About the time I was ready to transition out of high school and into college, there came the inevitable question: “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?” The only thing I knew for sure at that point was that the world was filled with cars, and cars were the only thing I knew. Only I had no clue how to turn that into a career. That dinner table conversation “decided” I should get an MBA—I didn’t, I have a liberal arts degree, but it probably explains my disdain for MBAs to this day—but it wasn’t enough. My late father knew I wanted to be a product planner and that I’d need an engineering degree to go along with the MBA if I was to have any hope of joining that fraternity. There was only one problem: I hated math and was horrible at functions and differential equations. (The math problem—and a basic inability to understand credits and debits—also helped me flunk accounting course twice.) He, on the other hand, could do them in his head, and understood what they meant and the meaning of the theory behind them.
Dad advised that I memorize the formulas and learn what they meant on the job. I found that idea abhorrent. Not understanding what I was doing or what it meant or how it affected the product scared me silly. Yet dad possessed a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, obtained a master’s degree from the Chrysler Institute, had a pragmatic streak a mile wide, and understood the value of sound engineering. He also was excited by the then-new field of computing, had a curious nature, was intensely interested in the idea of electronic noise cancellation, and designed a foot-powered trash compactor for my mom’s kitchen around spare Ford Cortina connecting rods and assorted other leftovers from that engine rebuild. In short, he understood the need for an engineer to be rooted in practical application as well as theory, and that neither should stand in the way of looking for new and better solutions. Because of this, I also think he understood his youngest son would reject his advice even before he gave it.
I often wonder how he would view the industry today, though I’m pretty sure I know the answer. He’d be appalled at the way in which engineers—and engineering itself—is looked upon. True, in his day engineers were treated like mushrooms—that is, kept in the dark and covered in excrement—but their contributions were appreciated and not viewed as another line item to be “managed.” I’m pretty certain he’d have pegged Ford’s downfall—it is the company where he spent nearly 35 years—to that 1990s day when the decision was made to eliminate non-degreed engineers and replace them with raw recruits with sheepskins. He knew well the members of this old guard were the folks that got projects completed and pushed through the system, and that practical experience and a degree of inquisitiveness were worth far more than any university degree. Dad—despite his fascination with computers—also knew that if you relied on them to do your thinking, you always got a variation of the same answer. To get something different, you had to have an understanding of the elements that made up the problem, how they interacted, and why. You also needed to have an opinion, otherwise you’d never be able to discern whether and why the vehicle you were working on was an appliance or a standout.
Dad was a different breed, quiet and unassuming, a former skier and mountain climber who preferred small cars to large ones, and—through his dad’s insistence—learned to master driving a manual transmission in San Francisco. Today he’d be an outcast, an anachronism, with a boss who couldn’t tell the difference between the product and the numbers if his life depended on it. Maybe it’s a good thing dad’s no longer with us.