Nov 23, 2016

My global engineering class inspires me

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I find writing less appealing when I’m happy. To write about my happy life feels like bragging. (Although I’m bursting with new ideas about how I’ve achieved my current healthy outlook.) I could also write about technology topics I’m interested in, but I risk exposing my inner nerddess while also boring readers with technical details and a dispassionate tone. Ah, well.

I’m excited about global engineering
I’m taking a graduate design class called Global Engineering this semester, and I love it.

My interest in global engineering has surprised me. I never participated in Engineers Without Borders during undergrad, viewing those who did as both morally superior to me, and suffering from “white savior” syndrome. Our professor and guest speakers have avoided indulging the latter view by focusing on business as the engine for economic development.

Disclaimer: The following arguments lack nuance
Global engineering is new for me. I’m sure I’ll look back on this post in a year and cringe at my heavy-handedness, but it is what it is. I recognize this pre-cringe feeling from a few years ago, when I began seriously reading about the American civil rights movement and women’s rights. It took me a while to grasp the basic issues and move beyond an “over-developed sense of propriety” (in the words of a former manager). I am not a social justice newbie anymore. Now when I read about civil rights, I develop informed conclusions – without fear of future cringing! – by integrating historical context, modern social justice theory, and my intuition about human nature. I feel confident in educating others who are interested, and I choose when I want to engage emotionally – trolls (mostly) can’t sucker me in. Anyway, all of that is to explain that I have started to read global development books voraciously, but I’m an amateur, at best.

The “long tail” justifies global strategy

The business case for global engineering is very persuasive. It’s the same model Amazon used to dominate ecommerce. Prior to Amazon, booksellers focused on capturing the bestseller market. It was never profitable for them to stock titles that might only sell one copy. But the number of books that only sell one copy dwarfs the number of bestsellers. Amazon seized the opportunity of this “long tail.” The same logic applies in global engineering. The number of potential developing world consumers dwarfs the number of rich world consumers. US multinationals would be crazy not to consider the “long tail” of global engineering.

Reverse engineering enables sustained market growth
Until recently, most US multinationals who participated in emerging markets followed a “glocalization” strategy, in which they sold rich world products to consumers in developing countries with very minimal adaptations. This strategy is cost-effective and successful, as the example of McDonald’s demonstrates. However, further growth necessitates reverse engineering products specifically for the developing world. McDonald’s adopts the latter approach via serving rice meals at their Indian and Chinese restaurants.

Global engineering saves American engineering jobs
Typically, American engineers view their developing world counterparts as competition. US multinationals have been outsourcing engineering for decades. But adopting the reverse engineering strategy requires a deep understanding of the needs of the developing country consumer, ie, on-the-ground research and engineering. This lends itself to an “in country for country” strategy. Thus arises what, for me, is the most exciting benefit of global engineering: Both the American engineer and her developing world counterpart have a secure future with the company. The American engineer designs products for American consumers, while the developing world engineer designs products for the developing world. Cue Tina Fey high-fiving a million angels!

Repeat: Job security!
There are other benefits to global engineering, one being the opportunity to use the reverse engineered product to re-reverse engineer even better products for rich world consumers. But, really, I’m just excited about the “secure American engineering jobs” part. After spending all summer learning to cut costs by firing people via my LGO classes, I’m pretty psyched about a philosophy that promotes job security and innovation as avenues toward profitability.