Laurie Bowman is a risk engineer who takes a moment to explain where the value in engineering truly comes from.
So where things are known and outcomes are known, there’s no real opportunity to strategise, to model scenarios and come up with solutions. So it’s where there’s risk and uncertainty. That’s where we extract value
He breaks down what soft skills engineer’s means…. Human-centerd design – what would be achieved when engineers put humans in the centre of their design.
Using their soft skills to work with people to understand their needs, their pain points…”
Extra discussions during the episode
Advice for future engineers: Remember you are working with people
Take the effort to understand your stakeholders really deeply and embrace opinions that it might be different to your own and engage in that process
Engineering item Laurie admires: Google Search
I think the amount that it has served people and the amount that we take it for granted now… it’s an absolutely awesome product.
Engineer Laurie admires: Dr Mehreen Faruqi
I’d never heard an engineer speak like that. It was truly unexpected and truly, truly remarkable
About Laurie Bowman
Laurie Bowman – Risk Engineer
Laurie Bowman is a mechanical engineer who graduated from University of Queensland. He has forged a path in risk management and for the last 10 years he has been the principle of Synchrony. A company which specialises in quantitative techniques for risk management, helping client’s generate more value from their data.
This is a “close” copy of the words that were spoken during the Podcast, Season 2 Episode 14.
It is not 100% accurate.
The guest was Laurie Bowman
Hi! Welcome to Season 2, Episode 13 of Engineering Heroes. A podcast that presents the incredible engineers that are shaping our society and battling our challenging issues.
My name is Mel. My co-host and our podcast’s resident engineer, speaking to us from the trenches, is Dom.
This is the second episode in our World Engineering Convention mini-series. The conference is taking place in Melbourne late November 2019.
This convention is set to unite the global engineering community to identify sustainable development challenges, take action, and commit to change. Have you got your ticket yet?
We have spoken a lot on this podcast about the increasing need for engineers to upskill their soft skills. Pretty fancy words, but what does this actually mean. Our guest tonight has thought about this in great detail and is going to talk to us tonight all about human-centred design. because at the heart of soft-skills is the human-to-human interaction. And for engineers, this means using these new skills to actually talk to the client and discover their pain points, uncover what it is they actually want you to design.
I can’t really think of any point in time where it was crystal clear to me, that’s what I wanted to be. But I always had a love of solving problems, I guess. And as a kid I was very maths science oriented and really loved solving problems. And as I went to go to university or as I was finishing high school all of my friends were also doing engineering and I just thought… kind of went along with the expectation that that was generally the sort of journey that was going to be on. But I didn’t, didn’t exactly have a clear understanding of what engineering exactly was at that time.
Mel De Gioia 1:05
Was that a bit of a rude awakening for you? Or were you happily surprised?
Happily surprised. So I think the diversity of type of problems that I have had the opportunity to take on really surprised me. So particularly coming from that Maths Science background throughout the process, learning that there’s a whole range of other systems and processes and people and stakeholders and all that sort of thing to deal with as part of that process too.
There is definitely a lot of moving parts when it comes to engineering, no matter what you deal with, whether it’s a piece of machinery or just a project and all the people that you have to deal with.
Mel De Gioia 1:40
Did you end up doing the same type of engineering as your friends or did you kind of all split up from there?
Yeah, we all sort of split up so I actually wound up being trained in mechanical engineering. Although most of the work that I do is probably more like systems engineering, we are sort of cutting across all the disciplines as opposed to traditional mechanical engineering.
It’s funny l did mechanical as well. And most of the guys are the mechanical, we don’t do mechanical or they don’t do the traditional mechanical engineering that you would expect the mechanical engineer to do, they’ve taken that and run with it in completely different directions. And it seems as though there’s a lot of cover across the spread, that’s why that degree let you do that.
Mel De Gioia 2:23
I’m just wondering that you were calling yourself a risk engineer. Is that correct?
Yes. So risk is really for me. It’s the the apex of what I do. So all of the value that we get from projects really comes from uncertainty. So where things are known, and outcomes are known, there’s no real opportunity to strategise to model scenarios and come up with solutions. So it’s where there’s risk and uncertainty. That’s where we extract value. And it’s through understanding that risk and uncertainty and helping team members helping contractors understand that you’re able to extract value from a project and that comes in a variety of forms. So things like project controls, for example, which are the way that we track and measure performance. Or we measure cost and schedule risk on a project to health and safety, to environmental risks, reputational risks, all of those sorts of things and helping integrate and bring them together around a decision making framework.
