The Making of an Expert Engineer

2014 Edition

This book sets out the principles of engineering practice, knowledge that has come to light through more than a decade of research by the author and his students studying engineers at work. Until now, this knowledge has been almost entirely unwritten, passed on invisibly from one generation of engineers to the next, what engineers refer to as “experience”. This is a book for all engineers and engineering managers. It distils the knowledge of many experts in one volume.  See the reviews here.

IMG_3093The book will help engineers enjoy a more satisfying and rewarding career and provide more valuable results for their employers and clients. The book focuses on issues often seen as “non-technical” in the world of engineering, yet it shows how these issues are thoroughly technical. Engineering firms traditionally have sought expert advice on these aspects from management schools, often regarding these aspects of engineering practice as something to do with psychology or organisational behaviour. The results are normally disappointing because management schools and psychologists have limited insight and understanding of the technical dimensions in engineering work. Little if any of the material in this book can be obtained from management texts or courses. Management schools have avoided the technical dimension of workplace practices and that is precisely what characterises engineering practice. The technical dimension infuses almost every aspect of an engineer’s working day and cannot be avoided. That’s why this book is so necessary: there has not yet been any authoritative source or guidance to bridge the gap between inanimate technical issues and organisational behaviour. This book fills this gap in our knowledge, is based on rigorous research, and yet is written in a style which is accessible for a wide audience.

This book can give any engineer a head start and open up a much more rewarding career path.  Engineers who follow the suggestions in this book will be more likely to get an engineering job and earn more, both for their employers and eventually themselves too.

One of the first readers of this book was a mature age engineering graduate who had been unable to get an engineering job until she read the early draft chapters.  With the insights she gained from reading the chapters, she was hired by a large company for an engineering management job at more than twice the salary of the graduate-level jobs she had been applying for.  Three years on, she was still with the company even though up to two thirds of her engineering colleagues have lost their positions as major expansion contracts came to an end.  They were very satisfied with her performance.

Hear Peter Meurs’ talk about the book at the Perth launch.  Peter is the Director of Development at Fortescue Metals Group and co-founded WorleyParsons.

Listen to this ABC Radio interview with Geraldine Doogue on Saturday Extra.

Listen to this Engineering Commons podcast.  In an earlier Engineering Commons podcast I discussed ideas about Engineering Value and how this influences everyday decisions engineers make in their daily work.

Watch my TED talk at the Perth TEDx conference in 2012 describes how some of the ideas in the book can contribute to poverty reduction in low-income countries.

Where to buy the book:

Here is the Taylor & Francis web page for the book, which will link to the online appendices.  You can purchase online from this page.

Also available from:

Boffins Bookshop in Perth, Western Australia; EA Books Sydney (online orders); Amazon (print quality is slightly inferior)

A Major Extension – Value Creation in Engineering Enterprises

With Bill Williams (IST, Portugal) I have been building a theoretical understanding of value creation in engineering enterprises.

There are two forthcoming publications:

Trevelyan, James P., and Bill Williams. 2018, forthcoming. “Value creation in the engineering enterprise: an educational perspective.” European Journal of Engineering Education.

Trevelyan, James P., and Bill Williams. 2018, forthcoming. “Identifying Value in the Engineering Enterprise.” In The Engineering-Business Nexus: Symbiosis, Tension, and Co-Evolution, edited by Steen Hyldgaard Christensen, Bernard Delahousse, Christelle Didier, Martin Meganck and Mike Murphy. London: Springer Science+Business Media B.V.

We have summarised the ideas in these publications in a guide for engineering educators and students.  The full text is freely accessible from this link.  A set of annotated presentation slides is also available.

Annotated List of Chapters

Preface: why engineering practice has been invisible

This explains briefly why practice knowledge has disappeared from engineering curricula. Practice knowledge is explained in terms of the landscape of practice: the issues that shape the feasibility and boundaries of what is possible. This is the first of 85 concepts forming the foundations of engineering practice described in the book. While engineering science has an influence, social and human factors dominate the landscape. We are reminded that engineering is critical in shaping the sustainability of human civilisation.

The preface also explains how to use the book, more as a guide for learning from practice rather than a text in its own right.

1 Introduction: Why Engineer?

  • Why should a firm employ you?
  • How engineers create value.
  • What this value means for society and for you.
  • What do you know about engineering practice already?
  • How much does it cost to employ you?

This chapter explains the economic argument that supports engineering, how engineers produce social and economic value, and why companies employ engineers. It also explains some of the fundamentals of economics, particularly the notion that the value of money is not fixed and depends on the circumstances and the perceptions of people.

2 What Type of Engineer?

  • Engineering disciplines
  • Differences and similarities
  • Which discipline should I choose?
  • Discipline listing
  • Discipline comparison table

This chapter provides a brief introduction to engineering disciplines and summarises the main fields in which engineers practice. By demonstrating the huge variety of engineering disciplines, it helps build an argument about the importance of practice knowledge that is common to all disciplines.

