Why so shy?

Picture of Adam Bahret
Adam Bahret

I have been working on a personal engineering project that has napkin drawings going back to 1998. I was planning on having it be my “big article series” for 2022, similar to 2021’s Carrera Use Case 7, but I haven’t written a single article on the project despite having been working on it consistently since December. It’s a fuel injection and air intake system for a car engine.

I love this aspect of internal combustion engines more than anything else because it combines so many cool aspects of design and engineering, fluid dynamics, liquid metering, and the combustion process itself. It is all operating under a closed-loop control system that makes sure it is always working in concert. I have designed and built others but this is the big one I always wanted to do.

Anyway, I’ve been designing and building this thing for seven months and no one has heard a peep about it. So why did it become this weird secret thing?

I think it’s simple. Designing is hard and it’s personal. When you design something it is like your baby. If you are still making mistakes and don’t feel confident in it yet, why would you want other people to see it?

So, strangely enough, my first article about this project is not about the project itself, but about …feelings. But this is a good topic to discuss, because feelings are actually a tremendous factor in how a development teams work together. We think we are entirely logical creatures as engineers, but we often actually function by “feeling something” and then using logic to justify it. So let’s talk about feelings.

For me in this project I am creating something that I think is cool and exciting, more notably, very personal because I have been working on it in my head for years, so I don’t want to hear anything negative about it. The result is any doubts, confusion, or uncertainty snow balls into a bunch of bad feelings that cause paralysis.

So in contrast to my work as a reliability engineer, I find myself in a new position, in the chair at the other end of the table at the design reviews I attend. In those meetings, there is an electrical, systems, or mechanical engineer who is bearing their soul up on the screen while I am sitting in the comfy chair as “critic.” That dynamic is delicate to navigate and can go very wrong very fast.

So, how do you provide input, feedback, and share ideas to someone who is showing you their newborn? The answer to this question is, thoughtfully.

Like always, I start with the “I” word, “intent.” When evaluating someone else’s work, before I speak, I try to keep the intent of my comments in mind as I state them. Am I trying to offer input to mitigate what I believe could be an issue or am I just trying to show off how smart I am? Sometimes, I am surprised when I ask myself that question just before I speak. I thought I wanted to be helpful, but a bit of what I am saying, and how I say it, is to show everyone how smart I think I am. If I really think I have a valuable piece of insight, do I need to tell them right now? Maybe, if I am trying to engage others in the room in a collaborative conversation.

Meetings are for discussions after all if it’s just input I could tell the designer my thoughts in private at a later time. The primary point of the design review is for the designer to share the concept and for individuals to absorb and ask questions to get more info.

From this point on, I will start to share my design as well as the journey to date, which has had it’s ups and down. However, please be thoughtful in your commentary and remember that, like most designers, I am sharing something that I feel pretty sure I have messed up in many ways. Sometimes even having experiencing paralysis for weeks with what should be an easy decision. This is the experience of being a designer. The designers in your team want to collaborate with you but need you to first understand not just the design, but everything the shaped how it became what it is today. So listen first.

So what is the project called? When I talk with other engine people I describe it as an ITB EFI DBW COP system, and they know that stands for “Independent Throttle Body, Electronic Fuel Injection, Drive by Wire, Coil on Plug” System.

Let’s just call it the “Alphabet Engine” project for this series.

The next article on this project will be about cool engineering stuff, I promise.


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