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The three most beautiful words in science

Being an Engineer podcast

25 February 2022

Gerhard Pawelka, engineering expert at PA Consulting, discusses his engineering background and leadership style in a podcast hosted by Rafael Testai. 

Click here to listen to the podcast episode. Full text is included below. 

Rafael Testai: Today we have another very special guest, Gerhard Pawelka. He's the co-founder of Cooper Perkins, part of PA Consulting. Previously, Gerhard was CEO of Tune, creator of the Power-Tap cycling computer, a company he co-founded after spending nine years at IDEO, an international product design consultancy. Prior to Tune and IDEO, Gerhard was an engineer at Cannondale, and earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering and an MA in International Relations.

Gerhard Pawelka: Thank you for having me.

Rafael: So, we'd like to start out by asking how did you decide to become an engineer?

Gerhard: Well, that would suppose that I actually decided. I think I really just fell into it. Going into university, it seemed like a good place to start, and I thought I might drop into something else. But I didn't. I finished the course and did well enough at it and then got a job as an engineer. And I have to say I really fell in love with engineering very soon after I started my first job at Cannondale as a designer.

Rafael: Absolutely. What this honoring engineering mean?

Gerhard: Yeah, so that's as a phrase that really kind of ties our group together. Early on, we didn't want Cooper Perkins to be kind of like, everybody rallies around the brand itself or the company or flamboyant CEO. We really wanted to rally around the profession. And to us, it's a vocation, a calling. And so we really focused on defining our culture around engineering, and that sort of binds us all together. And it really says a lot about how we think of ourselves as a practice. Cooper Perkins is an engineering practice, much like attorneys might have a law practice or physicians might have a medical practice. It’s a lifelong vocation that has us solving technical problems. And we're learning our craft, teaching our trade, and in doing so, practicing engineering. So that the phrase ‘honoring engineering,’ it’s upended with the rest of the phrase, which is ‘learn it well, practice it honestly, teach it generously. And that that phrase kind of binds us together and keeps us thinking about what's important to our professional lives.

Rafael: Let’s talk about that again. Learn it well, practice it…

Gerhard: …honestly, and teach it generously. And that really sums up what we do at Cooper Perkins, now after a year, we're part of PA Consulting. And that company is also very much aligned with that phrase. But yeah, so we practice our trade, we solve technical problems, but in doing so, we're also always learning and those who know about something and have something to give back, they’re also teaching. So that's really kind of sums up what our professional experiences at Cooper Perkins.  Practicing engineering, but learning it and teaching it as well.

Rafael: Sometimes I like to dive too deep into the details. So let me go let me know if I go too far. But the first statement, ‘learn it well,’ how does one learn it well?

Gerhard: You become a student of it. A dedicated student, but I think a dedicated student is also a curious student. Curiosity is something that we find is a really important trait in our colleagues. It’s sort of the fuel that makes people ask questions and kind of drives the scientific method forward in any kind of problem we're trying to solve or any kind of thing that we're trying to understand. So learning it well is driven by curiosity, and just being a student of all aspects of engineering that you find are important to the way you want to solve problems.

Rafael: Wonderful. About the second one, ‘practicing honestly.’ How does one do that?

Gerhard: Yeah, that's an important one as well. We feel like with engineers, you have no choice but to be honest. Anytime you're coming across something that you kind of wish wasn't there, you can't sweep that under the carpet, you have to deal with it in a pretty honest way. And if you're dealing with a team, whether it's a client or a manager or a subordinate, you got to speak the truth. When you don't, planes fall out of the sky and buildings fall over. You have to be honest about what you're looking at, how you're solving the problem. It's all going to be out there. And that's pretty critical. And I used to say, that phrase quite a bit, you know, planes fall out in sky, we have an example of just a few years ago, where plates actually did fall out of the sky because somebody was being dishonest about the engineering. And it actually happens. And so we find that a pretty serious bit of our culture is honesty, transparency. It's a really important aspect for any engineer, I think.

Rafael: I'm going to tie it all together. One of my favorite people on the internet to listen to is Jordan B. Peterson. And he talks about how responsibility breeds meaning in life. And I took one of the one of my first engineering classes in college, something that always stood out to me, I'm not the most eloquent person, so I'm probably going to butcher how I'm going to say this. But it all came down to society trusts engineers to do their work correctly. And there's like this implied trust. When we drive over a bridge, we trust that engineers did it correctly, we don't think about it twice. So it places a lot of responsibility on the engineers to take their job very seriously. And do it honestly, like you say. What are your thoughts on that?

