Fridays with Fuhrmann: Milestones and Beyond

FWFimage_201700908Today is the last day of our first week of the fall semester, and students are already getting their first break from classes. Later today is K-Day (short for Keweenaw Day), an outdoor event with food, music, and lots of practical information about activities at Michigan Tech, held at McLain State Park, on the shores of Lake Superior about 10 miles from campus.

The weather for K-Day promises to be absolutely beautiful, which is in contrast to the cool, rainy weather that we have seen recently. We joke a lot about our “reliable crummy weather” but in truth things here are pretty benign, and I even include our winter snowfall in that statement. We have nothing that compares with the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in SE Texas, or Hurricane Irma which has wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and is bearing straight down on Florida. I’ll take the rain any day over the drought in the western U.S. which has led to practically apocalyptic wildfires that are barely making the news. My daughter, a college student in Bellingham, Washington, came home to visit this week, and as she got off the plane she remarked that this is the first time she has been able to breathe clean air in days. So, we count our blessings, and of course our hearts go out to all our fellow citizens whose lives are being negatively impacted by these weather events.

This weekend I hit a personal milestone – my 60th birthday is this Sunday, September 10. It is not really an accomplishment of any sort, other than just having lived this long, but I plan to celebrate nonetheless. I have never been shy about birthdays, and am not one of those people that tries to ignore the fact that I am a year older. Party on, that’s what I say!

I understand that a person’s 60th birthday is a major life event in Chinese culture; it has something to do with the 12 years of the Chinese zodiac and the belief that going through that cycle five times represents the completion of an even larger cycle (I defer to my Chinese friends and colleagues for a better explanation.) When my PhD advisor, Prof. Bede Liu of Princeton University, had his 60th birthday, a bunch of his former PhD students organized a big surprise party and people flew in from all over the country to celebrate with him. We even held a mock PhD oral qualifying exam for him, with former student Dave Munson (later Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan, now president of Rochester Institute of Technology) presiding. That was 23 years ago, and Bede is still going strong. Coming up on this weekend brings back fond memories of Bede and how I still reach out to for him for advice on major life decisions – like a marriage proposal in 1994, and coming to Michigan Tech in 2008.

As is often the case with milestones in life, this is a good time to look forward with optimism and resolve. This academic year I am starting my 10th year at Michigan Tech, and my 4th 3-year term as department chair in the ECE Department. I feel reasonably confident that I still have something to offer, and am eager to do what I can to help move the department and the university in the right direction. This is not to say there is no room for improvement! Most of what I have learned about university administration I have learned on the job, and I am still learning. I have gotten a lot of very good advice over the years from colleagues and mentors, notably the namesake on my professorship Dave House. Dave is fond of saying “Experience is something you get right after you need it” and I have seen that play out many times.

I have also seen the importance of clear, concise communication in my position, and so I greatly appreciate the keynote presentation we had yesterday evening for all the first-year engineering students at Michigan Tech, given by Libby Titus, a Michigan Tech Environmental Engineering alumna and a technical communications expert at Novo Nordisk. Her topic was the importance of communications skills, particular writing skills, for professional engineers. I thought all of her points and her advice were spot-on. One point that she made is that the technical skills acquired in engineering school, as difficult and challenging as they seem to students at the time, are in retrospect easy compared to all the interpersonal skills that are required in the workplace. Communication skills are particularly important, and people who are effective in communication are the ones who will reach a large audience with their brilliant technical ideas. “Engineering and science are group activities” was a phrase she repeated a few times. I especially appreciated the point she made about the importance of using correct grammar in all forms of written communication. Readers of my “Rants from the Grammar Maven” column from earlier this summer can imagine me nodding in violent agreement during that part of the talk.

As much as I agree with what was said at the talk yesterday, I will counter with one point. We have a lifetime to acquire interpersonal, management, and leadership skills as we mature, but the best time to learn math, science, and engineering is when we are young. So to all our engineering students in attendance yesterday, I would say that our speaker was 100% correct in everything she said, but don’t let that stop you from getting your geek on while you are here at Michigan Tech. This is the place to become the technical expert you want to be, or at least to get started in that direction. Yes, you need to be a good communicator, but you have to have something to say, and the best way to do that is become a great engineer first. This is the old “build your house on rock, not on sand” argument that I have used before. Our educational programs in engineering are set up to help you succeed as technical experts, and all the feedback we get from alumni and industry partners tells us that our approach based on strong fundamentals works. In other words, enjoy K-Day, but be ready to hit the books next Monday!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University