That’s a really good point. I’ve never actually thought about that. That is the risk that drives the value. Sorry, that’s just kind of hit home a little bit. Yeah, it has because in those safe, boring, same old, same old projects, the sort of you know, that you’re going to derive that outcome where it really is the risk component that drives the innovation and drives the value in a project and the economic value of the project as well.
That’s 100% it and I think as engineers, we really under sell ourselves on that. So you know, we often particularly in cost engineering, which is closely related to risk engineering, we often hear about accountants and CPAs, which really is more about a sort of a cost cutting type mindset. But I think engineers and the value that we offer in terms of dealing with uncertainty and generating value for whoever our stakeholders are, I think we really under sell ourselves on that.
Mel De Gioia 4:10
Yeah I’ve never run into a risk engineer. But now I’m very, very curious to find out more about you guys.
We need to we need to bang the drum a little bit louder.
What was the first project you worked on as an engineer? Did you go straight into the risk theory area of risky engineering? Or was this something else that you started on?
No, no, not at all. So I sort of evolved in a number of different directions and I end up gravitating towards risk. The first really cool project it was almost within a within a month of starting work was a programme of preventative maintenance and condition monitoring on bullet chips for Fiji sugar Corporation in Fiji. So today I have a slack season every year. So can you believe this is the one month out of university and I get told I’m going to Fiji and it was an episode extraordinary experience. So for four months we went from one Sugar mill to the next during this slack season. We had some very sophisticated equipment in the day. So some electromagnetic probes that we’d pass through thousands and thousands of ball chips collect the data. And then from that we were looking at wear rates for erosion, corrosion, and helping them with their preventative maintenance programme. So it was an awesome experience and culturally a wonderful experience too because spending so much time there, we almost became locals. And it was a real eye opener to me. They were very, very generous and very hospitable people.
Mel De Gioia 5:31
Were you a graduate on that role?
So I was a trainee at that time. So it’s like a trainee technician, if you like, but it was I was very lucky. So I was actually the CEO of the company. He took me over there. So I the mentoring that I got through that process was really, it was extraordinary. So it meant that I learned in a very concentrated short period was wonderful. So as part of that I then was able to take ownership and stewardship of that equipment and technology. So really, really catapulted my career, I was very lucky.
Mel De Gioia 6:02
That does sound like an amazing first project.
Particularly straight out of university just
Mel De Gioia 6:08
Well it wasn’t sitting on beaches, drink juice or anything like that. But it was, it was a wonderful experience.
Well, I’m hoping it wasn’t all downhill from there.
Mel De Gioia 6:19
So I’m super keen to know, where are you at now?
These days I work for myself. So I have an advisory and training organisation called Synchrony. And so we do two things. So we help set up frameworks largely around decision making processes or risk management and performance management. That’s at the high level. And then at the lower level of the bottom up process is to train practitioners so that they can become certified in things like risk engineering, planning and scheduling cost engineering. So it’s sort of a two pronged approach. So set up frameworks at the top end of town and then help the practitioners who are doing the work to understand best practice. It’s a funny thing as you highlighted earlier on what is a risk engineer? So in Australian universities, we have the traditional disciplines, but we don’t have typically much of a curriculum around risk engineering and cost engineering. So a lot of people fall into these sort of roles. So I’ve done a lot of work Engineers Australia been tremendously supportive, largely through their chartership programme. They’ve recognised risk engineering and cost engineering as areas of practice. And so we’re trying to set competency standards certification programmes, and of course chartership, because to engineers and risk engineers, just to raise the bar a little bit so that there’s that greater level of professionalism.
Yeah, because I think when I went through, it was a, it was part of the Masters course to do the risk in judgement decision making courses. So it was very much engineering and then that level above it was really next sort of component of your studies. So yeah, I think because of that, a lot of people once they get out, they don’t want to continue studying. It sort of doesn’t really get the exposure the deserves
And I think in our essence everything that we do is engineering in design and all that sort of thing. We’re naturally taking risks, we’re naturally designing to a budget to minimise the risk of safety that comes with try to get the overall greatest value for the end. So we’re continuously doing this but don’t think we pat ourselves on the back. And I did definitely don’t think we promoted as highly as we should.
