By Alice Squires, PhD, CSEP-Acq, PMP, PEM and Tricia Simo Kush, CSM, PEM
Interview of the ASEM 2016 Engineering Manager of the Year
"I never said I cannot do something."
One thing is clear when you get a chance to meet Major-General (Belgian Air Force) Albert Husniaux, ASEM’s 2016 Engineering Manager of the Year (EMOY) - he is a passionate man. His passions include his family, his colleagues, and the field of engineering management. When nominated for the EMOY award, he reported that he expressed disbelief. He visited ASEM's website to learn more about the society and to look over the list of past award recipients. Then, he shared, he realized the commitment that the award represented, that this was an important honor, and he knew that he needed to be in attendance to receive this honor. "It is an obligation to use your talents," he told Alice Squires, ASEM’s Functional Director for Product Development, and me, Tricia Simo Kush, ASEM’s Director for Communications.as we interviewed him. Over the next hour, it became clear how his sense of entrepreneurship, ingenuity, innovation and collaboration has guided his work and shaped his talents.The following is a transcript from our conversation:
Trish: Do you sometimes have difficulty getting folks to share knowledge?
Major-general Albert Husniaux: I try to evolve, I shift based on what I hear. Knowledge and governance are the keys – start with governance and then shift to knowledge. The DNA of our organization is to share our knowledge. If you are not willing to share your knowledge, you are not part of the game. (click to Tweet) People see the benefit of contributing. In a cooperative setting, it’s no good if you are not having fun. I’ve been having fun for 41 years now.
T: What went through your mind when you received the Engineering Manager of the Year award?
AH: I thought why me, there are many engineering managers in the United States? This is the cherry on the cake at the end of my career. I took the time to come here. If you get the award, you need to show up. Most of the time, if there is a will there is a way. I made the necessary arrangements to take care of my family and I am here. I wish my wife could be here, as my partner in crime.
T: Who else or what else do you draw your motivation from?
AH: I come from a very modest family but I’ve always been lucky. I have met a lot of beautiful inspiring people who believed in me, challenged me, inspired me, and pushed my boundaries. I was born in 1957 – the year Sputnik I orbited the Earth before falling back into the Earth’s atmosphere. In 1969, there was the man on the moon. My childhood was dominated by space. When I saw Neil Armstrong putting his foot on the moon, I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. We could not afford school so I joined the military and became a Master of Science in Engineering and from there I got a lot of opportunities to do a lot of things.
My country has 50 nationalities. In northern Belgium, they speak Flemish. Since my father was French speaking, I went into the 1B group. My teacher in my first class gave me extra work – I spent time with their family, as my mother was ill. Next year I moved to the 1A group. At 14, I wrote letters to two members of parliament and one of the members agreed, and I received a grant to go to high school. I have many stories, I should write a book; many hurdles to overcome. The results of my work marketed myself. I would just do the work and move onto the next thing. You should be results-oriented and the career will come. (Click to Tweet)
T: Like one of my favorite quotes from Stephen Covey: “Begin with the end in mind.”
AH: I had a dream, I wanted to become an aerospace engineer and I surpassed my wildest imagination. It’s will, it’s work, it’s many things, but not selfishness, you will not get there. In the end, you work with people, they notice it.
T: If you could talk to your younger self as you were entering a leadership and management role in engineering, what would you say? What advice would you give?
AH: What I would tell to young people is that you need to have dreams, and you need to work how to get there. And believe in yourself. That would be my second message. You have will, you have talents, use them to the best extent and people will discover them. But it takes dedication, it takes a lot of work.
T: Sometimes you have to choose. It can be overwhelming.
AH: I agree, it’s like a falling star that appears and soon it’s gone over the horizon, so you have to see it when it’s there. Do what you believe in. You make a decision with the elements you have in mind at that time. Why bother to look back at that decision? You took the decision with what you knew at the time, so make the decision and move on. You need to look backward to learn because we make mistakes but it’s in order to move forward.
T: Some folks spend a lot of time looking back.
AH: I suppose that when you are younger that is true but when you are older, you know you cannot control that and you do your best. I never said I cannot do something. Professionally, when it comes to work, I have accepted all of the challenges that have been given to me. It’s crazy, I know. I like challenges.
T: If you cannot see how to accomplish something, it can be a challenge.
AH: As you go through your career, you are good at one area but as you extend your comfort zone, you become good at broader areas. So you have to go out of your comfort zone to go beyond. Some folks are not comfortable with that. It attracts me. I am a scientist, I am curious so the unknown attracts me like a magnet. I think that we need to be curious people.
T: What significant changes have you seen in the field of engineering management over your career?
It’s a difficult question. First is the time element. As a junior engineer, I was young, but now I run an organization. So it’s a time thing but also the role that I have. I think what has changed is it’s all become global. Also accessible to a lot of people. A single individual can now make a difference in science. Second thing is it has also become interconnected way more than it was in the past. Speed of change is augmented. I have a way more of a systems approach now than when I was younger. Rather than a components view.
