Book Review: Navigating the Engineering Organization: A New Engineer’s Guide

Article by Vince Pizzoni CEng FIChemE

Robert M Santer; ISBN: 9781032102511; CRC Press, an imprint of Taylor & Francis Group; £34.39; 2023

Having adjusted to the working environment “on the job”when starting my career 47 years ago, it’s interesting to speculate whether my path would have differed if I’d had this book. Though a slow burn, Robert Santer’s Navigating the Engineering Organization: A New Engineer’s Guide is a most intriguing read that kept my attention to the end.

Using theoretical analysis techniques and numerous case histories of individuals’ experiences, Santer helps readers bridge the substantial experiential gap from university to the workplace. His book offers the opportunity to start to understand engineering organisations and their culture and allows readers to develop their own personal route to achieve success.

Focusing on the individual in chapter 2, Santer describes the likely problems in making the transition or “Crossing the Great Divide” and how readers should arm themselves with self-understanding using personality profiling such as Myers-Briggs. As an ESTP (extraverted, sensing, thinking, perceiving) personality working in a career path I reckon most likely appeals to an INTJ (introverted, intuition, thinking, judgment), I don’t believe that personality says everything about how fit a person will be for a role or environment. But I think the author’s encouragement for personality profiling and understanding one’s strengths and capabilities and how we interact with others is important for career growth.

However, the aspect of the book I was most drawn to was chapter 9, where the author focuses on identifying and understanding the company culture and hidden organisation using the Schein and Sackmann models. Sackmann uses the submerged iceberg theory to explain how hidden culture dwarfs the observable culture. Similarly, Schein divides culture into a three-layer pyramid, with the largest identifying the assumptions related to the hidden organisation. Using these tools as examples, Santer helps graduate engineers understand that they must dig deep to truly understand a workplace’s culture, often not reflected by an organisation chart, and this is a message on which I agree with Santer.

But most useful are the excellent case histories that Santer provides, which add colour to the discussion. In case 6.1, Santer illustrates the 1968 recovery of the Apollo 8 spacecraft. The mission reconfigured, it was scheduled to land in the Pacific just after Christmas. The crew required recovery while US troops were in Vietnam and its Navy was set for leave. Knowing they needed the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet, flight operations director Chris Kraft singlehandedly convinced fleet commander Admiral John McCain, in front of a packed audience, that he was needed. It’s an example of the use of personal power and sure to inspire the reader.

The book does have its pitfalls, however.

In chapter 7.2.10, the author rightly discusses mentoring, but fails to provide sufficient detail. I would have preferred more on the importance of mentoring, reverse mentoring, and particularly sponsorship, to help better prepare readers in an area I believe is critical to career development.

I will also note that the book is largely written from a US perspective. Having worked for US corporates, I can attest to the cultural differences that exist between there and the UK/EU. This also applies to some of the terminology used.

Similarly, while discussing internships in Chapter 2, the author states that they are not useful in preparing students for full-time graduate roles. However, my experience in the UK suggests that they can offer important insight into specific organisations, and general work environments.

As such, I recommend that readers outside the US are guarded in taking some of Santer’s advice and seek other guidance where relevant.

Nevertheless, the author has taken an important subject and delivered a useful guide that serves as a starting point for young engineers preparing to work in industry. I recommend it to any graduates out there looking for a practical companion to help them through the beginning of their career journey.

Article by Vince Pizzoni CEng FIChemE

Career coach, business mentor, and professor of chemical and environmental engineering at University of Nottingham.

Vince Pizzoni has worked in 64 countries, 12 sectors and in multiple roles during a 47-year career in business.

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