VIDEO: Engineer to engineer

In which Brian Tande, dean of engineering, interviews a fellow engineer: UND President Andy Armacost

Editor’s note: A few weeks ago, Brian Tande, dean of the UND College of Engineering & Mines, interviewed then-Incoming President Andy Armacost about Armacost’s engineering degree and the importance of engineering in Armacost’s career.

A video of the conversation is above, and a transcript is below.

Brian Tande: So, the first question I have is just, what got you interested in engineering? And what was it that led you to pursue an engineering degree?

Andrew Armacost

Andy Armacost: As a kid, I didn’t know that I had an engineering mindset. In fact, I thought an engineer was somebody who drove trains. But I was always a very curious kid, trying to figure things out and how things worked. And it turns out, I was really good at math too.

Those two things naturally, for many people, point in a certain direction. And engineering is one of those directions that people with that type of background might head.

It turned out that my father had an engineering undergraduate degree and two graduate degrees in a field called operations research, which is owned partially by engineers. It’s an interdisciplinary field. They deal with quantitative modeling. So that is my dad’s background. My brother went to college two years before I did, and he was a mechanical engineer.

And so, between the two of them, I said, “Wow, this engineering thing seems to be pretty cool. Tell me more.” My dad asked me a bunch of questions, and after just observing me over my entire life said, “You know what type of engineer I think you should be? You should be an industrial engineer.” That’s a field of engineering that traditionally focuses on how you make production systems and plants more efficient through quantitative modeling, process flow and things like this.

So, I chose industrial engineering, which can be applied to production systems, to transportation systems, to human systems. And I just I found it to be perfect for my interests.

Again, the quantitative basis that I had coming into college served me well as I went through a really good engineering program.

Brian Tande

Brian Tande

Tande: That’s great. I’d say for me, the story is pretty similar. My dad wasn’t an engineer; he actually was an electrician. But I always thought that he would have made a really good engineer. He liked tinkering with things, he liked building things – he built his own power equipment/power tools for his shop. And he always kind of pointed me in that direction.

So, the same with me, I enjoyed math and science; and those students, they tend to steer towards engineering.

But to be honest, I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into. I thought about electrical engineering, which would be more aligned with what my dad’s interests were. But I really enjoyed materials, and eventually chose chemical engineering and focused my career more on materials science.

Armacost: I used to joke that I could have been a good electrical engineer, except I’m left-handed, so I’d always screw up the Right-Hand Rule. All my answers were negative.

Tande: (laughs) Well, that’s just a sign error; that’s no big deal.

Armacost: “Just” a sign error. Half off.

Tande: Except when you’re dealing with budgets. Then it’s a major problem.

Armacost: (laughs) True. But it turns out, there’s an advantage to being a lefty in double E, and that is, you can actually do the Right Hand Rule without having to put your pencil down. So there is an advantage.

Tande: (laughs) That is good.

As this diagram and lesson from the Khan Academy instructs, “physicists use a hand mnemonic known as the ‘Right-Hand Rule’ to help remember the direction of magnetic forces. … If you point your pointer finger in the direction the positive charge is moving, and then your middle finger in the direction of the magnetic field, your thumb points in the direction of the magnetic force pushing on the moving charge.” Note: All Khan Academy content is available for free at www.khanacademy.org.

So your career has – you’ve had a diverse background, both academically and professionally. And so, being an engineer as an undergrad, and then transitioning into doing more operations research and then becoming part of a Department of Management in part of a business school: I found that interesting, especially because a lot of engineers – a lot of our alumni that I speak to – start off as engineers in a technical role and eventually move into management where, you know, the systems that they’re working with are now people in organizations.

For some people, that’s a natural transition. For others, it’s a little more difficult. I’m curious to get your take on that, and maybe what advice you have for engineers – maybe engineering students – who are thinking that eventually, they want to be more into management.

Armacost: Yes, it’s interesting. I think many of the attributes that engineers have translate really nicely to management and leadership roles.

But you’re right: what separates engineering systems from human systems is the element of human behavior and unpredictability. And so, often we go from a deterministic system – at least, many undergraduates feel it’s deterministic where your engineering has nice, clean answers; in practice, it’s not quite that way. But at least in the classroom, sometimes you solve a problem and you get the right answer.

