Monday, March 30, 2009

Overcoming Challenges

The lovely Candid Engineer of America is hosting the April Scientiae carnival this month. The theme is overcoming challenges - what adversity, gnarly problem, or stubborn obstacle have you dealt with?

In thinking over my career thus far, I must say that I have been mightily blessed. I anticipate that many of the other entries will focus on personal tragedies, and ways in which relationships in private life have caused havoc in the professional life. I have the utmost respect for those who have overcome such things, and I don't mean to detract from that, but I can't really relate. Nobody in my family has died, I do my very best to avoid tangled dramas, I've always been in good health. In fact, most of my problems have been of my own making. I know, I can see you all rolling your eyes - just wait, I can hear you thinking. :)

So instead of personal issues, I must say the toughest thing I've dealt with is managing the politics interfering with the technical. I was homeschooled all the way up through highschool, so I was the very definition of an independent worker. I transitioned smoothly into college classes, where I did my work quickly and brilliantly.

Then in undergrad I hit classes with group projects. And I discovered that there are STUPID PEOPLE out there. And I had to WORK with those people. And I hated it. I thought I did better work on my own, which was largely true. I thought I could get it done quicker myself, which I could.

But I also learned that it is the height of hubris to think you can't learn anything from other people. So I had to learn how to manage in a group, to find people's strengths and work to those. To delegate tasks for efficiency, but then trust your teammates without hovering.

And just when I thought I the whole working with stupid people groups thing down, I hit senior semester and the undergraduate capstone design class. This is soley a project class, in my case in the aero-astro engineering department, which is supposed to be the crowning jewel in your B.S. education. All the graduating class has to take it, about 40-odd people my semester, divided into two groups of 20-odd each.

And there I discovered that stupid and brilliant people alike create POLITICS. I had never tried to complete a highly technical, difficult engineering project while dealing with that many people. Right away the group of 20-odd had a leader, sub-leaders, and then in a Dilbert-like middle management expansion, sub-sub-leaders. So, hello power struggles. And of course there will be personality issues - this person can't get along with this one, this person takes offense to this one's suggestions. Add in some favoritism shown by the professor and teaching assistants, a healthy dose of miscommunication, and a topping of irritable sleep deprivation, and suddenly I could hardly find any trace of the original engineering problem we were supposed to be working on.

This situation strained everyone who was in the class, varying by the amount you had invested emotionally. Those with love interests or deep friendships with others in the class were especially hard hit, and it's a wonder at the end of the day that no bodies were buried out at the test flight strip. And at the end of it all, was it really that important? It was just a class, and yes it was a competition, but the original technical problem wasn't worth the political and personal quagmire it was.

And this lesson that the science gets lost in the politics has been reinforced over and over again since then - during internships where my work wasn't published because of internal politics, during graduate study where authorship on a paper can hinge on popularity, on student club governments where funding decisions are made based on friendships rather than merit.

So the hardest lesson I've had to learn is that in the real world, the politics is just as important, and perhaps more important, than the technical side. Would that life would be simple and logical, but it's not.


  1. Amen. It would be silly to try and count the ways in which I agree with you and can commiserate.

  2. And I discovered that there are STUPID PEOPLE out there. And I had to WORK with those people. And I hated it. I thought I did better work on my own, which was largely true. I thought I could get it done quicker myself, which I could.

    HAHA! I'm afraid I feel like this every other day, esp. when talking to people at the utilities company.

  3. Unfortunate and painful, but true. I wish we could just tag these people and keep them in a pen?

  4. Nice post. I'm still learning how to deal with group work, myself. I'm a graduate student, and while a lot of my work is independent, I'm still working with some people that I might prefer to avoid. There are also some throwbacks to the seventh grade, when I didn't have many friends and hated group projects because no one ever wanted to be in my group. Now when my classmates form groups for assignments and I don't get asked to work with them, it's hard to not feel hurt, even when I know that they're still my friends.

  5. Oh, speaking of stupid people... I encounter stupid people most of the time -- people who don't know that they have done something wrongly, people who know but pretend they don't, people who know but do not admit their mistakes, you name it, I've seen it.

    And sealing with these people made me realize that I am actually more patient than I think I am. Like you, I try to see everybody's good points and deal with those, rather than "killing" myself wondering why I had to be working among those people :)

    I normally do not mix with these people because we have really different ideas and we don't communicate like adults do (some people argue for the sake of winning). And sometimes I wonder why I don't have many friends, LOL.

  6. Heh, I can see myself in there. I have a very low tolerance for stupidity, particularly in groups. I didn't actually hit the politics until I started my PhD and I think I am still learning the lesson of your last paragraph.