Professional Thought

  • Posted: May 9, 2017
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Running a business is an education. Or perhaps a learning experience is better said. Life makes plain time and again that education and learning are not the same thing. That being said, running a business is definitely a post-graduate course in how the world works. In business, ignorance is punished, sometimes quickly, but often like revenge – a dish best served cold. But one learns that failure to learn is always punished.

Every business is special in its own way, with its own unique lessons to be learned. My own particular education came in running a professional business, the business of engineering. Luckily for me a professional business is a very simple and uncomplicated business. If those of us in a professional business had the steel in our backbone to run a real business, we would go make widgets, drill oil wells, produce TV commercials for personal injury lawyers or something there was a real need for. But while we professionals may daydream of sailing in stormy seas, we remain safely sheltered in our protected harbor, making money by providing professional services to people with money seeking professional services. Even so, it isn’t as easy as it sounds.

At the root of our difficulty is a lesson stunning in its simplicity, but also totally confounding to the professional. This lesson, so inexplicable to the professional, is a truth totally at odds with everything we have learned, everything we have been told, in our nearly two decades of education. Upon leaving school and being thrown as naked babes into the world, we are shocked to discover that reality is profoundly different than we had thought. Santa Claus is a fraud.

That lesson, the basic truth, which so confuses those of us who are professional’s is a basic observation, a thought simply stated:

Nobody gets paid to think.

I have often amused myself by naming it Bracer’s First Law. As with all basic truths, it has corollaries pointing out the logical consequences of the basic truth. In this case the most useful corollary is also the most disheartening for a professional:

Nobody cares what you know.

We have spent our lives learning things. In high school while our friends played hooky or flirted with the opposite sex, we obediently did our homework, fighting to get in “Honors” courses. In college while our friends slept until noon and spent their afternoons in the Student Union, we struggled through early morning labs lasting until noon and meeting three times a week. Our parents rolled their eyes at yet another Honor Roll Initiation Ceremony, while envying their own friends, the parents of jocks, who were popular guests at all their adult parties. Now we find out everybody, our parents, our teachers, the entire responsible world of adults, lied to us. Santa Claus is indeed a fraud.

How can this be? Our civilization is a complicated engine built on the specialized knowledge of the professionals. If something is so simple that it can be done without thinking, without the need for a professional’s sure touch, surely it has been automated and is no longer done by human beings? The professional mind is soaked in the faith, convinced of the value of their thought and their knowledge. The professional has by education, or training, acquired a broad reservoir of specialized knowledge that can be applied in a structured way to solve complex problems. But then we learn that Santa Claus is indeed a fraud.

Over our years of service, we slowly come to the understanding that our professional education and training was a maze of arcana and the obvious used to weed out those easily distracted and faint of heart. An underappreciated side benefit is that this labyrinth of obfuscation also weeds out those students with a cynical turn of mind. Virtually all professionals are cynics by middle age, but it is a too sad thing imagining newly minted professionals as cynics before they encounter that which makes them cynical.

Those with professional degrees or certificates have demonstrated their ability to persevere and master minutia, minutia both wearisome and complex but of doubtful relevance. Because these now certified professionals haven proven they can persevere through years of doubtful dogma, while taking away only the proper and approved insights, they have shown themselves capable of being trusted to carry the certified stamp of their profession into the marketplace.

But as with any other startling revelation, not everyone believes, or can deal with the truth. Some professional graduates, newly liberated from the confining shackles of the classroom into freedom and relevance, learn to dance with reality. Others, probably most, professional graduates cannot come to grips with the reality of the marketplace. Adrift in the marketplace rather than a school, forced to earn money rather than grades, the professional struggles to accommodate to this new and strange reality.

How do professionals make money in the marketplace? Money needs to change hands. Every businessman, every employee, must learn that fundamental lesson. If you don’t make money, you don’t stay in business, you don’t stay employed. To survive, a business must have customers. The business must provide its customers with something the customer is willing to pay for and the customer must pay more for it than it costs the business to provide it. An obvious logic you say, but one strangely opaque to the professional mind.

Those graduates capable of dancing with reality find themselves in demand. They are hired, gain promotion and increased responsibility, because customers, i.e. people with money, are willing to pay for what they can do. Even as their self-confidence grows, their professional pride dims and gradually falls away, replaced by a pride in what they can do. Other graduates, clinging to the safety of what they know, find they are discriminated against when promotions are given and victimized when layoffs loom. Victims of a harsh reality, of Bracer’s First Law, these graduates yearning for a more ordered environment often take refuge in a growing pride in their professional credentials.