3 Flying Start, No Wings, Wrong Direction

  • Avoiding a hard landing
  • Common student misconceptions
  • There’s more to engineering than design and problem solving
  • Design comes from precedents
  • Engineering – a wonderful career

This chapter introduces several of the misconceptions created by current engineering education curricula and provides evidence from research to demonstrate the overriding importance of social interactions in engineering practice. The chapter introduces simple models to explain engineering practice and particularly the importance of being able to deliver practical results, a part of engineering practice that is seldom mentioned in formal education. This chapter also explores some of the foundations of engineering design and points out the importance and value of understanding precedents.

4 Becoming an expert

  • What we know about experts
  • Becoming an expert engineer
  • Role model: C. Y. O’Connor

This chapter summarises recent psychological research on expertise, demonstrating that anyone can become an expert engineer. The chapter outlines the process known as “deliberate practice” and how readers can apply this in their everyday engineering practice. The chapter concludes with the case study on C. Y. O’Connor. He was a famous engineer who simultaneously designed and coordinated the construction of what was in 1902 the largest and longest pipeline in the world, Fremantle harbour, and over 1000 km of railway extensions, projects completed within 10% of original estimates prepared without maps. This case study draws out some of the attributes of expert engineers.

5 What engineers need to know

  • Misconceptions
  • An engineering enterprise
  • Defining engineering knowledge
  • Types of knowledge
  • Competency depends on embodied knowledge from other people
  • Knowledge mapping
  • Technical knowledge in the workplace – case studies
  • Distributed knowledge and cognition
  • Mapping your network

This chapter builds on research on engineering knowledge and skills by the author, his students, and other contributors in recent decades. The chapter introduces philosophical ideas on engineering, knowledge and results of recent psychology research. The chapter explains the idea of distributed knowledge and cognition and shows how this explains the central importance of social interactions between engineers in constructing and propagating technical knowledge and understanding.

6 Three Neglected Skills: Listening, Seeing and Reading

  • Human perception
  • Practical listening, language skills
  • Practical reading skills
  • Seeing, drawing and design skills – a self-learning course

As the name suggests, this chapter provides a comprehensive introduction to communication skills that are frequently ignored in education curricula: listening, reading and seeing with most of the emphasis on visual perception. The chapter explains why visual perception is so important in building up tacit knowledge critical for engineering practice. The chapter explains why this ability cannot be taken for granted and special skills need to be practised in order to be able to perceive other people and the world accurately.

7 Collaboration

  • Critical misunderstandings
  • Collaboration requires communication
  • Communicating technical ideas is specialised in difficult
  • Engineering performances
  • Collaboration genres
  • Combined performances – technical coordination, project management and negotiation
  • Communication concepts
  • Vocabulary and jargon
  • Culture
  • Language is context dependent, person dependent, and time dependent
  • Conveying content accurately is important, challenging and difficult
  • Teams work because of diversity
  • Engineers spend time listening and talking with people
  • Engineers manage their time effectively
  • Managing e-mail
  • Managing telephone calls
  • Engineering management systems

This chapter takes us beyond communication skills to explain why engineering relies on much more. Technical collaboration is a complex human performance in which communication plays a part. In order to help readers understand this, the chapter explains the idea of performance, the importance of understanding vocabulary and jargon, and the role of social culture. The chapter builds on recent philosophy and education studies to demonstrate the fallacy of a common engineering misconception, that words have standardised meanings in the context of engineering. The chapter introduces different collaboration performances and explains some of the underlying concepts needed to build proficiency in these performances.

8 Discovery and Informal Teaching Performances in Engineering

  • Theory and concepts
  • Discovery and teaching
  • How people learn
  • Collaborative discovery performances
  • Teaching performances
  • Variations in teaching performances
  • How much can people learn today? Zone of proximal development
  • What do people know already?
  • Constructing a message
  • How can you tell if they learned anything?
  • Value, interests, expectancy and environment: motivation for learning
  • Mastery
  • Checklist for effective teaching performances

This chapter extends the ideas presented in the previous one, focusing on learning and teaching performances that turn out to be critically important for engineering practice. The chapter builds on recent education and learning science research to provide readers with a base on which they can start to build their learning and teaching skills in the context of their own practice. An engineering case study explains how these skills play out in practice.

9 Technical Coordination – Most of your job

  • Formal and informal practice
  • Phases of interaction
  • Ethical behaviour
  • Social, environmental and technical factors
  • Peer attribute factors
  • Task attribute factors
  • Coordinator factors
  • Task execution attributes
  • Affective factors

One of the first discoveries made by the author was the predominant role that technical coordination plays in engineering practice. The chapter elaborates this idea and presents more evidence that has appeared since the original discovery. The chapter presents a comprehensive list of factors that influence informal leadership and coordination performances in engineering practice. The chapter concludes with a checklist that engineers can use to evaluate their own performances and improve performances by deliberate practice.

