesn't take a big company to have a revolutionary idea, but big companies are generally in a much better position to capitalize on them. Stereotypically, they have an expert specialized in every component, they test every detail to the nth degree, and they have comparably massive supply chains that will react quickly for low-cost. The net result is the ol' better, cheaper, & faster to market. Had HP listened to Steve Wozniak for example and gone into PCs early then his side-gig Apple would've been doomed bc they couldn't compete with the mega-corps capabilities. Ferrari famously found out similar when Ford developed the GT40 during the 1960s - process driving assets and capability win. The usual mistake big companies make in this regard is (like HP on PCs) that they often make overly conservative choices to stay out of small niches until those markets have proven themselves significantly profitable and matured to a fairly common direction. That's not to say they dont prepare for market possibilities, that's where research depts come in - evaluating the cost and capabilities of future technologies against their limitations, and drafting a rough plan for product development to leverage those technologies in 5-15 years. Unfortunately bc research is kept secret at big companies the public often develops these strange notions that established companies are on the way out vs upstart rivals. They also often develop an even stranger hero-worship for entrepreneurs selling a (usually severely overvalued) brand.

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