Five ways to motivate an engineer

For some reason, this idea just popped into my head.  Sometimes engineers get a little leery when it comes to a new project, especially in this micromanaged digitally connected world.  I have learned to beware of buzz words and phrases  like:

  • We couldn’t do it without you
  • We need you to guide this project through
  • I’ve got your back
  • Failure is not an option
  • Engineers are what makes radio stations tick
What they really mean is:
  • If we could figure out a way, we’d do it without you
  • We need you to answer your cellphone and email 24/7 so we can direct your guidance
  • Watch your back
  • This is such a lame brained idea, it’s going to fail and we are going to blame you
  • Who really knows what engineers do?

What management does not seem to understand is what motivates engineers.  How do you get the guy who is on call 24/7 three hundred and sixty five days out of the year (even on vacation) to rise above his normal performance level and really shine?

Have no fear, there are things that engineers daydream about, those special little projects that can only be categorized one way: “NEAT!”

Most engineers that I know are enamored with efficiency.  Anything that can increase efficiency, increase data throughput, provide more information and or make a difficult job easier may fall into the NEAT! category. Things like IP enabled remote controls, transmitters and processing that can be accessed from lap tops or smart phones.  Installing VNC or like program on computer automation systems, servers and the like so that they too can be viewed and fixed from lap tops or smart phones is another good example.  Of course, exactly what qualifies as NEAT! varies from engineer to engineer.

Here is the complete list of engineering motivators:

  1. Having some projects with the aforementioned NEAT! items on occasion
  2. Increased compensation and or bonuses for good performance, completed projects, etc
  3. Decreased number of “pocket protector” jokes, glassy eyed staring, silly remarks and the like
  4. Engineers are highly trained professionals.  It is not up to us to fix the chair your ass broke, fix the toilet your cheap ass had installed, tape the worn out carpet you got on trade, fix the leaking roof you also got on trade, change light bulbs or wash the station vehicle.  So don’t ask.
  5. If somebody could figure out how to include one of these with all new equipment installations or projects, perhaps in the ancillary kit or something:

That would be great.

Effective Communication

Communications men, US Navy WWII Pacific Theater
Communications men, US Navy WWII Pacific Theater

In almost every broadcast company I have ever worked for, there is always some communications dysfunction between management and the technical staff. It is perhaps, inevitable given the different cultures. Most managers come from a sales background, where everything is negotiable. The engineering field is fixed in the physical world, where everything has two states; right/wrong, on/off, true/false, functional/non-functional, etc.  Try to negotiate with a non-functional transmitter, let me know how that works.

Engineering eggheads often couch their conversations in technical terms which tend to confuse the uninitiated.  While those terms are technically correct, if I said “Радио генератор инвалида.”  You’d say “Huh?” and rightly so.   If the receiving  party does not understand the terms used, it is ineffective communication.

The other mistake I often see, which irritates me beyond reason, is long rambling e-mails or other documents that fail to come to the point, directly or otherwise.  Time is a precious commodity, waisting other people’s time with long needless diatribes is ineffective communications.  Likely, the recipient will not read the entire thing anyway.  If a person gains a reputation for generating huge amounts of superfluous verbiage, then it only becomes so much background noise to be filtered out.  When I was in the service, I went to a class called “Message Drafting.”  This was back in the day when everything was sent via radio.  The gist is to get the complete idea across to the recipient with as few words as possible.  Think: “ENEMY ON ISLAND. ISSUE IN DOUBT.”  Clear and concise, six words paints the picture.

The key to effective communications is to know your audience.  If you are writing a white paper for a bunch of MIT graduates, use all the appropriate technical terms.  More often than not, however, as a broadcast engineer, our intended audience is more likely station management and/or ownership.  Their backgrounds may be sales and finance.

In order to get those technical ideas into the heads that matter, a good method is to use the lowest common denominator.  If the general manager is a former used car salesman, car analogies might work.  The transmitter has 200,000 miles on it, the tower is rusting out like a ’72 Pinto, and so on.  Almost anything at a transmitter site can be compared to a vehicle in some way.  Find out what the manager’s background is then figure out what language he or she speaks and use it.  You may say, “But he is the manager, it is up to him (or her) to understand this stuff.”  You are not incorrect, but that is not how the world works.

Secondly, use brevity in communications.  Managers are busy, engineering is but one aspect of the radio station’s operations.  If written, provide a summary first, then expound upon it in follow up paragraphs if required.  If you are in a meeting, give a brief presentation then wait for questions.  Always have a high ballpark figure in mind when the inevitable “How much?” question comes along.

Don’t assume that the manager will follow through with your ideas up the chain of command, always follow up a few days later.  If it is important, continue to ask, in a friendly way, if there is any progress on the issue.

There are so many ways to communicate these days that failure to communicate is almost unfathomable.  One additional thought, if you find yourself out of the loop, find a way to get back in or you’ll find yourself looking for a new job.

Radio Station Food

One of the great side benefits of working at a radio station is the regular availability of free food.  I almost don’t want to do a post on this because somehow, some corporate boss is going to read about it and a no free food edict will result.

Every so often, some local deli or pizza place will drop off something for the air staff.  Usually, it is a friend of a friend and nothing nefarious is going on.  When it arrives, the odor of good things to eat wafts through the building.  With the smell of blood in the water, the sharks swim out of the sales bullpen and a feeding frenzy develops.  Just watch out for your fingers, during the scrum, it is difficult to tell the difference between a digit and a sausage.

It goes fast, when I walked by this table 15 minutes ago, there were five full pizza boxes, just delivered.

radio station food
radio station food

Now there is one box with two slices of some meat lovers heart attack special.

Computer file manipulator

It just doesn’t have the same ring as Disk Jockey or DJ.  However, that would be an apt description of the person who plays the hits on most radio stations these days.

It is mostly just drag and drop the next element into the play deck, if anything needs to be done at all.

Technics SP-15 Turntable
Technics SP-15 Turntable

I remember when DJ’s actually jockeyed disks, it was a sight to behold.  Back in the day when everything was on vinyl except the commercials, which were on cart, the DJ had his or her hands full.  Most of the songs where in the 2:30 to 3 minute range, so while the song was playing, the next song had to be cued up on the platter, the old song needed to be put back into it’s sleeve and shelved (most of the time), check the log to see what was on deck, pull the next commercial stop set, answer the phone and god forbid if the Program Director called on the hot line and it rang more than 3 times.  And hopefully the head wasn’t too far away, that coffee went somewhere, after all.  While all that is going on, timing, audience interaction, hitting the post and sounding fun.  In spite of what Howard Stern says, it was not easy.

Today, of course, if there is even a person in the studio, they may glance up at the computer screen every now and then to see when the next time they need to talk.  Otherwise, they would be engaged in talking on the phone with their girl friend, texting, surfing the internet, or watching the baseball game on TV.