But when you’re dealing with human systems, there are emotions, there’s unpredictability, there’s just this dynamic component that’s quite a bit different.

I think the background that engineers bring to those systems, if they’re willing to make that jump and recognize and be comfortable in that uncertainty, the things that engineering brings are essential to being successful in that environment.

What comes to mind are things like being able to plan effectively. Good engineers, I think, are excellent planners. They think through problems, and they can think through a logical set of steps to get from the beginning to the end.

They can take systems that are somewhat unstructured and put some structure around them. And so that, I think, serves leaders very, very well.
But there has to be this propensity to make the jump to the world of the uncertain.

I also think about comfort with data. In leading most organizations these days, when we talk about organizational performance, we often talk about the data or the metrics that that we use to judge ourselves. So, being facile with data and being able to analyze data and interpret data, I think is an important component of leading and managing effectively.

But there’s also a downside data as well. And I think engineers, if well trained, will understand that – that there are limitations to the models and the mathematics that we use in our engineering systems, and that understanding those shortcomings and the limitations, the assumptions that you put into the models, is really important as well.

Because as a leader, as a manager, you’ll be presented with a lot of data and models from people who work for you or work with you. You have to recognize: OK, what are the limitations of this approach? And I think engineers can do that very well.

So, there are a lot of experiences that engineers can capitalize upon, when they move into the world of leadership and management.

In terms of specific advice. I think it’s important for our young engineers, in companies or working at universities or wherever else, should really study the human element of their organizations. Don’t shy away from understanding good communications and good ways to articulate your great ideas.

And how do you sell those ideas? Furthermore, how do people respond to the incentives that you give them?

So, paying attention to that early on, I think, is really important.

It’s fascinating, actually. I’ve got friends who have gone from the engineering and the physics world into the worlds of – believe it or not – sociology and psychology. It’s just been their natural progression, because the cause-and-effect-type work they do as engineers translates really nicely to experimentation on sociological systems and psychology.

So there’s really a great connection.

I think what really serves engineers well is there’s this natural curiosity to solve problems. Engineers are problem solvers. And so, stepping into a world where the problems are ill-defined and the responses from the human beings are unpredictable, actually make it something that’s really worth studying and really exciting – and in some ways, harder than engineering systems, just because of the unpredictability.

So I think that sense of hope, that sense of optimism, that sense of innovation that engineers can have – I mean, think about it: if you have Capstone students who are struggling and repeating and failing, and failing, and persevering, those are the same types of characteristics that we need in our leaders and managers.

I think our engineers are in a great place to be effective in all parts of an organization.

Tande: That’s great. I try to emphasize with our prospective students and our current students, the need to really focus on the human aspect of engineering. I think a lot of a lot of people are drawn to engineering without really fully understanding how important the human side is.

You know, when I talk to our alums and I ask them, “What are the things that you wish you would have learned more of as an undergrad?” Usually, it’s those types of things – learning more about communication, about teamwork, maybe about psychology and sociology and the like.

Because they understand, once they’ve been in the field for a while, that the human side of things is absolutely just as important as the technical side and in some cases, more so.

Armacost: Sure. And that’s giving rise to new forms of design. In the Air Force, for example, we used a very structured approach to designing our engineering systems: preliminary design reviews, critical design reviews, and then finally, you get to start building something.

But human-centered design has now come to the forefront. And how do you actually focus not just on the technology, but also on the human use? How does the human element drive the designs that that you’re creating?

So, for an engineer to gain that perspective that you’re talking about – how to understand how humans are going to interact with the things that we’re building – is a really important component.

At my alma mater, they have a trademark phrase; it’s called “whole-brain engineering.” What it recognizes is that the analytic piece and the creative piece can work side by side to generate some really cool solutions. And at UND, we aspire to do the same thing – to really tie the sides of the brain together to create great engineering designs.

Tande: Good. So, in terms of your approach to management and leadership, I’m curious how you’ve had to adjust things as you’ve gone from managing a small group of people to managing a larger enterprise to now being president of the university.

What are the adjustments in the way that you operate, if there are any that stick out to you?

