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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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