Opinion - Your letters

Feedback: Your letters

Going up? Let go of expertise

Your article about engineers and management ('To the management born?', 22 March 2008) fails to make the fundamental dichotomy between management and leadership by treating the two subjects under the 'management' banner. Management is about 'things' - processes and procedures, managing non-human resources - whereas 'leadership' is about people, and getting the best out of them while working within management constraints.

The keys to management are related to the specialisms of the industry, whereas in my experience, the keys to leadership are more generic. They include an understanding of motivation, the ability to communicate effectively with other humans, understanding and practising assertiveness, influencing and negotiation.

To be effective in a so-called 'management' role, engineers need to develop their leadership capabilities. This sometimes means letting go of the technology expertise they have built. Because they often find this letting go difficult, and because technology is easier to manage than fickle human nature, they often make half a move into the 'management' role and thus fail, unless developed through training, coaching, mentoring and, at times, counselling.

Several years ago my daughter worked for a well-known engineering company. One day her boss told her off about something she had not done - via email - when he was sitting next to her. A classic case of underdevelopment in relation to communication and assertiveness!

As stated in your article, engineers often end up in a 'management' role because it is seen as a natural career progression, even when they are better suited to their technical role. An excellent engineer can be wasted by becoming a mediocre manager.

About ten years ago, a friend of mine named Dave Carey developed (following the initial design work) a parallel career structure called Professional Engineering Career Structure (PECS) for a major UK technology company. Dave's approach built a twin-track approach whereby engineers could either move into the management structure, or stay as engineers, but grow their equivalent status and remuneration to keep in alignment with their peers who had become managers. Both the company and the people benefited from this approach.

Barry Faith FIET, Wimborne, Dorset

Delights of language

I am one of those fortunate readers who could easily read the Chinese characters on the cover of the 23 February 2008 issue of E&T. Not, as Dickon Ross predicted in his editorial column, because I was brought up in Hong Kong or China as a native speaker, but rather as an electronic engineer of Irish ancestry from the southside of Glasgow who has taken the trouble to master the language.

Having lived in Taiwan for18 years, and having to translate electronic technical documents from Chinese to English, I know from experience the challenge is immense in learning a language that still essentially transmits its information via thousands of pictographs instead of an alphabet, is seriously bandwidth limited and has several tones to complicate matters even further.

A year or two of serious study in most European languages would provide you with good verbal, reading and written fluency; in Chinese you would be doing well to have basic skills in any one of these three areas. This is not to dismiss the admirable attempts of those who try to grasp some understanding of Chinese, but rather to point out that the serious study of certain Asian languages is a far from a trivial or part-time undertaking.

But not to understand the language keeps one from understanding the people, and in a rising and more powerful China those who make this effort will certainly reap the rewards of increased business opportunities. We all know the effects of good interpersonal relationships on the deal being signed or not and this is even more pronounced among Asian cultures. Perhaps before, in the case of Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, the smaller and less economically powerful countries will always be forced to learn the language of their more powerful business partners. China presents a different picture with its immense population and consequently increased domination of their native language.

It will certainly be interesting to see how things develop linguistically regarding this great meeting of East and West. There is a great need for more Westerners to make the effort in Asian language study, and although fully realising the challenge involved, to dispel finally the popular British mentality that we don't need to or that it is impossible. Personally, I have found the study of Chinese a fascinating and immensely satisfying activity, and still try to find some time each day to learn a few more characters or new idiom. However, as a British electronic engineer, am I alone or at least in a very small minority in expressing this delight in foreign languages?

Kevin Gallagher, by email

Bring the teachers to industry

Alan Bell (Feedback, 12 April 2008) suggests setting up a scheme where engineers act as classroom assistants for two hours a week to support teachers in UK schools.

