Human engineering

Jan 07, 2019


One of the most coveted characteristic traits an engineer can possess is also one of the most elusive.

What is human engineering? It’s an attempt to reinvigorate an overlooked characteristic trait. The most common definition is your ability to lead, communicate, and negotiate. Some call it “soft skills,” or maybe “non-technical skills.” And I hate it. Not the traits themselves, but the terms we use to refer to those traits. They are mentioned so often that they lose their meaning.

How many times do you hear the term “soft skills” and immediately disregard it? The message fails to land. That’s why I prefer the more encompassing term “human engineering” instead.

As an engineer myself, it’s easier to get caught up in typical engineering duties – applying math and science through design to create things. Human engineering, on the other hand, is separate, but related to engineering, and specifically deals with the people part of the equation. Let’s look at two famous examples:

  1. Andrew Carnegie, the Steel King. A true rags-to-riches story, he started off making $1.20 per week in the late 1800s, moved to the railroad industry and made his fortune by ultimately selling his steel company to JP Morgan for $500 million dollars. This is what he wanted on his tombstone: “Here lies a man who was able to surround himself with men far cleverer than himself.” Was he a smart man? Yes. Technically proficient? Absolutely. But what set him apart? His ability to lead, communicate, and leverage people.
  2. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. He graduated from Princeton with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering. When asked about the success of Amazon, Bezos said, “If there’s one reason we have done better than our peers in the internet space over the last six years, it is because we have focused like a laser on customer experience, and that really does matter, I think, in any business.” They focus not only on technology, but people.

But why should engineering students, faculty, and professionals care about human engineering?

  • Financial motives. What surprises most people is that a whopping 85 percent of your financial success is attributed to skills in human engineering, according to the Carnegie Institute of Technology. Only 15 percent is tied to technical skills.
  • A lot of aspiring engineers have it backwards and don’t realize it. We spent 80 to 90 percent of our time focused on the “technical” aspects of engineering.
    • Think of college. How many credits or classes did you attend that discussed technical versus non-technical material? Most colleges spend about 90 percent of the curriculum on statics, dynamics, circuits, mechanics of materials, and other engineering essentials. Maybe 10 percent of the curriculum is on senior design, working in a team, and extracurricular activities. The problem? We are so overwhelmed by the technical that we don’t have time for the non-technical!
    • This is not meant to belittle a university education or the technical work done in our industry. To be successful, you absolutely need to learn the technical skills, work hard, and git’er done. That’s the price of admission. But we all kind of know the same things. So, what’s going to set you apart from your peers?
  • False sense of confidence. By the time we graduate, we feel we have paid our dues and are ready to enter the workforce and be productive. This is in line with a survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which found that 70 percent of college students say they possess the skills needed to succeed in the workplace. Employers, conversely, see things differently and think less than one-third of recent grads are ready. Seventy percent versus 33 percent, seems backwards, right? As employers are hiring engineers, they are looking less at GPA and more towards related experiences and human engineering qualities.

The big question is, how do we climb the hill of human engineering?

  • Through learning. Learning through books, classes, webinars, podcasts, seminars, and workshops are the most common. The different material is often quite a refreshing change of pace for most engineers.
  • Through doing. Start practicing early and often. Join an organization like toastmasters, present ideas to friends and family. Start doing!
  • Join a team. An example would be to join a program and work with others to build your human engineering intelligence.
    • Join a community of other forward-thinking engineers to share common struggles and discuss with fellow travelers on the road of engineering.
    • Can’t find a team? Ask me. Or create one yourself!

If you knew that 85 percent of your financial success would be attributed to human engineering, what would you do differently?

Adam Zach is a project engineer with AE2S in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and a lifetime learner. He can be reached at

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