How ChE Prepared Me for Business (and How It Didn’t): Intro

An experience all chemical engineers (ChE) share is the variety of reactions they get at parties: "You're a chemist?", "You destroy the environment?", "You have a life outside of crunching numbers?", or eye-glazing and a quick transition to the weather. Occasionally, you'll meet a person who knows a ChE personally and their reaction is something like: "So, you're a smarty pants."

How are perceptions formed?

A driver behind how perceptions are formed is a psychological tendency known as cognitive efficiency. The theory basically states that critical thinking is challenging, so people take shortcuts to reach conclusions. In the absence of awareness, prior knowledge, or the application of critical thinking, people create their own conclusions based on other experiences or social proof. Social proof--"they are doing it, so I should too"--has even been key in driving critical decisions on Wall Street (article link), including the lack of critical analysis of mortgage-backed securities that led to the housing crisis (article link). For a person who's never met a ChE, a natural leap would be to assume that engineers are analytically intelligent but, since they've spent their lives in a lab or in front of a computer away from people, they must lack the skills to be effective dealing with people directly in the corporate world.

Perceptions in the Business World

Perceptions just don't affect engineers. While there is an awareness gap of how ChE training is excellent training for business, at least they don't face the credibility gap Chief Marketing Officers (CMO) are dealing with recently. In an increasingly analytic business environment, those in this traditionally least analytic role have been struggling to be relevant with their C-level peers (Marketing Week, AMA, McKinsey).

An awareness gap with the business audience is not really our fault. Neither building awareness nor promotion--both Marketing 101 activities--is covered in our core courses and not expected to be in our DNA. Contributing to the awareness gap is the fact that ChEs work on technically challenging projects that don't make the front pages on on an hourly basis. Of all the engineering disciplines, the value of ChE training can be the most challenging to explain to a casual audience, but it doesn't have to be.

I wouldn't claim that I'm a typical ChE, having never been a design engineer and having made a transition from process consulting to business consulting, but I have had the opportunity to reflect on how my engineering training has been invaluable in business.

With the recent attention on the perceived value of a college education (see recent report on NPR), the goal of this series is to describe, from one perspective, how a ChE degree has been a powerful foundation for tackling business problems.

This series will cover:

  • How ChE training has prepared me for business, including:
    • Finance,
    • Marketing, and
    • Delivering results.

And to provide a balanced perspective, this series will also cover the gaps I had to fill on my own. Keep an eye out in the coming weeks for new posts in the series.

Where have you seen cognitive efficiency in action at your workplace?

Photo: Robert J.Pennington,
(C)2011 Arkan Kayihan, used with permission


May's picture

Looking forward to the next post! As very well put in the post above, cognitive efficiency is every where. At the work place, perception is very powerful and is deeply ingrained in the reward system. While employees can have SMART goals and articulate quantative results (example: increased sales by 50%), many of the reward/bonus system is a bit subjective. A lot of times promotions and big bonuses can be down to perceptions of one's boss and peers. Another cognitive efficiency experience when I was a teenager: I was in the library browsing Seventeen Magazine (nothing academic about that magazine) in my glasses and nerdy appearance. A girl came up to with her math workbook and asked, " Can you help me with this problem?" Perception: Thick Glasses = Nerdy = Good at Math.