Mel De Gioia 8:20
Okay, so you’re working all towards, you know, promoting that and getting that into projects and into say, companies and things like that.
Yeah, so these days, I’m getting more and more interested in influencing boards as well. So I’ve gone through the AICD on I love learning, so I’m continuously re educating. Yeah, so just gone through the AICD company directors course and that, for me, that was another really positive eye opener just getting that high level strategic perspective. Having done that course I can’t help but think what a strong role engineers should have in in that type of board environment, given our capability. So there was during that course there’s a lot of talk about, you know, the importance of finance and accountants and the importance of lawyers and all that sort of thing. My gosh, the sort of problems that the other directors who were attending the course the sort of problems that they’re dealing with, it was all around how to implement change, how to select projects where the outcomes are highly uncertain, the costs are highly uncertain how to deal with technological change, how to deal with cyber security issues, these are all engineering problems, and of course sort of historical perception that it’s really important to, you know, have the accountant in the room and the lawyer in the room. I really think it’s time for engineers to step up. And I really think that that’s we’re going to be adding a lot more value. And I think that’s going to be standard place to have chief engineers in those sorts of areas.
I just wanted to take a short break here before we get into Sarah’s topic for the World Engineering Convention.
From the 20th to the 22nd of November of this year, Engineers Australia and the World Federation of Engineering Organisations is holding the World Engineering Convention in Melbourne. Dom and I will be speaking there about topics that were inspired by all the conversations we’ve had with engineers so far.
Check out our website for more details.We hope you’ve gotten your ticket and can come see us give our talks.
For now, let’s get back to Laurie as speaks to us about what it means to have human-centred design in engineering.
The really interesting aspect for engineers, I think, is understanding that human interface and having almost like a human centred design approach to pretty much everything we do. We’re really good with technical solutions and technology is advancing at such a rapid rate. However, human beings often are set in their ways and take a little while to change. And I think with all of the change and advancement that’s happening, humans are going to be the bottleneck. And in the future, it’s going to be more and more important for us to become really effective on those soft skills, as well as our technical skills and using their soft skills to work with people to understand their needs, their pain points and things like that. And to help help turn them around to certain outcomes and as part of that process, of course, learning ourselves. So I think, more and more we’re going to find, yeah, as I say, technology, advancing in leaps and bounds, but how to help people transition and change to keep pace with that technology, where it’s helpful for us. So I really see that being a key element. Certainly in my career, I’d say that I’ve gone from being a 90% technical, very nerdy, numbers oriented person with 10% on the people side. It’s now 90% or more on the people side, working deeply with people understanding their fears concerns and what their, what their goals are. And then around that developing the technical solution, which is the last little bit that you do at the end, but having done that stakeholder engagement becomes a lot more effective.
And I think it’s that point that you just said before the their fears and concerns, which in a large portion of cases sort of stops the technology and being able to to actually speak to them to translate that there is no need for fear or concern is the biggest step in regards to getting the project across the line in the first place. Whenever you talk about new technology, it’s always a case of, you know, am I gonna lose my job or you know, what’s going to happen? And it’s not until you actually sort of explain to people about the benefits and what’s going on that you can actually push the project forward too. It drops all that resistance that you normally get.
I agree completely, but even even on that there will be cases where people’s jobs are being replaced. So obviously, technologies transform and I think the opportunity for us to step up as leaders in this space and help people with that transition. So we can almost have this human centred design process around everything that humans encounter in terms of uncertainty and emotions and that sort of thing. And combine that with their technical expertise, I think we will be very, very well placed to help shape the future and how things go.
Mel De Gioia 12:14
So if the if engineers need to start thinking about more of their soft skills and the putting the human the putting the people in the centre of their equation, how are we going to end up going to do this? How is this happening?
