Design Con 2015

An engineer on safari—what African animals teach about problem solving—part 2

-February 27, 2013

Editor's Note: Engineer Tamara Schmitz has turned her visit to Botswana into an entertaining and educational exercise in problem solving techniques she has garnered from the natural instincts of the amazing animals living and co-existing in the wild. The editor’s notes I have added are not to complete or enhance her article because it stands alone. I only interject these personal perspectives to share a bit of my 40 years of experiences in electronics with EDN readers in this enlightening article Schmitz has created.

—Steve Taranovich

As I noted in part 1, Africa is as wild and wonderful as I imagined. What I didn’t expect, was to learn lessons about problem solving that I could apply to my career as an engineer back home in Silicon Valley. After the first few sightings being “star struck” by seeing so many different species in their natural habitat, I started paying more attention to their behavior, their interactions and their choices. Many of those turned into life lessons for me to bring home. The top five appeared in part 1, and here are the others:

Number 6:  Know your strengths. African animals seem to naturally know their strengths. Elephants know they are big and when trouble approaches they spread their ears to look even bigger. Tsessebes are the fastest land antelope and they know to run when trouble approaches (Figure 6). They can outrun trouble in almost all shapes and sizes—unless it is shaped like a cheetah. Kudu are another type of antelope with strength of camouflage. They have adapted to the African savannah with vertical stripes on their body and coloring that allow them to blend into the foliage during the rain, when their scent would travel further and attract predators. Leopards know that their strength is climbing trees. They usually choose to have dinner high off the ground so their meal won’t be stolen by another predator. Giraffes have long necks to enjoy the leaves other herbivores can’t reach. In fact, every animal in Africa seems to have its own niche.


Figure 6 A tsessebe looks out for trouble in Savuti National Park.

In part 1, I described one of the strengths that Intersil light sensors have over the competition. It is to my benefit to know that strength and be able to explain it to customers. The strengths of semiconductor products do not last as long as evolutionary adaptations, but the lesson of knowing and using your strengths is the same.

What are your strengths as an engineer? I also think you should consider your strengths as an individual. I used to be a professor and one of my strengths is breaking down complex ideas into smaller, understandable pieces appropriate for different audiences. When there is a customer problem, I feel more confident to volunteer to listen, question, and summarize the issues for the team. Think about something you are good at and how you can put that skill to work in your career and for your team.

Editor’s note: It is wise to know your strengths and to build upon them. Know your weaknesses too and make efforts to improve them too.

Number 7:  Determination. There is no lack of determination in Africa. One day we drove about 8 hours through light-colored sand to get from one camp site to the next.  I was struck by the amount of desert. The roads were sandy ditches and I doubt we could have gone any faster than 30 mph or so. Still, that amounts to more than 200 miles of desert that some animals choose to cross. Yes, animals go great lengths to find water and food sources (Figure 7).


Figure 7 This giraffe was in the middle of the desert.

Another undeniable sign of determination is a mopane forest.  There hasn’t been much rain in Africa for a number of years. Animals like elephants have had to go to great lengths to find food and water.  Elephants knock over mopane trees (some larger than a dinner plate in circumference) to give their young access to the green leaves higher in the trees.  They also absorb water from the exposed part of the trunk.  Determination.

When you have a problem to solve at work, are you as determined as an elephant with a young one to take care of? Would you slam your forehead into a tree to find the solution?  (I am definitely not suggesting you do this.) Think about what you do when you come up against a difficult problem.  In this age of shortening attention spans, I fear too many of us distract ourselves with a different task and hope that the difficult problem magically goes away.  The art of determination is becoming scarce.  So the next time you are frustrated, think further outside the box, dig in, and try again.

Editor’s note: Determination is what separates a good engineer from a great engineer. When others stop trying, the determined engineer needs to dig ever deeper, even against all odds and discouraging advice to stop and move on. Determination paid off for Thomas Edison. If he had given up after the 50th or 70th failed experiment, we would have been in the dark with candles for an even longer time.

Loading comments...

Write a Comment

To comment please Log In