There is a saying - "Give a man a fish and you feed him for one meal. Teach him to fish and you feed him for life." Rather than engineers going into schools, it would be better to convince teachers to call on a local panel of engineers to help them devise practical examples of the topics they teach, and, perhaps, to help them develop their own knowledge of the depth of their subject, maths, science or whatever. I, for one, would be happy to help in this way at either of the two private schools, two secondary schools or the many primary schools within reach of my home.

I have to say that you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. When in Essex, my senior manager encouraged me to be on the Industry-Education Liaison panel and when the teachers were offered invitations to visit our companies and talk to, and question, working engineers for an hour, 30 minutes before we normally finished and then going on to 30 minutes after, they all jibbed, saying that they would not work after 4pm and couldn't we put on these things during the school day, a time when we were all busy creating the money which, through taxes, paid their salaries.

EurIng Alan M Gordon CEng MIEE, Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex

Solar for the home

I read Chris Goodall's article on solar power for the home ('Living a low carbon life', 12 April 2008) with interest. I've been following both solar hot water and solar electricity technologies for a few years now, having worked in the industry, and I feel that (the nuclear debate aside) solar is probably the only real long-term global carbon-free energy option in terms of sheer planet-wide demand and the amount that solar could provide. However, before we get there significant cost and technological hurdles must be overcome, including of course the issue of energy storage.

Despite what the proponents say, silicon-based photovoltaic technology is 10-100 times more expensive than it should be for the UK market at present and I think we need to look to newer technologies - silicon PV is so intensive to manufacture.

Recently, I read with much excitement about a new company in Wales that is beginning to manufacture a dye-sensitised solar cell (also known as a Gratzel cell) - a completely new kind of device. This promises to have much better cost of delivered energy (£/kWh) than existing PV.

In terms of solar hot water, there are some truly terrible products on the UK market (no names mentioned) - severely over-priced and badly engineered. There are also some okay products. However, few solar hot water companies have taken the trouble to step back and think carefully about what they are trying to achieve. For example, it is much better to operate near the 'knee' on the cost/efficiency curve of a solar hot water collector - therefore evacuated tube collectors are essentially a waste of money (by the law of diminishing returns). Also, most systems required a specialist installer and this increases build costs.

Articles on renewable energy, including Chris Goodall's, are typically obsessed with 'efficiency', but as metrics go this is generally a red herring for renewable energy systems. The really important metric is lifetime cost (capital + running + interest costs over the product life) divided by total delivered energy (over the product life). There is no point in paying double the capital cost for, say, only a 5 per cent efficiency gain for a solar system.

Dave Howey, London

Chris Goodall's excellent description of living a low-carbon life would be inspiring except for the obvious environmental miscalculation in his thesis.

He makes no mention of the carbon footprint generated by the manufacture of the alloy and glass tubes of the solar thermal panels or the cost of transportation, installation and disposal. Not to mention the carbon costs of PV lithography and accompanying chemical waste.

The wholesale premature scrapping of existing reliable equipment by new 'low carbon' appliances should only be undertaken after careful consideration, not just on future personal economic reward. I understand the selling of a low-carbon lifestyle on a purely economic basis is difficult to achieve without government subsidy, but until the trendy fraud of low carbon technology is exposed and full-life calculation is included in the sales literature, I will stick to my slightly less-efficient but 'non-new-manufacture' carbon technology.

Mark Wasmuth MIET, by email

Ear or electronics?

Nick Arran ('Do audiophiles know best?', Feedback, 12 April 2008) suggests that using a spectrum analyser in place of a master listener's ear is a better way of determining the quality of audio equipment.

Assessing the aesthetics and tonal quality of music reproduction is subjective (and sensitive to context). In a similarly subjective field, I doubt the replacement of master vintners by liquid chromatography or near infrared spectroscopy would help in the marketing of vintage wine.

I concede the majority of us (myself included) probably lack the practice, or clarity of hearing, to perceive the difference between a £200 power cable and a kettle lead. Perhaps our instrumentation is better suited to measuring these differences in a controlled environment?

Matthew Geyman, London

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