Podcast 196 Engineering Ethics

Ethics, Working for Good

Oh, the crunch enhancer? Yeah, it’s a non-nutritive cereal varnish. It’s semi-permeable. It’s non-osmotic. What it does is it coats and seals the flake, prevents the milk from penetrating it. Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Technology is for the benefit of humans. It has been ever since some human figured out a better way to trap a gazelle or plow a field.

Except for my wife, who hates soggy cereal, how much benefit is there in cereal varnish?

Or the product manager at Facebook working with engineers and psychologists figuring out ways to keep attention fixed on the app so that an additional few ads can be served up?

Or the engineers doing some fantastic work on digital voice recognition which could do great good for disabled people or help in dangerous situations instead figuring out how Alexa can spy on people 24 hours a day to accumulate data on when people are home to be sold to telemarketers or to governments to find terrorists or political opponents?

Ethics at work concerns developing things for the benefit of people and society. But weapons developed for defense could also be used offensively. Something good could be used to corrupt us. Or undermine us.

Ethics is both what we do and what we fail to do.

Mostly ethics should be in our awareness. At the end of the day one question we can ask ourselves, “What did I do for the good today? Where did I fail to act where I could have made a difference for the good?”

Ethics and Doing Good to Society

Ethics and Doing Good to Society

The last person (well, maybe not totally the last) that I thought I’d listen to on a podcast would have been Charles Koch, CEO of Koch Industries and famously a supporter of “right-wing” causes.

But, there he was on the Tim Ferriss podcast.

No, I’m not going down the political rabbit hole.

It’s all about working together ethically to do something for the benefit of as many people as possible.

I thought I had noticed a difference in the actions of Koch over the past few years, and I was right. He discovered that there are issues where he shared values with people who had divergent views on other topics. For example working with a number of noted liberals to make progress on prison reform.

Listening to him I’m reminded of all the people–politicians and business and church people alike–who draw a line and refuse to work with people on the other side. There is bitterness, acrimony, division.

Or even the political Founders of the government of the US who warned us about the need for ethical behavior for the success of the union.

I may not agree with Koch on everything, but I love his optimism still alive in his 80s and his mission to build things that help others and help society.

This mission works in whatever country you live in. I have met people from Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Europe, even China with that same passion.

It reminds me that technology should be in the service of improving society and humans in general. It should be much more than making a very few people billionaires while exploiting us.

Ethics and Doing Good to Society

What the Best Mentors Do

Can you think of a mentor who has helped you grow either personally or professionally? Perhaps a teacher? A boss early in your career? When have you mentored someone? How did it work out?

I can remember a teacher or two who helped guide me. My first supervisor in manufacturing would put me in situations where I couldn’t help but grow. My problem then was that although I could do the work intellectually, my interpersonal skills were sadly lacking. Especially in the manufacturing environment of the time that placed a premium on strong personality. I can still remember moments when he set me up for a confrontation forcing me to be forceful. I think the other guys liked it because I was almost the only “college kid” there. The old guys loved to poke at the college kid.

Many people have begun studying mentorship. We talk often about mentoring young soccer referees as the best way to move them from the classroom to a successful career.

I recently ran across this older article in the Harvard Business Review by Anthony K. Tjan. His research revealed four things that the best mentors do.

Before he gets to the four things, he notes that mentors he studied consistently “do everything they can to imprint their ‘goodness’ onto others in ways that make others feel like fuller versions of themselves. Put another way, the best leaders practice a form of leadership that is less about creating followers and more about creating other leaders.”

