The Unwritten Laws Of Engineering: Professor W. Julian King’s Manual For Engineer’s Behaviour

Many years ago Professor W. Julian King wrote a fascinating account of the human relations side of engineering. The most amazing thing about this booklet is that it was written in 1944, and the principles can still be applied over 60 years later.

Professor King was an American engineer working in California. He spent 17 years studying the human engineering processes in the operation of the design section of a manufacturing company.

Laws of Behaviour

King’s basic premise was that the personal and administration problems in an engineering enterprise created most impediments to success, rather than the technical problems. He states that the technical rules governing engineering are all written. These laws are taught at universities, are contained in text books and the myriad of technical papers in the public sphere. They are not in dispute.

But behavioural laws hadn’t been written in King’s day. So he decided to bring these “unwritten laws of engineering” together into a set of house rules or professional code.

In this modern era of organisational behaviour and human resource management, many of King’s concepts are not covered. His booklet deals more with the individual’s attitude towards behavioural laws rather than from a management perspective. It would take a large number of Google searches of modern human resource documentation to find the quaint expression stating that “a little profanity goes a long way.”

King says that it is not inappropriate for an engineer to issue the occasional “damn”. And that “a good hearty outburst of colourful profanity may be just a healthy expression of strong feelings.”

Young Engineers

He espouses three qualities young engineers need for success:

  • energy, to start a job and finish it;
  • ingenuity, to develop new ways of doing things; and
  • persistence, to follow the job through to completion.

According to King, the last attribute is usually found in brilliant engineers as they eagerly start a project full of gusto, only to slacken off in the end and not finish. King says they are “good starters but poor finishers”.

Executive Engineers

For executive engineers, he encourages focus on planning, saying to “plan your work, then work your plan.” His research found many bosses tried to do all the work themselves and didn’t have a good grasp of what was happening in their department.

He urged executive engineers to boil matters down to their simplest terms and make brisk, clean-cut decisions. His premise is that it is better to arrive at a decision rather than make no decision at all.

Personal Traits

Professor King also had some interesting comments about the personal traits of engineers. From a study of 4,000 cases, he found unsuitability for a particular job was due more to “social unadaptability” (62%) rather than technical competence (38%). King’s premise was supported 52 years later through Goldman’s work on Emotional Intelligence.

King said the most important trait of any engineer is the ability to get along with people; and that personal integrity is an engineer’s most important asset.

He states that for a successful engineering career there are four essential components.

  • written laws
  • unwritten laws
  • native endowments: intelligence, imagination, health, energy
  • luck, chance, opportunities – “the breaks”

Summarising, Professor King states that “it is much easier to recognise the validity of these laws than it is to apply them consistently”.

Over sixty years on these laws are still current. They may be written in a different format as political correctness didn’t exist in Professor King’s day. But they still carry the same message that has survived the test of time.