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Tales of a recovering engineer: there's a little creative in all of us


- Elana Duffy

There is a point in our business lives where we can all set aside our pre-supposed differences and get along. Reaching that point should be a goal for all of us, not just because it’s nice to think we can all sit and have coffee together, but because we need to do this for the betterment of business and productivity.

I am an engineer. Engineers build. We think logically: we have a train of thought that boards at a station, travels a defined path, and disembarks with a product at the end. We tend to like schedules and tools that allow for efficiency, but we’re flexible enough to be creative in our designs (which still follow scientific laws and guidelines).

Meanwhile, there are the creatives. These are the people who, I’ve always believed, take the concept of flexibility to a much greater extreme, sometimes to the point of shorting efficiency. The mere thought of such a short causes palpitations and a very comic book-like image of me shaking my fist at the sky and cursing the muses.

This is, of course, nonwithstanding the fact that my father was a writer, my mother a librarian, and I’m now partner in a firm that emphasizes the importance of communication.

But, I protest, Present Tense uses a much more efficient form of communication with very tangible effects and a much more train-trip-like process. Our very business model is designed for efficiencies, as emphasized in some of our previous blog posts.

These protests are becoming less and less salient. As I rolled my eyes once more yesterday at another “creative” who just wanted to “do great things and hand them to someone afterwards”, someone pointed out to me that there is actually less of a difference between an engineer and a creative than I lead myself to believe. Don’t I know a few engineers these days who spend at least part of their time telecommuting? And more than a few writers, designers, and other creatives who sit in an office every day?

My world has flip-turned upside down (there’s a reference there for you children of the 80s).

Or has it? Has this always been there, and I just missed it?

The lines between a lot of sectors and roles begin to blur when you start getting to the real roots of the gigs. Engineers are really just creatively applying scientific principles, just as writers are creatively applying words and graphic designers creatively apply art, right? The implications of this realization have further reach than one might initially think.

Better training. Can I take a fine arts or communications expert and ask them to design and build a bridge? No. But can I put my marketing team, my architects, and my civil engineers in a room and conduct professional development on construction aesthetics, customer relations, environmental aesthetics, and other topics formerly thought to be firmly in the wheelhouse of one discipline or the other? Yes. In fact, I can have any one of these disciplines teach one or all three of these tasks to the same detail as any other. By loosening up our silos within different departments, we find new perspectives and more creativity within our existing ranks.

Bigger talent pool. I am a personal victim of the “but you don’t have three years of experience in exactly this field” mentality, having left a career of finding bad guys with bombs and attempting to find work in everything from music management to hedge funds. Even in the military with an engineering background the question most heard was “why didn’t you apply to the Corps of Engineers?” It frustrated me to no end to hear these words. I’d argued that many of the basic points of engineering (logic, systems, process) could be applied to most anything. It was just a case of learning a new market. If we start understanding where lines blur, then many of our positions up through mid-level management will open up. Employers will find new talent with fresh eyes. Changing careers as we start yearning for something new after a decade or two in the workforce will become less daunting and lead to happier employees.

Fearless communication. Nothing seems to strike fear in the hearts of more arts-based managers I know more than the words “go ask the product development team.” The feeling tends to be mutual on the other side of the lab table as well. Why is that? What fills them with such apprehension? Why are tech firms hiring for positions that specifically ask if the person can talk business and talk engineer or developer? As we start highlighting the similarities between the fields instead of the long-engrained differences, we do away with those specific positions and form better, more diversified teams that can talk openly with each other, minus the apprehension. The results are better product and process flows and more creative output. This helps everyone as well as the bottom line.

So maybe it isn’t so much creatives versus the rest of the world, or engineers against creatives. In fact, it’s possible that we are all a bit of a creative at heart, and also a bit of engineer, a bit of a marketer, a bit of a manager. While some affinities rise to the surface in each individual, we really aren’t all that different at the core. And in highlighting the similarities, we can diversify opportunities and encourage individual development and innate human creativity far beyond our current silo mechanisms allow.

Okay, that’s enough feel-good business contemplation for today. I have to go edit something one of our writers submitted, likely at some terrible hour of the night after some strange process I couldn’t hope to follow, but as long as I can follow the finished product and our trains of thought stop at the same station, we are all set.

Creatives…

Elana Duffy is co-founder and COO of Present Tense LLC, a communications company dedicated to helping people express their ideas through better business storytelling. Working with everyone from authors to Fortune 500 companies, we provide a range of writing, editing, and training services. Lana is also a veteran of the US Army, a masters of engineering graduate, and a freelance writer in NYC. She is the co-author of the first in the Present Tense “singles” short ebook series, 10/10, for sale on Amazon and other major retailers.

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