I think it’s something we need to learn to do. Generally, we tend to be good at technical things, certainly from my own experience. During the first 10 years of my career, I was really good at being the expert giving somebody a list of 22 reasons why they were wrong, and I was right and, and that sort of thing. It’s completely different to that now. I think more about listening to people. So first of all, building trust, listening to people with the intention of understanding where they’re coming from and what they what their concerns are, and then empathetically understanding that using that to, to help steer them towards an outcome that’s going to give them the safety that they need or the outcomes that they’re looking for I know certainly, for myself, I definitely struggled on the soft skill side. I was great at the analytical stuff. And I’ve had to learn by failure on the soft skill side. But I know the reason I’m here in Sydney at the moment is actually to learn or to continue my the last two years of studies that I’ve been doing in neuro linguistic programming, which has helped me tremendously on projects, but also with my training processes. I’ve completely rebuilt all of my training programmes around people. So understanding how people think the different types of people, the way they receive information, and becoming more effective at getting that information to transfer so I can see more and more of that neuro linguistic programming and these types of techniques, being integrated into our processes just to help us be more effective at getting the outcomes we’re looking for.
So do you think it is something that could be learned as part of an engineering course through like a university course?
Yeah, because I know there’s a few of the universities as well that are now starting to engage with industry so that the students are actually having to act in a true consulting sense. So they’re getting those soft skills by having to interact with the client and then present at the end of it as well. So it’s real time real life experiences that you wouldn’t normally get otherwise. But then I think that that’s truly the key to giving students that extra sort of leap ahead when they go in rather than having to almost take an apprenticeship and spend the first four years out in industry learning all those soft skills that they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Yeah, I think it’s very crucial to what’s going on. Just on that, what are your thoughts on the future of engineering?
Oh, my goodness, I think the future is just going to be fantastic for engineers. I think the direction everything in the world seems to be going there are some some big problems out there, but I believe that there there are no problems that engineers can’t solve. This is part of the helping people change aspect as well. So if we had our best engineers there and with enough influence, I’m very confident we could solve the world’s problems, including sustainability issues. And some of the more modern problems that are starting to evolve now with technology and AI. All of these sorts of problems have solutions that engineers, I think it really is time for us to step up. And I have so much faith, I’m so inspired by the altruism and the capability of a next generation of engineers that are coming through the universities. Society is going to be needing these people to step up. And we need to be creating a platform for these people so that they can have enough influence at the right level making decisions, whether that’s within companies or whether that’s within the boardroom or within government, those sorts of things, just to help shape the right outcomes that we’re going to need for humanity.
Do you think it’s a bit of an intuitive process where the next generation in regards to engineering that take all the data that we’ve had and they’re sort of developing it forward and then generation after will continue to take it forward from there.
I think the technical evolution will continue as it as it always has. So I think as engineers, we’ve been very good at designing the gadgets and doing those sorts of things. My sense is that we haven’t been as good at marketing, how awesome we are and the capability that we have. And this is where I think it’s going to change. I think the capability of the next generation that are coming through and the these altruistic goals, the aspirations they have, or the hunger, they have to solve world sustainability problems, and they’re not afraid to voice it. The school students are not afraid to go on strike. They have so much courage and bravery. You know, I look at them and think I’m so impressed. I wish my generation had had that much courage. And I just think extremely optimistic about what engineers are going to be doing in 20 years time. And I think places, it’s more senior levels. I think they’re going to be welcomed and encouraged and more senior levels within companies, I think, boardrooms, they’re going to be looking to engineers to help them navigate through this complexity and I think in government rather than being lawyers and economists and accountants, I think we’re going to see a lot more engineers in there is my expectation. So that’s where I see the future going. And I believe from what I’ve seen from the involvement that I’ve had, certainly with a couple of universities in Queensland, I think so highly capable generation of young people. And if we can be also good and empathetic and understanding and helping that social disruption and finding a nice, almost like a social engineering solution to some of these things as roles get displaced, and some industries wind down as others ramp up, if we can be mindful of doing that, I think the future is going to be fantastic.
You know, I think the next generation has, it’s almost as if they’ve worked out true entities because they’ve worked out what the problem is first. So now they can address the issue. So it’s almost as though they’re going back to the root cause to sort of go will hold up a second, you’re not you’re not fixing this problem and then highlighting it to people saying, Now here’s the problem. People say let’s fix this problem. And I think once you know what the problem is the most engineers when you talk to guy yeah, I can find a way around that will sort this out. And I think now that the now we’re working on the right problems, then you are always going to get the best answers.
Mel De Gioia 19:09
I love I love that you so optimistic for the future and it’s just so passionate, it really does come through. And what would you say to people just starting out in engineering what’s what’s some words of advice that you would offer them?
