August 2009

At this web site we get emails from all over the world. Maybe not as many as you might think, our message board is doing a great job as a forum for answering technical and not-so-technical questions.

Once in a while we get email from engineers in India. Their typical email might be a request for a spreadsheet that we have mentioned on the web site, and of course, the English that is employed is not what you might get from Silicon Valley but readable all the same. After a few emails from this part of the world, you will soon notice that they often close with "kindly do the needful" if they are looking for help, or "I will do the needful" if they are looking to contribute. My first thought was that this expression is an example of a foreign culture misusing the American Language, like those silly Limeys often do. But according to Wikipedia, this is an arcane expression that originated within East India Company correspondence from the seventeenth century.

This got me thinking, what a great way to live your life. If you concentrate on doing things that need to be done and ignore the rest of the noise, you would be a better person at work, and the workplace would be better.

It turns out that many other engineers already know what "do the needful" means. In particular, any workers whose jobs are being outsourced are familiar with the phase as they train their replacements. So they joke about it, as if it is proof that Indian programmers "don't talk good". Wake up, do the needful, and figure out what job you can get that can't be exported, and go make it happen, so you can afford delicious snacks to accompany your mouse-clicking career!

When college students first take an engineering job, they are more than happy to do what is needed to be done. But in that blink of an eye between 22 and 30 years old, most company cultures destroy this trait. By the time you are thirty, and you have your very first title or "position" at work, even if it is assistant dog catcher, chances are you no longer are concentrating on doing the needful. Once your name occupies a box in an org chart, when someone asks you to do something, you can blow them off by saying "that's not my job", or alternatively, finding a new hire to do the needful thing. After all, we must follow protocol, or we will soon find ourselves in a facilitated meeting defining roles and responsibilities until we all fit into Aldous Huxley's Brave New World! Why should we have to eat with the Deltas, or even know that they exist?

In a small company, this is often not the case, as your duties might include taking out the trash, or scrubbing an occasional toilet to bring you down to earth. In a large company, in good times there's an army of people with well defined responsibilities, or an army of people strategizing on who gets the "good work" and shirking off the other stuff.

There are exceptions to this rule, but the culture starts at the top. Soichiro Honda, the founder and engineering genius behind the car and motorcycle company that bears his name is someone we can all learn from. A great engineer, marketeer and business man, if Honda hadn't done needful things all along his business would not have survived. One Honda legend has it that once he was in a mens room, using the urinal next to a much lower employee. The employee must have been flustered at seeing the head of the company, and dropped his Honda badge into the urinal. Not knowing what to do he did nothing. Seeing the problem, Honda did the needful thing, rescued the man's badge and washed it off for him. There's not a CEO in the United States that would do that for any of his employees. Here's a great quote from Honda:

"When Congress passes new emission standards, we hire 50 more engineers and GM hires 50 more lawyers."

In order to develop low emission cars, engineers are needed. Lawyers are not part of the solution.

Honda never went into the SUV business like most other car manufacturers (especially General Motors) preferring to build efficient cars that people need, not big cars that make Americans feel bigger and can boost profits in the diminishing seasons of cheap gas. It literally took an act of Congress try to correct General Motors' ways. The company that always lawyered up while selling cars that we don't need is now bankrupt. Honda is doing fine. Honda's CVCC engine in 1975 should have been the wakeup call to American car manufacturers. The compound vortex controlled combustion engine took everyone by surprise by meeting polution standards without the need for a catalytic converter, a new technology that American companies feared would be so expensive it would cause a major drop in sales. Hey look, it's whispering to us!

Hey you, Sleeping Giant! I kicked your ass while you slept again!

You can apply "do the needful" beyond work, to your personal life. You gained 20 pounds since graduating. You need to get more exercise and eat better.

The corollary to "do the needful" is to not do the needless. This certainly applies to personal finances. You need a phone. But you don't need to spend an extra thirty bucks each month to have an i-phone. You need to save money in case you lose your job. You're an engineer, you don't ever need to make car payments, just drive something less expensive.

Do you walk around complaining about everything? Do the needful and shut your pie hole. Are you paying for piano lessons for your kids because you always wanted to play, or for a gym membership you don't use? If they don't practice hard, or work out once in a week, do the needful and cancel the unneeded expense!


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