Armacost: Right. Considering the transition from small groups to bigger groups to bigger groups, the biggest thing is just the general sense of responsibility that you have when you go from a group of 10 people to 100 people – and now in my case, I guess we’re upwards of 20,000 people (at UND), between the students, the faculty and the staff. That can seem a little overwhelming.

So the key, at least for me, has been to preserve the characteristics that I thought I brought to the small group, and try to transfer them somehow to the bigger group.

I think one area that I’ve really focused on is interpersonal communications and really making an effort to get to know the people.

Now, with 20,000 people on campus, of course, I’m not going to have close personal relationships with everyone. But there are things I can do just in the way that I approach my daily work and my interactions with the campus that signal that same desire.

So, although I won’t have that close, interpersonal relationship with all 20,000, hopefully what they will get is a sense of the fact that that’s who I am as a leader, and it’s how I expect people on campus to be – caring and compassionate for one another, and looking out for everybody’s needs.

In other words, what I’ve tried to do is scale up these personal characteristics that I think have served me well, and scale them up in a way that translates to that bigger setting.

Tande: Right. And that really touches on what is the culture of the overall organization in a way.

I think I read in an interview with you that was one of the things that you hoped to focus on, was the culture at UND – maybe defining it, defining what our values are, and making sure that how we operate aligns with those values.

Armacost: Right. So, culture on campus is going to be a top priority. Of course, it’s facing a really stiff challenge with the COVID pandemic; how do you carve a culture at a time when the campus is on edge about personal safety, and also about the financial future of the college? So this will be a real challenge, but one that I’m looking forward to.

Tande: I’m looking forward to our being a part of that as well.

Within the College of Engineering, we’ve been talking quite a bit about culture, and we’ve been having some interactions with our alums who work for large organizations that have gone through a culture shift or at least a process of defining what is the culture that they want to encourage within their organization.

We hope to bring some of those elements to it to the College of Engineering, and they’ve obviously aligned with what’s going on at the university as a whole.

Armacost: That’s wonderful. That’s a great initiative. And you’re right: building culture within an organization is a challenging step, but one that you can deliberately take steps to do. I know the College of Engineering & Mines is going to do a great job there.

Tande: It’s interesting. You don’t really think of “culture” as a process, but like you said, there is a process that you can go through to define and reinforce a culture.

Armacost: And of course, process doesn’t always yield the perfect outcomes, right? That’s where leading humans is a fun art, that’s for sure.

Tande: Right. Now, of the aspects of management and leadership that you mentioned, which do you think are most important – especially in a time like this, during a crisis?

Armacost: So, there’s probably a blend of process issues and then personal issues; and the personal issues, I think, are probably the most important at a time like this.

I think a leader should have a calming and yet optimistic look for the organization – or in this case, for the campus – and really be open to share their ideas about how we’re going to get from the tough times to the better times. That sense of optimism, I think, is really a key component.

I think there’s an element of trust; and trust built during the good times always translates nicely to the tough times, because establishing that relationship and that sense of trust allows an organization to look at its leaders and say, “Aha! We know the leaders have our best interests at heart, and we will follow them. We will help the organization get through by following that direction, and of course, asking questions and offering suggestions along the way.”

But I think that sense of trust needs to be built in order to handle the tough times more effectively.

And then for an organization that’s going through something like COVID, having a good plan – and really executing the plan, but being flexible because you don’t know the direction that the virus is going to go – is important, and articulating that plan and being open and communicating it is important as well.

So there’s a blend of personal characteristics, but also having a good process in place and a focus on those processes that I think will really carry an organization through tough times like the ones we’re facing right now.

Tande: There’s a quote I heard recently – I think it was from Napoleon – that says, “A leader is a dealer in hope.” I don’t know if I got it right; but it came from a military general, and it was something that he had highlighted in a presentation that I watched online recently. And I thought that really translated well to what we’re doing now and to your first point about optimism.

You have to present that there is a light at the end of the tunnel; there is something that is worth moving towards.

Armacost: Right. And we’re going to get you there. We’re all going to get there together, is the idea. Optimism, I think, is a real key to this.

Tande: Good. Well, those were the main points that I wanted to hit. I really enjoyed your answers, and I appreciate your time!

Armacost: Anytime, Brian! Thank you!