In engineering as well, there is a lot of software, all over the place. Your thinking cannot be focused on hardware; it has to be on software too. Software is delicate, sometimes unstable. My son was a computer network professional. He was struggling. Last year we decided to go into the program together. I can make a network going down, to go up. The important thing is did he succeed? Yes, he did. I passed as well. This tells you about me. It was a motivation to do this.
But still you need to understand the hardware quite well. If you stay at the system level, you will not be able to resolve a problem. I always like to have a dissonant voice – by intent – on my team; like in music, the dissonance.
Now you have provoked me. Two bicycle makers from Dayton Ohio were the first to success in first flight, do you know why? Because everyone before them thought of the plane like a ship, in two dimensions – an air ship. The two bike makers knew they needed the three axes to control the plane, like the bicycle, and they succeeded. Innovation provides resources with a new capacity to generate added value.
T: Who or what has served as your inspiration?
AH: I’ve been fortunate to cross paths with so many beautiful, inspiring people. The Belgian Air Force, scientists, engineers; beautiful, dedicated people.
All of us in leadership positions need to do the best we can to inspire our young people. My career is over. We need to help people see the opportunities that are there so that they can make their path in life. This is not a question of payback or pay forward; it is a moral obligation. Life has given us a lot; we need to give it back; to help someone else find his or her way in life. Sometimes it is about helping answers, pitfalls, sometimes giving a ‘yes’ when a ‘yes’ is expected. Just ‘go for it’. They should outsmart us.
Alice: Given what you know about ASEM, what is the most important next step you would recommend we take to realize our vision to serve, advance, and promote the profession of engineering management around the world?
AH: In general terms, these societies need to provide networking opportunities. Second, they need to provide the necessary components for lifelong learning. I want to learn more about my profession and how can I get it. The third is to identify through the network what the profession is facing and what the consensus is about addressing these challenges.
The next probably is what are the next opportunities for this profession, how can we progress to make the profession more relevant. We need the teaching community to be aware of the needs out there and to change the curriculum to stay tuned to the needs. That’s my best guess.
T: Before we wrap up, I have one question that I really want to know more about. This question is from our esteemed colleague, Donald Kennedy: “In your opinion, how soon will computers be able to take over many of the jobs currently seen as requiring critical thinking and knowledge gained through experience?”
AH: Instinct: Never. In my view, humans will always interact with humans to take a decision. What will change is the evidence base – there will be a lot more data to comfort you in the decision to be made. But if you and I want to work, it will be between us. Will we be increasingly held by machines to make decisions? I think we will. We think it will make it more affordable to make the decision. But if you are out in the field and you need to make a split decision, you make it based on experience. If you have time, you will use the technology but you need to be able to use your brain to make the decision.
Right now we are in automated mode, the machines do not have latitude to make a decision. The next step is man and machine working together. Think of airplane and wingman and you want to complete a mission together. You need to talk, you need to interact. There is no autonomy in there. They will respond and execute but a human will supervise. Even Amazon gives the rules to take a route and deliver to a location, is that autonomy? No, it is automated. The decision is outside. I have a pretty automated car, but I drive the car. It will never decide if I will go to Brussels, but it may keep me in my lanes.
Computers will provide us with better decision aids but it will never take away critical thinking. There is the interaction of humans and there is an ethical dimension in there as well. I am not in favor of that. I still use a slide rule and logarithmic tables. The computer, the raw calculation power we have to assist us in anything we do. But I don’t need all the decimals. [smiles]. Was that the reply you were expecting?
T: It gives me a lot of thought. There isn’t a right or wrong.
AH: Technologically it is probably feasible. Let’s say you are the boss of the company and you want to hire someone. And you are the recruiting company. You come up with the ranking and recommend number 1. I go back to my office and say, can I work with this person? If I feel more comfortable with number 2 then I hire number 2 rather than number 1. Technology / computer will aid me in making the decision but there are other factors in there that are human related.
I learned something late in my career and that is to be myself, whether it is good or bad, because that is who we are.
T: The challenge is if we are good enough.
AH: We are never good enough, so that is not there. It is hard because it is fun and you are testing your limits. You know the feeling; you worked hard on something and you think this is okay. And then you get one question and you think, “Garbage can.” You know that feeling? It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s part of normal things in life.
The place I don’t want to be is in front of arrogant people who are incompetent, that is what I dislike the most, and they do exist. If they have their ears open, they are okay. The only way I have found to address this is bilateral – face-to-face – because you cannot challenge them in front of their peers. Get them out, have a face-to-face talk.
T: So, the message or takeaway for our readers?
AH: Globally what I would like to give is you have one of the most beautiful professions you can find, because there is something for everyone. It is so broad, and there is something you can do. Don’t stand still, get connected with lifelong learning. It is not static. For everyone, if you look at the body of work, there is something out there for everybody.
In closing, Alice and I had a great visit with the General and this was easily the highlight of our ASEM conference experience!