I spent a great deal of my career in the industrial heating business managing an engineering department. I grew up as an engineer in this industry. I remember a job interview I took early in my career with a high-tech builder of rocket engines. I think I was being interviewed by the chief engineer. He gave me a very simple problem to solve. An engine bracket was experiencing fatigue cracking along a flange. How would you analyze the problem? What would be the recommended fix?

My answer eliminated me from the list of candidates. The best answer I could come up with was “make it thicker.” No analysis, just beef it up. Of course, I knew I had blown it immediately. But it made me realize how important my technical training had been and how much of it I had probably ignored in my day-to-day work. I vowed never again. But I also made a note that when I became a manager, I would demand technical competence from my staff.

What I have observed in engineers is that many of us grew up with lots of hands-on mechanics. We liked to think we could fix anything. In many cases, that is why we studied engineering in college. Of course, once in college, we discovered that to be an engineer you had to be a complete master of mathematics. Many couldn’t deal with that and changed majors. Others managed to just get though, but when they graduated, they went back to being a mechanic, glad to escape all that math. That is a career-ending mistake.

As an engineering manager, you must first demonstrate that you are a master of the technology your company manufactures. Then you must insist that your staff rise to that same level. They must be able to apply the basic fundamentals of their training to the everyday problems for which their expertise is required.

So, have you figured out the right answer to the bracket problem? Next week I’ll give you a better analysis than “make it thicker,” even though that might still be the final answer.