Monday, February 24, 2014

How to Work With Unions

For good or for bad, engineers and union workers often find themselves on opposite sides of the table. It is the privilege of engineers to be able to design systems and have them realized by union workers with years of practical experience (although we may not always remember that). That said, we often come to the same project with very different perspectives and sometimes different objectives.

Growing up, I honestly don't think I knew a single union worker. My first interaction directly with union workers was during a mandatory safety training course at my customer's site. I was the only engineer (and of course one of two women) out of a class of around forty union workers. As with any course, I came with a notebook and pencil and was fervently taking notes on lecture slides. Sure, the material wasn't particularly riveting, but I'd been trained to stay focused and engaged by taking precise notes during lectures in school.

Ten minutes in, I noticed I was the only one taking notes. In fact, instead of a notebook about a quarter of the guys brought a bottle to collect the spit from their chewing tobacco. The slides were broken up with the occasional, unmistakable sound of spit hitting the bottom of a mostly empty container.

Why yes, I am one of those children scarred by the photos chewing tobacco causing mouth cancer shown in elementary school.
It wasn't long before I realized that this wasn't the type of class where you bring a notebook. In a three hour long class, there was a solid half an hour of gifs of people falling on their face, or unsuspecting men getting hit in balls. It was totally unrelated to the course, and I was not amused. I had deadlines looming, and it seemed like a total waste of time.

But the guys loved it. The entire time, they let out earth shaking laughs, slapped their knees and yelled, "Did you see that?" "That's GOTTA hurt!" "Ooh!"

It was in this class, with my glasses and notepad, that I realized I was totally out of my element in the world of union workers. I'd come from the world of theory and academics, and they had gone to the school of hard knocks. This only became more obvious when my first projects were installed, and I started to break unspoken rules about unions that I didn't know existed.

So here are a few tips to help you from making the same mistakes:

1) Don't do union work. This is the number one way to piss off union workers. And it is honestly more complicated than it sounds. I've accidentally happened upon my fair share of union grievances because I was trying to help out. Ask your client what type of unions they have, and plan your work accordingly. As an engineer, I've found it is best to stay as far out of these union business dealings as possible.

2) Take experience seriously. So they may not have an engineering degree from a fancy school, but sometimes talking to a person who actually worked on building the system can help fix mysterious glitches. That doesn't mean they are always right, but their experience could save your ass.

3) Don't talk about union issues. Union workers sometimes will talk to you or in front of you about issues that relate to their work. Do not participate in these conversations. If they end up being issues that go to a vote, you can be accused of trying to persuade union votes (which is bad, since you are an engineer and therefore part of "the man" that they are fighting). A friend of mine got a grievance filed against her for saying, "Man, that really sucks" the day of a vote she didn't know was happening.

4) Remember that trades people aren't engineers. While you should always treat people with respect and take people's opinions seriously (as in tip #2), you need to remember that you supposedly have a unique knowledge of systems and equations. Do not take advice that does not make sense. You've been hired onto a project because it needs somebody who can crunch the numbers and make sure things are safe. Shortcuts may be easier to install, but don't let them slide if you can't prove them in theory.

These tips should help smooth over the sometimes tumultuous relationship between engineers and union workers. In the end, when both sides participate, it is a blend of experience that creates amazing systems.



Thursday, February 13, 2014

Flirting vs. Being Mean

When a little girl kicks a little girl in the shins, pulls her hair, or calls her names- we tell the abused child that her bully is mean (because nobody calls children bad names). The same holds true if a little boy kicks a little boy, or if a little girl kicks a little boy. But, when a little boy kicks a girl in the shins, pulls her hair, or calls her names- we tell the abused child that the boy probably just has crush on her and  is trying to flirt with her. We tell her to not take it personally, boys will be boys.

And when those little kids grow up and become engineers (as some children are known to do), it becomes unacceptable to pull anyone's hair, or kick anyone in the shins. But for some reason, if a man is personally a jackass in the work place to a young woman- he is still somehow occasionally able to keep that "flirting" card that parents made up in grade school to avoid disciplining their children.

For example, I once asked a coworker a question about some work he had asked me to review, and he came to my desk not one, not two, but three times to tell me how stupid the question was. I would like to note here that the question was not stupid, but was actually me kindly pointing out that he had made a significant mistake (which he realized a week later, after having wasted a lot of time on his project). I knew his boss would catch it later if he was too proud to fix it at the time, so I didn't feel like it was worth the argument. And yet he not only defended the mistake vehemently, but he spent over half an hour reaming me as I continued to try to work on other tasks.

"I can't believe you would think that there was any foundation for a question like that," he said in an even tone. "If you had more experience you'd know that was a ridiculous thing to ask."

But after the fact, when I recounted the story to a coworker and friend of mine, he said, "Vanessa, you  are overacting. He's not being mean, he's just flirting with you!" And coworkers who witnessed the whole affair and had texted me and emailed me at the time asking if they needed to step in all said afterward that "he must just have a crush on you" because it was "totally out of character" for him.

I don't believe this was flirting (because if it was, it was the worst flirting I've ever experienced in my life). But even if it was flirting, I don't think it is fair to write off being mean just because the perpetrator wants to get into your pants. There have been other cases (although none quite as bad) where men have been outwardly rude to me at work, and others have commented later that "he must like you" as if that will somehow make everything better. I know there is such a thing as playful teasing, but this behavior is a step beyond that. If the same thing was said to any man in my office, there would be hell to pay. But if it's said to a woman, it's excusable. He just likes her. Everyone's made mistakes.

I realize that people typically say this with the intention of making the woman feel better about a bad situation, because somebody likes her so that must be good news. In my opinion, it actually just makes it seem like a woman should be striving for a man to like her regardless of how he treats her. It makes it seem like the woman somehow deserved to be mistreated, because somebody liked her.  But, being respectful and kind to other people should be something we all strive for regardless of gender. So, next time you see somebody being a jerk in the workplace- don't write them a "get out of jail free" card if they are being mean to someone of the opposite gender.



Thursday, February 6, 2014

Cool Engineering For Kids

So, Ruby and I are writing other posts right now, but a lot of them are stuck in our review process (aka us deleting them and starting over). A big part of being an engineer is helping educate other people about engineering and spreading our love and passion for technology. Yes, it's basically like proselytizing, but when you love science as much as we do it's hard to not want to share. Thus, before this week is over, I figure I'd post something quick about awesome things that are being done to expose young people (especially girls) to science and technology.

The most recent product is a book series called Hello Ruby. If you haven't seen the kickstarter page circulating on the internet yet, you should really check it out. Basically, it will teach programming to kids in a story book format which helps keep kids interested and make learning programming less intimidating. Since it is widely considered that being able to program is the "new literacy", it's especially important to provide a fun way to teach young (and old) people how to program.  There are many other programs that help make introductory programming fun, including Alice, various video game format programming tools, and more.

Another one that is already being sold is GoldiBlox, which are story based engineering toys for girls. I've heard mixed reviews as to the quality of the product, but it's still pretty cool.

Now, the next thing I'm going to say is pretty crazy, but kids of all genders can actually use all the engineering toys out there. Boys can use story based products, and girls can try experiments without stories. Steve Spangler has some pretty awesome science experiments you can try out (or I guess a kid could too), and things like Lego Mindstorm can teach programming and be fun to build.

There are many many more where these come from, but I figured I'd just share a few of them while I was thinking about it. In the future, I intend post something in the future about some experiments I like running with kids, so let me know if you would like any specific genre of project.



PS. What "toys" do you like playing with that teach engineering skill, and scientific thought?