Critical “Stuff” You Didn’t Learn in Engineering School

Interview with Carl Selinger

By Susan de la Vergne

Well into his decades-long career as a civil engineering manager working in transportation, Carl Selinger harbored a secret: he was scared of negotiating contracts with vendors. In fact, he was scared of negotiating, period. Yet he found himself once again, on a major airport access project, facing the grim prospect of having to sit down at a table with a potential vendor.

He realized he needed to do something about this problem. He needed to learn some negotiating skills—fast. So he forced himself to attend a training session about negotiating. What he learned there was helpful, and he was happily surprised to realize this problem hadn’t been that hard to fix!

The experience prompted him to take a closer look at himself. “What else don’t I know how to do?” Then to his list he added other essential elements for professional success, like speaking and listening, boosting creativity, and dealing with stressful situations. As the list developed, he realized these were essential abilities engineers need in everyday professional life—none of which are taught in engineering school!

And that became the genesis of his book, Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School.

His message to professional engineers as well as students is this: “Just because you have excellent technical skills doesn’t mean you don’t have to know how to run a meeting, write well, make a good presentation, and negotiate. You need all of it—the soft skills and the technical skills!”

After many years of college teaching, today Carl is focused mostly on delivering “Stuff” seminars and keynote talks. “Someone asked me recently if I’m a ‘motivational speaker’ and I think I am!” He told me that his goal is simply this: “To change the way engineers become more effective and happier!”

Carl describes his communication style as part “drill sergeant”—though, having seen him in action myself, I’d add drill sergeant with street creds and a sense of humor—meaning primarily that he doesn’t put up with inaction. Soft skills are essential, he argues, and you can’t just nod and sit there. You have to identify what you need to improve, and then do it!

In a recent talk to a group of engineering grad students, having told them the essential message and regaled them with how-to details, he asked at the end what questions they had. No one raised a hand. He looked out at the group and snapped, “I wouldn’t hire any of you!” and berated them a bit for not demonstrating curiosity and communication skills. Then the questions started.

It’s not enough, Carl argues, to simply say, “These are soft skills and you need them.” You have to explain the how-to. “There’s a sea of people out there—trainers and speakers—who tell people this stuff matters, but they don’t really get it,” they don’t take it the next step for their audience. Engineers, especially, like to know the how-to, and if you’re going to help them develop, you’d better understand how they work.

It’s part of what makes Carl distinctive—that combination of industry experience and leadership insight! You can find Carl’s book, Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School, on Amazon, and more about Carl at his website, www.carlselinger.com.

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