For The Grace Of Geeks - Teaching Social Skills To Engineers

Software engineering, unplugged...
Software engineering, unplugged...
Evelyn Keßler

BERLIN - Christian Hummel knew he would suddenly be confronted with all sorts of new situations when, after nine years at a major German steel company, his boss offered him the job heading up a three-person development unit.

Hummel thought long and hard before accepting. He would not only bear the responsibility for the work the team produced, but for how well the team functioned together. Would his peers accept his leadership? Could he evaluate the different strengths accurately so as to be able to assign work effectively?

Hummel, who works for Carl Stahl GmbH Steel in Süssen decided to accept the challenge. "I’m now responsible for my team producing innovative and marketable products," the 35-year-old says, adding that he had to get used to delegating and doling out occasional negative feedback.

In Germany, there is a shortage of engineers. According to the German Association of Engineers (VDI) in June 2012 there were 88,000 too few. Not surprisingly, hardly any have a hard time finding a job and if it doesn’t work out, finding another one is no problem. Under conditions like that, if there is any conflict on the job there is little motivation to soul-search about what your own mistakes may have been.

There is an old joke about engineers – if they know how to eat with a knife and fork their level of social skill is considered to be top notch. That is overstating the situation considerably, of course, but the lack of social skills among developers costs employers a great deal of money. They lose out when an experienced expert quits and they can’t find a comparable replacement for months. If conflicts in the work place are not addressed, productivity suffers due to lack of motivation.

What’s more: engineers are increasingly expected to be more than mere technical experts. According to current VDI figures, a third of engineers have jobs such as general manager, section head, controller or consultant that require a greater skill set that includes developed social skills. Complex technologies require expertise at higher-up hierarchical levels.

Rainer Würslin knows this. As the dean of the mechatronics and electro-technical department at Esslingen University of Applied Sciences, he was one of the first in Germany to realize the need for engineers to receive training beyond math and physics. As early as 2002, his faculty was offering a seminar in making presentations and the art of effective self-presentation.

"And since 2005 we’ve been teaching future engineers moderation techniques, project management, and the basics of business administration," Würslin says, adding that these subjects are now requirements for any engineering degree.

Acquiring soft skills

Students also have to do at least 60 hours of social work during their years at the university. The work can be anything from conducting physics experiments with kindergartens children to running high school engineering projects.

In their sixth semester, students are also prepared for daily life at work. They are gathered into random teams and spend 150 hours working together on industrial projects. "Regardless of personal sympathies, participants have to deal with each other and with the task at hand so that they can present a result at the end of the semester," Würslin explains. This is not about creating friendships: it’s about learning to get a project done successfully – a project one wouldn’t necessarily choose, with people one wouldn’t necessarily choose.

Würslin warns that the university can’t make up for any fundamental problems students may have relating, nor does he think it should go too far instilling leadership skills: that’s something graduates can learn over time on the job. He believes employers need to commit to investing in the continuing education of their employees.

Christian Hummel, the young team leader at Carl Stahl, agrees. Shortly after taking up his new position he attended a leadership seminar at the Carl Stahl Academy. Subjects included effective delegating, giving feedback and evaluating performance. Hummel says that the experience gave him more confidence. He particularly appreciated being able to speak with other company team leaders – not only about technical issues but leadership ones as well.

When a company has no such resources as these, says Cornelia Spangler, managing director of the Roots & Wings training academy in Starnberger See, getting outside help can be helpful. She offers individual coaching sessions to help her clients improve their social competence and communication skills.

Professor Würslin believes that the willingness to review one’s own behavior as one works towards successful team solutions is no more or less developed with engineering students than it is with others. He notes however that many of the 30% who leave the university’s engineering program are the ones who have trouble working in a team – and points out that nowadays jobs in development and construction are too complex for individuals to deal with on their own. Particularly in the big firms, having enough soft skills to integrate into a team has become a necessity – not least when multicultural teams are involved. Many will at some point hold positions outside Germany.

"Engineers who are successful in their careers are the socially competent ones," he says. In his experience, they show a willingness throughout their careers to keep working on their soft skills. Christian Hummel is a good example of that.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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