  1. Put the relationship before the mentorship. All too often, mentorship can evolve into a “check the box” procedure instead of something authentic and relationship-based. For real mentorship to succeed, there needs to be a baseline chemistry between a mentor and a mentee. Mentoring requires rapport. At best, it propels people to break from their formal roles and titles (boss versus employee) and find common ground as people.
  2. Focus on character rather than competency. Too many mentors see mentoring as a training program focused around the acquisition of job skills. Obviously, one element of mentorship involves mastering the necessary competencies for a given position. But the best leaders go beyond competency, focusing on helping to shape other people’s character, values, self-awareness, empathy, and capacity for respect.
  3. Shout loudly with your optimism, and keep quiet with your cynicism. Your mentee might come to you with some off-the-wall ideas or seemingly unrealistic ambitious. You might be tempted to help them think more realistically, but mentors need to be givers of energy, not takers of it.
  4. Be more loyal to your mentee than you are to your company. Of course, we all want to retain our best and brightest. We also want our people to be effective in our organizations. That said, the best mentors recognize that in its most noble and powerful form, leadership is a duty and service toward others, and that the best way to inspire commitment is to be fully and selflessly committed to the best interests of colleagues and employees. Don’t seek only to uncover your mentees’ strengths; look for their underlying passions, too. Help them find their calling.

And Tjan makes a couple of final points: The best mentors avoid overriding the dreams of their mentees. At its highest level, mentorship is about being “good people” and having the right “good people” around us — individuals committed to helping others become fuller versions of who they are.

This is all based on research as is befitting of the Harvard Business Review. It is also wise guidance.

Ethics and Doing Good to Society

The Coaching Role

I’m still reflecting on Trillion Dollar Coach plus three weekends of youth sports. Most executives don’t even have coaches, even though they could really use one. The variety of coaching skill and ability at the youth sports level is staggering. So many coaches need coaching at that level. That’s the role of the leadership of a good club. Often doesn’t happen.

What makes for a good coach.

Begin with empathy and trustworthiness. If the coach lacks these character traits, then anything further is hopeless.

A coach must have a set of knowledge and values. Good coaches have experience, but they are seldom the greatest. They are the ones who have been there but had to reflect on their development and experiences. They’ve studied the game and know the skill sets required for success.

A coach is observant. This ability means a coach can see each player or client, their strengths, and their weaknesses. They can pick out the next skill each player/client needs to develop to succeed at this level in order to progress.

A coach can teach skills. Of course, the player/client must be teachable. It is a two-way interaction.

A coach can devise practice for student to repeat until learned. This is the same idea for a 9-year-old beginner or a 29-year-old pro. Knowing you need to move slightly to the left more or knowing how to field a ground ball does nothing without the drill to make the skill part of “muscle memory.”

A coach provides appropriate feedback. This makes practice more valuable and helps adjust skills to the situation.

The end result consists of increased confidence and character development.

Think of the coaches that you’ve had. Think of the impact of the good coaches on your development. Then the bad ones where you learned nothing. Or, perhaps the bad teaching or negative comments set you back years.

Become a good coach. You do that by practice, of course. That means finding a young person who is coachable. Start slowly. Build rapport. Then try with another. Make yourself valuable to your organization and find your own fulfillment by bringing along the next generation. Works for engineers, managers, executives, whomever.

Go make a difference.

Ethics and Doing Good to Society

Playbook from a Trillion Dollar Coach

There is an equally critical factor for success in companies: Teams that act as communities, integrating interests and putting aside differences to be individually and collectively obsessed with what’s good for the company. Research shows that when people feel like they are part of a supportive community at work, they are more engaged with their jobs and more productive.

Thus begins the book that you should read next. Trillion Dollar Coach: The Playbook from Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell, by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle. (The three authors were senior leaders at Google / Alphabet–and coached by Bill.)

Bill Campbell’s journey took him from head football coach at Columbia University, to the top sales and marketing job at Apple, to CEO of a couple of technology companies (Intuit and GO). Then he became a coach. He coached Steve Jobs at Apple. The three leaders and then many more at Google. And more than 80 other Silicon Valley CEOs and leaders. And his middle school football team that he coached at the same time.

He was most likely the most influential and respected man in Silicon Valley.

And his values and teaching are appropriate to all of us no matter the organization we’re with.

For example, he let everyone know his blocked time for coaching his football team of 13- and 14-year-olds. He wouldn’t answer his phone if you tried calling. One person, though, would ignore the time and call. Bill would pull his phone out of his pocket and look at the caller ID. The kids around him would look, also. They would see the name Steve Jobs, and then see Bill decline the call. They all knew that when Bill was with them, he was with them.

Read this book–and put the principles into practice in your life. You may not be building the next Google. But you can be the determining influence in someone’s life.

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