Gerhard: Yeah, absolutely true. I don't know if this is folklore or not, but there were building engineers or bridge designers that were kind of ceremoniously asked to stand underneath a bridge when the train first went over one of their creations. And it's not exactly the kind of incentive we want to have to have everybody subjected to. But it is. There is trust. A lot of our professional systems on the planet, including financial, they’re based on trust, and based that not only people are competent, but they're not engaged in some kind of criminal activity or being somehow dishonest. Trust is more than just being honest. It's also having trusted somebody who's competent and well trained. And, yeah, I think that's really important when we're interviewing engineers to join our team and principally focused on are they curious, because, you know, somebody that has the confidence to say, ‘I don't know about something’ well that's the fundamental part of scientific method. I had a discussion recently with somebody asking ‘what are the three most beautiful words in in science?’ And the response was, ‘I don't know’ and I said ‘exactly!’ That's what drives science forward. It’s when you don't know. And the only way you can answer those questions, is to have a really honest approach. Like, I really don't know this. And I have to test this and find out what the answer is and come up May. Not have a bias on what the outcome might be. Fundamentally, you know, we're trained to look at things in a very sober, honest way. We, engineers, I should say, and there's sort of no other way to do it. If you're not being honest about what you see, and what you observe, and how you apply that knowledge, you’re not really doing engineering, you're doing something else. So, it's kind of really baked into the professional.

Rafael: When you don't know something, do you have a process that you follow that you can teach us?

Gerhard: Absolutely. It’s prototyping. Here at Cooper Perkins, and certainly with our partners at PA, overall, it's a very prototype driven culture. And we explain what prototype driven means. Prototypes to us is really anything that you can test. Now, when you think about that, you think well okay, does that include something you go into the mechanical shop and put on a lathe and a mill and make some piece of hardware? Sure, it's that. It’s also a piece of code that you can try out and test. It's also a conversation you can have with an expert in a field, that is a prototype. It could be a bit of analysis, anything that you can test an idea out with is a prototype. Or a spreadsheet, a piece of a question, a piece of text, is a prototype. Years ago, when I was working at IDEO, there was a saying, ‘If a picture is worth 1000 words, a prototype is worth 1000 meetings,’ and that's really true, the idea was never show up at a meeting without a prototype. And in a large sense of the word, basically don’t ever show up in a meeting without something to test. So, to back to your question, if there's something you don't know, you can have a hypothesis or not. But either way, find a way to test your knowledge and triangulate and kind of bounce towards the conclusion. We set up all of our projects, everything that we do, as really tests that we're always making little mistakes, and little corrections. And we always assume we're making little mistakes that way. We're always poised to make little corrections. And that’s how we converge on understanding something we don't know. We test it until we find what the answer is.

Rafael: Alright, so next subject. How do you deal with tough conversations with a client?

Gerhard: So first, probably close to 100% of the time, tough conversations with anybody are not as tough as you imagined. Like they kind of bigger in your mind than they actually are, or actually will be. I've learned over time not to overdramatize a conversation that I need to have. The second thing is honesty is a very common trait with engineers. And if you're honest, people appreciate that. And they'll take tough news, usually better than you think. And it might take a few gulps and a few, you know, uncomfortable moments. But generally, people kind of get all on the same wavelength and say, ‘Okay, you’ve just adjusted my reality and now I'm in sync with your reality, let's see what we can do next.’ And generally, people appreciate the honesty and appreciate the opportunity to solve the next problem. And as I said, when I started to answer your question, generally the conversation is not as tough as you make it out to be before you have it. So I’d say, go in there, have it, and things just generally work out. Almost all the time everybody feels better.

Rafael: Okay, let's talk again about IDEO. That's a place that a lot of designers and engineers wish that they could have worked out. But we're not all going to get a chance to work there, and it's not meant for all of us. So if we had to pick up some of the key takeaways or golden nuggets from working at IDEO, in addition to a really good one that you already gave about never showing up to a meeting without a prototype, what are maybe like three or four other things that you learn as an engineer working at IDEO that you think other engineers would benefit from knowing?

