Research Thoughts

Roboticists need to learn to sell (rather all engineers do!)

After attending my first international conference on robotics (ICRA 2014), my first take away is that so many of the talks were insanely boring! It’s not that the work was bad, in reality quite a lot of the work was truly innovative. Nonetheless, my point being that so many good researchers with interesting work had a hard time making it look interesting for their audience.

If you’ve ever met any true to his/her mettle engineer/researcher/scientist and discussed  anything related to management or god forbid the “MBA” types, the immediate reaction is of utter horror and disgust. One could compare it to the look on a vegan’s face while being force fed rare steak or to a saudi prince being given a lecture on humility (the lecturer gets shot), anyhoooo… So my question is why do we engineers have such a problem with these “management types” and what could we learn from them?

Top grudges engineers have against MBAs:

  1. They get paid more
  2. They know nothing and they get paid more
  3. How can you get paid so much for bullshitting with powerpoint and still get paid (more)
  4. Knowing how to use MS Excel does not amount to a great achievement (I can write a python script to do that meh!)
  5. Damnit! how much synergy does a corporation need !!
  6. MBAs overpromises on a product, now I need to work nights to match the customers expectations
  7. You get my point…

Why MBAs ridicule the nerdy engineer types (in my head at least):

  1. HAHA! I switched from engineering to management and now who’s the boss!
  2. Cannot communicate to save his life!
  3. Engineers live in their heads (mental bubbles) rather than the real world
  4. Engineers don’t seem to have any personalities, we can push this guy over easy
  5. Where does this guys buy his shirts!
  6. I can hire two more like this guy, pay them half and take all the bonuses home!! (evil grin)
  7. This guy has no idea what it takes to sell something

As a rule of thumb, you could say that most people who tend to get into engineering/sciences/research are the introvert types who love diving deep into problems and figuring out solutions. These people are usually not the gregarious, outgoing types and neither do they care much for making a big impact socially. Now this is where the problem comes in, in today’s world where society lives by the “Extrovert Ideal” it is hard for these “less gregarious” types to make themselves heard. When it comes to selling, we engineers tend not to get over-excited because we are trained to think critically, report the errors in our results and make objective decisions. Therefore, for most engineers, presenting their work to a live audience is probably one of the scariest or least exciting things in their jobs.

Things I noticed when “engineer types” make presentations:

  1. Minimal eye contact
  2. Sound bored to the point where the audience starts asking whether the actually wants to talk about his work
  3. No humor. A small joke can wake up the audience!
  4. Too much text on their slides
  5. Speak in a monotone for 20 minutes straight (YAWN!)

I think it’s time we changed this and this is where we could learn something from the dark side (management). It would be hard to change who we are in terms of our personality, but at least when it comes to presenting our work we should treat it as selling our ideas and making sure that our customers (scientific community) buys the idea (pay attention to it). When we present our research/idea we are telling the world our story, the story of how you found a challenging problem, the significance of this problem, the awesome new method/solution you found to tackle it and how cool it was when you experimented and found that it works. Now clearly, judging by what I saw at ICRA 2014 this ain’t happening!

Some things we can learn from MBA types:

  1. Having seen my friends who went on to do MBAs, one of the main things I noticed is group efforts. Now I know that solving a quantum mechanics problem requires utmost focus and solitude, but preparing for a talk needs the feedback of an audience. So my suggestion to you is to bug your lab mates, colleagues, girlfriend/wife or boyfriend/husband and get their feedback.
  2. Management students are always networking, so try and make friends outside your research group. Then try presenting to someone who is new to your work, did that person understand what you were talking about ?
  3. Use more visual cues than words. Images are easier to grasp. Do MBAs use more charts or equations ?
  4. Get EXCITED!! this is your chance to tell the world about the stuff you’ve been spending all those sleepless nights on.
  5. Learn to stop, don’t say everything in one breath. Breathe, smile (MBAs seem to be trained do that somehow, its freaky) and start again.

If you want to know how badly miscommunication between technical staff and the management can screw something up, go read the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster investigation report.







(women are now entering this field, so it’s only fair that I maintain gender correctness, but since it is too much effort to type his/her I ignored the /hers and presume that my audience does not judge me as a sexist, phew…)

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