Oh, gee whiz. Well, firstly, congratulations on on selecting engineering, that’s such a great choice. The opportunities are endless. I haven’t even really touched on AI but the layers of opportunity for us to lead that outcome in terms of ethics and some of the issues around that, there’s just a demand or a smorgasbord of awesome things and awesome directions your career can go in the best bit of advice I would have in looking at myself as learning by failure, but hopefully, don’t learn the mistakes I made. But yeah, really make that effort on stakeholder engagement. Take that effort to understand your stakeholders really deeply and embrace opinions that it might be different to your own and engage in that process. Develop relationships, develop trust, develop rapport with people. And once you’ve got all those things, then that’s the right time to then start to broaden their mindset and steer them around to outcomes that might be more beneficial. Look for mentors as well. One of the great things about having an ageing population and things like that is that within the engineering community, there’s so many good people out there who are happy to help you out who are happy to, you know, you can bounce questions off and things like that. So if you get the opportunity to find a mentor, I definitely, definitely recommend that as well. And not just a mentor, but you can have a suite of mentors, you know, taking in that diverse range of input, just take out the bits and pieces that help you and serve you can learn, learn in 12 months what might otherwise take you 10 years of failure to learn.
It’s just that getting that wealth of experience out of someone that you sort of been doing it for for years and years and years. It’s amazing. It’s like gold. It’s like harvesting gold.
Mel De Gioia 20:55
So what’s something that impresses you that’s been engineered?
I’m not exactly a design engineer. I’ll tell you one piece of engineering that really blows my mind in terms of the value that’s offered is the Google search engine.
Yeah, is a good one.
We just seem to take it so naturally, but the amount of time that saves just by somebody, you know, running some great algorithms, organising data effectively. I think the amount that that has served people and the amount that we take it for granted now is it’s an absolutely awesome product.
And it was such a game changer when they when Google came about like I can still remember.
Mel De Gioia 21:29
What used to be Netscape like that there were some other ones that weren’t as good but I still Yeah, I still remember when I couldn’t understand what the search engine was. I still remember having to learn that and being explained is like what do you mean he precise and and pluses and minuses because he used to be able to say I want to include this but not include that and yeah, sort of stuff. I just didn’t understand how you did the searching. Whereas now it’s just so now natural to think in those things. And it’s just that one tool is influenced so many different areas because that’s how I searched my emails now. Or this is the same sort of way that I searched anything, it all comes down to how Google has trained me to search for things.
It’s awesome. And the outcome being that people get the information that they want, very, very quickly, on any topic, and how can you put a price in terms of value on that it’s a great product there.
Mel De Gioia 22:29
Seriously good engineering going on behind the scenes with that one just to have come up with the concept.
And finally, just to finish up, do you have an engineer that you admire?
Well, well, there’s plenty of engineers that I admire. One who stands out for me as exceptional would be Marie Faruqi. So she’s a Member of Parliament from New South Wales and I was lucky to see her speak at the engineering conference in Brisbane in 2016. Yeah, she was quite a remarkable woman. So she never had an engineer in Australia, I never seen an engineer speak up about the importance of engineering, the importance of us having a voice within government the value that we can offer in shaping infrastructure projects alone, let alone the vast range of other topics. And she yeah, she was quite inspiring. On top of that, you know, considering things that she had immigrated from Pakistan, and, you know, just imagining some of the obstacles that she’d managed to navigate through and to have her stand up and speak to us in a way that I’d, like I said I’d never heard an engineer speak like that. It was truly unexpected and truly, truly remarkable.
Mel De Gioia 23:35
I think I might have to track her down. She sounds amazing.
Yes, she is.
Mel De Gioia 23:41
I had actually heard about her before as well.
Yeah. It’s great getting engineers into politics as well. Look, I think we need more engineers in there sort of representing constituents so that they have a better idea of what’s going on, particularly those critical issues that everyone’s discussing at the moment.
Mel De Gioia 24:01
Oh well, thank you so much for talking with us today was great and incredible eye opener with some things. I’ve really enjoyed it.
No problem. Thank you so much for the opportunity. Melanie. I’ve enjoyed it as well. Thank you Dom.
Not a problem. Thank you so much.
Mel De Gioia 24:15
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