Gerhard: Yes, I worked there in the 90s, and it was pretty hardcore product development. Doing a lot of hardware at the time. We were doing laptops. IDEO is famous for a number of things, including designing the first modern laptop. One of the real attractive aspects of working in that group was, before anybody had really figured it out in a world-class way, IDEO I had put together all of the aspects of product development, from user research, to experience design, to industrial design to electromechanical engineering, firmware development. Really the wide range. And when you put a team with that kind of collective competency together to solve what seems to be an intractable problem, it's sort of a pretty magical thing that happens. So back in the 90s when I was working there, it was a unique place to do that. There weren't a lot of places that do that. But now there are quite a few places that have that full breadth of capabilities. You know, I have to say, one thing we didn't talk about much yet was last year, PA Consulting, an outfit in the UK, acquired Cooper Perkins. And one of the things that I really loved about the idea of joining this group and love about it now is we, at PA now, have this wide breadth of being able to solve business problems on a pretty wide scale, not just engineering and design and user research, user experience. We've got colleagues who are solving strategy problems for companies and operations problems, how to grow an organization or market. So that sort of breadth of capability in this really wide range of capabilities, not just across design and engineering, but across other business aspects is really alluring. And really a great thing to be part of.

The other thing I'll say about prototyping is, this is something we did it at IDEO. And I'd say it's very strong, not only at Cooper Perkins, but also at PA when we're solving problems. I look for people who figuratively are, like polyglots. So you know when you're speaking with people who know several languages, you can tell that they're fluent when they're thinking in the language that they're speaking. That kind of fluency is figuratively what we look for in engineers and other people that we work with note only at Cooper Perkins but also at PA. An example of this is, an engineer might go into the workshop because they have to build something to understand what's in their head. They build some prototypes, and they test it. And then we'll go over and write some Python code to simulate what they were thinking. And then they'll go over and do some finite element analysis to understand kind of, what are the constraints and loads on this, then we'll join their colleagues in a room to brainstorm some solutions to a problem and very creatively, and in a very highly creative and highly organized way, collect a bunch of ideas to solve this problem. So that's what I mean by polyglots, you're able to kind of switch your thinking and your so to speak, language. When you're in a shop, you're thinking very different and speaking a very different language than when you're sitting in front of a computer writing some Python code, or when you're in a group of people creatively solving problems. So we look for people who are polyglots like that. They can work in any of those environments and modulate between them in a very dynamic way. That’s something that we find is really important, that was kind of how everybody at IDEO was defined. And that's certainly how we define our colleagues here at PA and Cooper Perkins.

Rafael: Very interesting that you bring this up. What did you call it?

Gerhard: Well, one who speaks multiple languages is called a polyglot. Not a very attractive word, but it is nonetheless a description of someone that can speak multiple languages. I use that as an analogy for what I just described with Engineering.

Rafael: In Spanish and in English, I use completely different muscles in my mouth when I speak. So, it's not only thinking differently, but also how the muscles are used to communicate it.  Alright, so let's talk about what drew you into engineering. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

Gerhard: Yeah, I said I kind of fell into it and learned to love it in my first job at Cannondale. It was an interesting experience. I was working on a bicycle frame. Cannondale had just started making these really innovative, aluminum welded bicycle frames. And at the same time, I'd read this article about just how efficient these things are, what an efficient mode of transportation bicycles are. And here I am holding this one kilogram frame of welded aluminum tubes. And I thought, where does this come from. You know if you take the paint off you just have welded tubes. And if you take the welds off, then you just have these tubes, and these tubes are shaped and mitered into whatever shape you want before you weld them. And before that, it was a hunk of aluminum alloy that hadn't been shaped into tubes yet. And before that, the aluminum alloy was just a number of different types of metal, principally aluminum. And aluminum comes from an iron ore called bauxite, and there's like a couple of chemical electrical chemical processes to turn bauxite ore into aluminum. And before you take the bauxite ore into those processes, you find it in tropical dirt. You pick up a handful of dirt, and there's bauxite ore in that and you take the bauxite out, and it goes through that whole process to turn into a bicycle. And I had thought about this story. You know, like I've got a pile of dirt in one hand, and then I have the most efficient means of transportation ever conceived by humans. And that's what we do we turn dirt into bicycles, or spaceships or other things. And that I thought was kind of magical. That's what engineers do. They convert things that you find in the ground into some useful tool. We’ve been doing it for millions of years, whether it's taking a piece of stone and turning it into a blade to process game that you caught or building a spaceship that goes to Mars. It's really taking stuff you find in the ground and shaping it into some useful tool. So that's how I kind of regarded engineering from an early age. When I first started my work as an engineer, I thought, like were magicians, taking stuff you find in the ground, and turning them into useful tools. And I’ve been doing that ever since. And that's sort of how I think about engineering.

Rafael: It reminds me of finding a diamond in the rough. I share the sentiment of engineering, very passionate about it. You talked about teaching it generously. Do you have examples or like a process in which everyone teaches internally at Cooper Perkins?

