Engineering altruism: What’s in it for me?

Altruism is great, as long as there’s something in it for me. One-liners like this have been funny since standup comedians used to fall down for a laugh. Why? It’s because the second phrase contradicts the first one, and contradiction is a strong design element of humor. Engineering altruism is spending some personal time, sometimes even company-sanctioned time, on collaborative pro...
By Mark T. Hoske, editor-in-chief March 1, 2010

 

Altruism is great, as long as there’s something in it for me. One-liners like this have been funny since standup comedians used to fall down for a laugh. Why? It’s because the second phrase contradicts the first one, and contradiction is a strong design element of humor.

Engineering altruism is spending some personal time, sometimes even company-sanctioned time, on collaborative projects for the wider good of all.

Like the old joke, engineering altruism itself is contradictory, because participants are among the first recipients of benefits—that’s the “what’s in it for me” part. In contrast, benefits of social altruism sometimes are never realized personally, beyond satisfaction of doing the right thing for humanity.

Mercifully, since time is short and engineering teams have more responsibilities, engineering altruism’s benefits can be comparatively swift. Three examples follow.

1) Standards committees do take time, possible travel, and thought. A well-designed standard placed ahead of technology development can save considerable company resources, avoid duplicative efforts, reduce integration, and educate participants about thinking outside of their organization. Those developing the standard also get a head-start with implementation over those not participating.

2) Professional organizations require dues or fees. Meetings are sometimes local and national, with some time and expense. Over the phone and online opportunities are available. Active participation can infuse an organization with technological creativity, problem solving, and benchmarking capabilities. Plus, engineers from different disciplines, companies, generations, and industries have a lot to learn from each other.

3) Mentoring, inside or outside an organization, through tutoring, writing, or even videos can clarify thoughts on a topic, garner fresh perspectives on old challenges, and preserve knowledge internally and for the industry. For engineers of the current and next generations, mentoring creates a stepping stone for innovation. Doing nothing leaves a pothole in the parking lot.

Think again, be contradictory, and do some altruistic engineering.

MHoske@cfemedia.com