For a guy who said he did not have the obligatory joke to go with his speech, engineer extraordinaire David Urie managed to coax quite a few laughs out of his AeroTech audience.
It was not ha-has he was after, though. The 1997 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Engineer of the Year was more interested in pumping up the engineers in the room (and the engineering profession in general) while encouraging them to be creative and to pursue their dreams. With a delivery as deadpan as any, he deftly weaved humor into his nuggets of wisdom and caution—to great effect.
And he did it without using visual aids. In today’s world, “we’re awash in visuals of all types and size,” Urie said at the outset of his speech. “This morning, we’re going to use another form of technology, and this is the visual system inside your head. All you have to do is switch that on and make the pictures that you need as we go along, if you feel you need pictures. It’s up to you. Now, this is a technology that was very highly developed back in the days when people watched a lot of radio.
“Also, I don’t have a joke,” he said, further drawing in his audience. “I don’t even bother to remember jokes. However, I do keep up with research, and I recently read in a psychology publication that old people don’t get jokes. In my case, my empty look at a joke is not because I don’t get it, but because I’m trying to remember whether I heard it in the fifth or sixth grade.”
With his joke about not having a joke behind him, Urie segued nicely from jokes to dreams—the main topic of his speech.
“Now, a joke is only a story,” he said. “Our minds work in terms of stories. We make sense of the world by making up stories. The world presents us with empirical data in the form of experiences, which we have to organize in some way to make sense of them. So memory is the story we make up about the past, and dreams are the stories we make up about the future.
“Speaking with engineers, I’m talking about a special kind of dreams. I’m talking about the kind of dreams that drew us into this line of work. Most of us are attracted to this industry because we share dreams that this industry could fulfill. So we’re all dreamers. And we’re informed dreamers. Engineers know stuff. So when an engineer forms a dream, it’s well informed by solid information. And so engineers’ dreams deserve to be listened to. One of the things I want to encourage you to do is make trouble for your management by coming up with ideas, some of which may become the dreams of the future.”
The history of aviation is filled with dreamers, Urie said. Among the more significant dreamers, in his eyes, was Robert E Gross, who with his brother purchased Lockheed in 1932 during the Great Depression. (Urie, currently Senior Consultant at Colbaugh & Heinsheimer Consulting, once worked for Lockheed Martin.) “Look ahead, where the horizons are absolutely unlimited,” Gross said in a speech to his employees early on.
“Those are the words of a dreamer,” Urie said. “And out of that was built a company. And other companies were founded in the same way, and they struggled.”
Despite the Great Depression, engineers’ dreams thrived—not always with sufficient payback and not always with the approval of Lockheed engineer spouses, according to Urie, who created the following fanciful dialogue to illustrate the conflict between an engineer’s dreams and his income level at that tension-filled time in U.S. history. The dialogue begins when the engineer returns home from work.
Wife: “What did you do today?”
Engineer: “Oh, nothing. Was just hanging out.”
Wife: “You’re not down there hanging out with those Lockheed guys, are you? You’re not getting involved in that aeronautics stuff?”
Engineer: “Oh no, I just drink and gamble.”
Wife: “Oh, well that’s a relief.”
The dreams of those engineers finally came to life in World War II. Technologies such as the all-metal semi-monocoque airframe and the air-cooled radial engine already had been developed, and were put to use for the war effort, according to Urie.
In such a crisis as WWI, and the Cold War that followed, dreams became realized easily because there was a willingness to “do anything that might work,” Urie said. “Nowadays, we’re in an era where you don’t do anything that might not work, which is probably not healthy. We need to get back a little bit towards the try-anything period.”
In the most recent 50 years of aviation’s roughly 100-year history, Urie noted, engineers have established a backlog of technology—a “technology harvest,” he called it, “which needs to be reviewed and examined for things that can be applied now.” The U.S. facing asymmetric threats in a vastly changed, multipolar world, now is not the time to be wasting potentially useful ideas just because they are old. “It’s an entirely new picture,” Urie said, “and the picture’s getting muddier because we don’t have the distance of time to make up our story. So my suggestion is, we need the dreamers.”
Being a dreamer is not necessarily easy, he said. One of the problems plaguing big companies is their reliance on “designated thinkers” to the exclusion of engineers. Big mistake, said Urie. “Every engineer I’ve ever met had something to contribute,” he said. “Engineers as a group, rank and file, are a tremendous resource that tends to get wasted.”
Be persistent in pursuing your ideas, Urie exhorted the engineers in the room. Dreams are contagious, he noted, so a good idea will draw the help of colleagues if the originator is passionate and reaches out. But because not every idea will be a good one (a good way to tell is to run it by some colleagues before going on a mission), engineers must be willing to sign on to someone else’s better idea—at least for the moment.