Here is the crux of the problem. That long road to their exalted state has convinced the professional of the value of their thinking. In fact their long and expensive education has repeatedly emphasized the need to think through a problem, to search out the approved thinking on the problem and present the approved solutions. But the brutal logic of the marketplace dictates that thinking is not a marketable commodity, regurgitating one’s knowledge is poorly paid. After all, Bracer’s First Law reigns in the marketplace. A conundrum indeed!

Obviously, given the increasingly large numbers and newly created catagories of professionals being graduated each year, a compromise solution to Bracer’s First Law must found. And so as in all cases of real need, compromises are found. In the case of an engineering company, the compromise is to kill trees. This minor degradation of Mother Earth’s climate allows for an uneasy co-existence between engineering companies and their clients. Engineering companies produce drawings and specifications, many if not most of dubious utility, for which their clients compensate them. In the great shadow cast by this carnival of activity, the actual thinking by engineers dancing with reality, crucial and necessary to the project or problem can be carried out and subsidized.

It was my great fortune, or perhaps misfortune, to run an engineering company engaged in building things for companies involved in producing and transporting oil & gas. Thus we had to negotiate directly with the customers who required our services. This put a distinct limit on the amount of paper we could turn out, needless to say, in turn limiting the amount of money we could charge and the engineers we could pay to think. As a consequence of this direct connection between engineer and client, everything we did was subject to debate and oversight by our clients. The question of the client always was, “Is this necessary? Why do we need this drawing? What is this specification for?”

The argument of the engineer often boiled down to a simple truth, “I know it and it is therefore important and valuable.” The rebuttal of the client was usually, “What good is it?” In such disagreements, one of Murphy’s cousins, an equally observant lawmaker by the name of O’Brien, gave his name to another law decisive in such disagreements:

“He who has the gold, makes the rules.”

O’Brien’s Law

O’Brien’s Law is not a universal truth, but rather a statement of principles in specific circumstances, rather like Euclidian geometry. O’Brien’s Law does not apply in certain circumstances. One of those areas for my engineering company was in the design of foundations for buildings. My company didn’t build complicated buildings. We just poured simple concrete floors under pre-fabricated steel buildings. No big deal, pour the concrete and bolt the steel framework down. Your suburban house foundation is more complicated. Heck, your garage floor is more complicated.

But, and this is a very big but, building foundation drawings need to be approved by a governmental body. No arguments with clients about whether a package of drawings and specifications detailing a 400 sqft. four inch thick concrete slab was necessary. The County Engineer said it was. Not only that, but not just any engineer can be allowed to do the specifications and drawings. This work is required to be done by an engineer properly approved and certified by the State. End of discussion.

And so I was introduced to the magic bullet, the panacea par excellence, of professional America, governmental regulation. Endless skirmishes with clients about whether this drawing or this specification was necessary are something professionals need not engage in if a governmental entity is involved.

Engineers must meet the requirements set forth by a veritable plethora of agencies, COE, building departments, LEED, EPA, etc. CPA’s and lawyers exist in a similar symbiosis with the IRS, Dodd-Frank, SEC, whatever. Importantly, these governmental requirements can only be met in an approved fashion and only with the proper documentation prepared by properly credentialed professionals.

Here is an oasis in the desert of professional reality. Those ill-educated bumpkins thinking that they can just come up with their own answers, even if they work! Hah! Governmental regulation requires that the proper paperwork and the proper answer be presented in the proper and approved fashion, just like back in school. It requires a credentialed professional.

This blizzard of paper and zetabytes of cloud capacity, a clear and present danger to arctic ice, an existential threat to those lovable polar bears, enables companies providing professional services to grow almost without limit, even to reach Fortune 100 status. When government is involved, it is my observation that professionals exist in a symmetry of need with their regulatory enablers while clients write checks. Governmental involvement simplifies the professionals need to accommodate reality enormously.

Surprisingly enough, it is possible to get paid for thinking. Bracer will never gain the notoriety of Murphy and O’Brien, because Bracer’s First Law has failed the test of reality. It is possible to get paid for what you know. Santa Claus is not a fraud if government is involved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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