10 Managing a Project

  • Human interpretation differences, uncertainty, risk, predictability and project management
  • Clients and stakeholders
  • Precedents
  • Risk management and risk sharing
  • Technical design, codes and standards
  • Estimating
  • Technical review, eliminating errors
  • Specifications and contracts
  • Organising approvals, due diligence, ethics
  • Project management, earned value management

This chapter introduces project management as a more elaborate collaboration performance than technical coordination, one that requires formal documentation and extensive learning and teaching performances. The chapter is structured in the form of a series of questions that readers can find answers to so that they can build on this idea and still make use of the extensive existing literature on project management techniques. Much of this existing literature focuses on the production of documents rather than the social interactions that they formalise. This chapter, instead, emphasises the importance of social interactions and shows how written documents provide the necessary evidence that these interactions have taken place. In this way, the chapter helps readers make more effective use of the existing literature than might otherwise be the case. The chapter briefly introduces some troubling project delivery performance issues in project management such as the tendency of project managers to reduce scope in order to stay within the planned budget.

11 Understanding investment decisions

  • Engineers and money
  • Finance basics, changing value of money
  • Accounting for costs
  • The investment decision
  • Staged project decision making
  • Why projects fail – lessons from recent history

This chapter presents a new view of engineering investment decisions in order to help engineers better understand the economic value that they contribute through their work. The central idea is the critical importance of risk perceptions which are much more important than the actual risks that engineers normally consider. The chapter assumes little or no knowledge of financial economics and provides a bridge to the much more extensive literature on engineering finance and management that readers can progress to later.

12 Negotiating sustainability

  • Technical problem solving as negotiation
  • Ways of knowing, ways of thinking
  • Stakeholders and ethics
  • Risk perceptions
  • Negotiation skills
  • Triple bottom line
  • Governance
  • Messages, working with stakeholders
  • Gaining attention
  • Influencing politics

This chapter introduces negotiation as a means to solve technical problems, commercial disputes and social/environmental sustainability issues that so often derail major projects. Technical problem solving demands effective representation of the relevant issues. Sustainability is introduced in the way that practising engineers encounter it. Rather than teaching engineers how to build windmills and solar power stations, this chapter introduces sustainability in terms of the interests of different stakeholders, including future generations and people who are unable to represent their own interests. When engineers have failed to appreciate the importance of this idea, their projects have often been stopped or severely curtailed by regulatory authorities, even though no laws were broken. The chapter presents brief case studies to illustrate these difficulties. This leads the reader to a practical understanding of the importance of engineering ethics. The chapter presents negotiation as a collaborative performance that provides a useful tool for solving workplace conflicts ranging from technical problems to environmental sustainability and social licence to operate.

13 Great Expectations, Low Income Countries

  • Distributed expertise and coordination
  • Working with a different social culture
  • Water, sanitation, metering
  • Mobile telephones – a model of success
  • Managing corruption
  • Design for affordability

This chapter explains how much of the future challenge and opportunity in engineering will centre on today’s low income countries. The research that led to this book started in India and Pakistan. Engineering difficulties are linked with wide-spread poverty, and these difficulties are linked with social and cultural factors that demand different engineering practices if they are to be overcome.

This chapter presents research results showing how poverty can be effectively addressed by improving engineering practice in low income countries, something that seems to have been missed by many development economists.

Part of the reason for writing this book has been to emancipate young engineers in these countries and show them how they can pursue a more rewarding future by grasping the opportunities in front of them. However, this is not easy because there are so few expert engineers in these countries to help young engineers develop their skills. A new generation of young engineers needs to be much more self-reliant. This chapter introduces readers to the particular factors that influence engineering practice in developing countries and explains how they can grasp the opportunities that lie waiting for them. It is also a useful guide for engineers from the industrialised world who need to work in the developing world.

14 Seeking Work

  • The hidden job market
  • Practicing perception skills
  • Sources of help
  • Practicing your communication skills
  • Building a network

This chapter provides practical guidance on how to obtain engineering work, even in the most dire economic circumstances. Much of the chapter is devoted to building networking skills, and background knowledge of engineering industries. Research demonstrates that these are much more significant in obtaining engineering work that knowing how to write a CV and handle a job interview. Part of the research for this chapter is based on interviews with senior engineers who regularly participate in employment decisions affecting younger engineers. Of course, the chapter provides references to well-known texts on doing this, should it be necessary.

14 Conclusions

  • Learning from this book
  • Further research studies needed
  • On gender and why we do engineering
  • The challenge ahead – Regaining respect for engineering

The chapter revisits some of the most important ideas in the book and how these can be disseminated through different education programmes. There is a brief explanation on why engineering schools have become divorced from practice, and therefore, why engineering practice knowledge will be difficult to build into current undergraduate curricula, even postgraduate courses. Industry mentors provide possibly the best way to diffuse formalised knowledge of practice in the foreseeable future. The issue of women in engineering is addressed through a suggestion that improving our ability to explain the value of engineering may help draw young women back to the profession. The final challenge raised in the book is the task of regaining respect for engineering, particularly from government and the business community.


  1. Pingback: The Making of an Expert Engineer…A Must Read |

  2. i have only read the first pages and its amazing thanks for this i am a fresh engineering student from pakistan. i hope we meet soon sir james…..inshallah


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.