Gerhard: Yeah, the projects we work on often they’re projects, you know, we don't know what the answers are, we have to find them. And so, we're, we're often learning. It’s rare that we're just kind of on a project where we're turning the crank doing things that we've done before. Almost always, we're in a position that we have to learn something. We’ll tell our partners or clients this as well, saying ‘look we don't exactly know how to do this, but here's what we're going to propose to do and here's how we propose to find this answer.’ Generally, it's ‘okay, we trust you go and do this.’ The very nature of the work is that we have to learn something. Your question was also about teaching. It’s very common that somebody on our team, with all of our colleagues that we work with even colleagues outside of our company, Cooper Perkins or PA, will ask a question like, ‘have you ever done such and such before? Or have you seen this? Or does this make sense to you?’ Yes, I do have some experience with this, and I do have some insights, and let me tell you about them. And that communication is teaching. You’re parting your wisdom, your experience, your knowledge, in a very kind of applicable way to someone else. And that's what we're doing. And that can be very tractable and very explicit, but it can also be more tacit in that you might not be teaching somebody, ‘here's the answer to your problem, but here's how you might go about getting an answer to your problem.’ Use this process or this methodology and that process will lead you to the answer. I don't know what the answer is, but here's a tool you can use to get to the answer.

Rafael: I sense an underlying theme of being comfortable with the unknown throughout the whole process. Would you agree?

Gerhard: Absolutely. Well caught, Raf. It's sort of the fundamental way of being for us because we're always putting ourselves in a position of having to figure something out. And it basically exercises that curiosity muscle, which we like to think is pretty active in all of us. We look for people who are curious. And I like working with people who are curious about everything, because they're always kind of moving in a way that converts something that is unknown, or something that is believed into something that is known. And curiosity is a machine that consumes beliefs and uncertainty into certainty. And I think there's something very attractive about that.

Rafael: You're a co-founder, someone that started a company. If you had to make a Venn diagram of your three most important skills, the three areas that you really excel at, one of them would be obviously engineering. But what would you say are the other two things in your Venn diagram?

Gerhard: I think my ability to communicate effectively is an important part of my being. Being able to simplify concepts and communicate them is important, really in any kind of business that I know of. And engineering is no exception. The other part is, I think it might come from being a parent or being old, is I really care about people's experiences. So, when I'm working with my colleagues, I care about what they're learning, I care about what they're doing, and how they're developing their careers, and how they're experiencing engineering, and hopefully, in a way that is as rewarding as it was, for me. I think, I think as far as being a leader, or somebody that organizes a company, being technically competent and being able to communicate make up the second part of that Venn diagram. And the third is really caring about the people you work with. You can't get away from that. That's a big circle in your Venn diagram.

Rafael: How do you show people that you care?

Gerhard: I don't know. It’s just something that that comes out. And I think once you're working in a tight team, people go there anyway. When you become part of a team, and it's a good team, and it’s a team you care a lot about and team cares a lot about you, that just happens. And people get to know each other, and people get to start thinking a lot about other people's experience. I think it just sort of happens if you're equipped in that way. And remember ‘honor engineering, learn it well, practice it honestly, teach it generously.’ Generous is another key word here. And you know, being there to teach generously, that means you care about what you're teaching and who you're teaching. And every one of those words in that phrase goes to not only what we're about in Cooper Perkins but what we're about at PA. Beyond that, what our clients are about. You know, working with smart people who care to practice whatever they're doing, honestly, and recognizing we’re always learning and recognizing that we're generous and teaching each other what we're doing, I think it makes kind of a good work experience, whether you're a little company like Cooper Perkins or bigger company like PA, or a bigger company like one of our many clients. That phrase applies.

Rafael: I think that the word caring it's a key trait for leadership because it develops trust.

Gerhard: Yeah, I sent a short text to one of my colleagues who was a veteran a few weeks ago, for Veterans Day, just saying something about admiring people who serve things that are bigger than themselves. And I think that's where, you know, caring about what you do and caring about what experiences your colleagues have, is you're serving something bigger than yourself. And, if you're an employee at a company, if you care about your team or you care about your company, you're serving something bigger than yourself. It just sort of comes naturally. And I think t's a very rewarding thing. As I mentioned, that colleague who's a veteran he knows what it's like to serve for multiple years for something bigger than himself. And I think as I said, it's rewarding. And it just kind of brings the best out in people. And it's the same at a little engineering firm, or a big consultancy, or a big company, and many other institutions.


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