Connection and Self-Understanding

I came to Duke knowing I wanted to be a mechanical engineer, and that hasn’t changed. My understanding of what it means to “be an engineer,” however, has. Internships, design projects, and guest lectures, many of which occurred as I worked toward Duke’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E) certificate, taught me that success in engineering requires much more than an understanding of differential equations and physics fundamentals; It requires communicating clearly and concisely, understanding the financial drivers behind the work, and asking questions with potentially surprising answers. As I reflect on my time with the I&E department and at Duke on the whole, I realize that my experiences here have fostered the development of these skills and helped me recognize the three deeper reasons why they matter.

The first of these reasons is that working together produces better results than working in parallel. While a division-of-labor approach works in most college projects, problems that require novel thinking – the ones whose solutions keep a company growing – are best approached collaboratively. Drawing from others’ diverse experiences, even the experiences of external stakeholders, can produce a synergistic network of ideas far cleverer than a group of disconnected individuals could ever produce. This insight struck me most powerfully in my five-person freshman design team. Without any technical engineering know-how, we drew from our professors’ and advisors’ knowledge and our own creativity to invent a new feeding system for the lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center, which we installed before the end of the spring semester. Collaborating well requires communicating well, and this and other I&E courses required me to practice sharing information in memos and presentations time and time again. I used to dread presenting, but I now appreciate it as perhaps the most time-efficient way to convey interesting ideas, so it now comes much more naturally to me. I’ve also learned over the past four years to tune my writing skills for efficiently communicating with both technical and non-technical audiences.

Understanding business principles and terms only became important to me after recognizing the reason businesses exist: to create and share value and then capture some of it for their stakeholders. This axiom is relevant to entrepreneurs and employees alike because it dictates that, as much as possible, they should spend their resources on activities that create value. In engineering practice, this often means factoring cost in among the other equations, a point my superiors at my internships stressed repeatedly. At GE, a manager even told my intern class anyone can build a steam turbine with great performance; the challenge is doing so while offering the customer an attractive bid. An understanding of business’s fundamental role also informs a correct vision of continuous improvement: striving to reduce resources spent on non-value-producing activities while coming up with new or better products or services to provide value to customers. Keeping a value-creating mindset has helped me avoid the time sink that is perfectionism and given me a lens for evaluating how I and others should spend our time to maximize impact.

Valuing diversity, creating value for others, and asking probing questions all require what may be the most important quality I have developed in the I&E program: humility. It would be ironic to discuss my own humility at length, but a few points deserve mentioning. Recognizing and seeking out the wealth of experiences outsiders can bring to a project took time and encouragement for me because most of my work in high school and early in my college career could be done from within my own sphere. Breaking out of the “self-made” mindset required a degree of humility but opened up many doors for synergistic collaboration. Similarly, I adhered for a long time to the idea that my work would “speak for itself,” and it shocked me to hear a corporate executive reveal the arrogance behind it. The best work is done in teams, he reasoned, and advocating for the collective product while giving appropriate credit is an indispensable part of sharing it outside the original team. Humility is an area in which I hope to grow continually, and my experiences in I&E have helped me move in the right direction.

As I moved through the I&E program, I chose internships and courses that would teach me about technological innovation and market research because in my career, I plan to contribute to products that radically improve lives, and doing so requires first understanding the customer, the options they already have, and how they’re likely to respond to change. The most impactful of these courses was one in which I worked in a team to explore the market for a new audio production app, and going through the customer discovery process for it reinforced the overarching learnings already discussed. Probing the minds of a great variety of audio producers solidified for me the importance of seeking diverse voices, and letting the interviewees reorient my sights toward potential market segments I didn’t even know existed humbled me by revealing the inadequacy of my initial assumptions. Also, the value-creation mindset fostered in prior I&E courses gave my team and I the language to appeal for interviewees’ time as well as a goal to direct our questioning: to procure information that could provide value for our client by guiding his app’s development and launch.

Overall, I&E courses interspersed among more technical ones have helped me zoom out to see the company-sized picture and develop the soft skills that make me a well-rounded engineer. Even though I will not immediately put my entrepreneurial learning into a new venture like I once thought I would, my innovation and market-research-focused pathway through the I&E program has prepared me to contribute much more to the engineering design process than my own limited knowledge.