Engineering a Path into the Nonprofit Sector: Q&A with Patrick Miller

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It’s almost impossible to talk about how engineering fits into the nonprofit world in Canada without some mention of Engineers Without Borders (EWB).

In fact, almost every person I spoke with while researching my last story, Engineering a better world: Using your degree in the nonprofit sector, said the same thing: “Have you been in touch with EWB?”

This organization, focused on finding solutions to extreme poverty, works to provide the next generation of rural Africans with the same opportunities to improve their lives that we have right here at home. In order to do so, members and volunteers apply all the creativity, technical skills, and problem-solving approach for which engineers are known.

Well, I did get in touch with EWB, and the responses I received to some of my questions were so compelling we decided to share them with you.

Let me introduce you to Patrick Miller.

Patrick is an engineer. He studied civil engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary, and is currently finishing up his master’s degree in Transportation Planning and Engineering at the same school. He has been heavily involved in Engineers Without Borders, as well as a few other local nonprofits.

When Patrick first enrolled in engineering he was excited to get a degree that he could use to contribute to some of the world’s biggest problems. Global poverty and the injustices it perpetuates has always been a rallying call for him. He studied engineering because he hoped he could develop skills that would help him play a role in confronting those injustices.

In his third year of studies, at the time when he first heard about EWB, he was quite flustered with his engineering experience to date. Though he found the courses challenging, they seemed so removed from his desire to meet injustices head on. Not only did EWB provide an outlet to use the problem solving skills he had been learning and dive into the challenging world of international development, it also pushed him to learn and grow. Since it balanced action with learning, it was perfect for him.

We hope Patrick’s experience and advice might help you on your own path towards working in the nonprofit sector.

CharityVillage: What can you tell me about your experience with Engineers Without Borders?

Patrick Miller: My first major experience with EWB was in 2009 in Ndola, Zambia. I was involved with a water and sanitation project where EWB’s role was to improve planning and project delivery capabilities with a partner organization. Many NGOs claim that with a few dollars they can deliver a well that can provide clean water for a village or community. While this statement is tempting, there is a lot more to it. In many cases, wells and other projects are poorly planned and monitored – tangibly this means that money is spent to put wells where they aren’t needed or perhaps they’re implemented in such a way that when they break there is no fix. My work was with a local NGO was twofold – first we were trying to understand how communities were using their water infrastructure, second we wanted to develop a new way to monitor and plan so that projects went to the right place and could be repaired when needed.

When a lot of people hear “EWB” they immediately think of building wells or other types of infrastructure. EWB’s real work is actually focused on people – EWB works with planners, leaders, and businesses in a number of African countries to accelerate development. Whether that is a new system to plan water points in Malawi, working on decision making in Northern Ghana, or developing a better understanding of agricultural markets, EWB is trying to find innovative and practical solutions to development challenges.

In Canada, where the bulk of my experience has been, I have worked on political engagement campaigns focused on aid effectiveness, and a program called Global Engineering where EWB leaders work with campuses to develop unique curricular and co-curricular content that engages engineering students about leadership, problem solving, and how they can use their future career to serve society.

In Global Engineering, I work with leaders around the country to build relationships with deans and other engineering faculty with the goal of co-creating opportunities for engineering students to learn about leadership, global challenges, and how they can use their career to serve society. Whether I’m giving a lecture to a few hundred students or meeting with a dean I find this work very rewarding. EWB’s philosophy with the Global Engineering program is that by working in partnership with a variety of institutions, there can be a wide spread impact on the way engineers are educated and eventually practice.

CV: In what ways did your engineering degree prepare you for the work you’re doing today?

PM: I focused on transportation and environmental engineering courses during my undergraduate degree. Those courses were all about trying to understand human problems, such as traffic jams, pollution, or clean water very clearly and come up with solutions for them. This style of thinking stressed the need to understand both the problem and the overarching system it is a part of. Regardless of what work I do, I feel that the problem-solving skills that are developed in engineering programs are widely applicable. As much as engineering teaches specific areas, such as traffic theory, it also helps students develop an overall mental model that is grounded in critical thinking, problem solving, systems thinking and solution exploration. These skills come in handy in a variety of situations, including planning a new transit line or working on a national advocacy campaign.

CV: Why do nonprofits need engineers?

PM: In our ever more complex world, multiple perspectives along with diverse leadership and problem solving skills are needed around the table. Unfortunately, the general public has long considered the engineering profession to be one that is confined to a theoretical and technical world that is disconnected from day to day life. In reality, engineering is a profession defined by problem solving and serving society. Engineers are trained to use their problem-solving skills to better understand issues and challenges, an then develop solutions. When paired with other disciplines, this problem solving aptitude can be quite useful in countless environments! Engineers often take on leading roles in the business world due to a desire and ability to balance innovation and pragmatism. This kind of thinking is well in line with the current realities of working in our complex world – nonprofits need innovative ideas to advance their work, but at the same time they are often resource constrained while operating under tight deadlines… which is where the engineering pragmatism comes in.

CV: Why should someone in engineering consider working for a nonprofit?

PM: Two key reasons come to mind – the first is that it presents an opportunity for professional and personal development that industry or other fields might not offer. While skills are highly transferable, the unique challenges and opportunities nonprofit work present can push engineers to become stronger leaders or more effective managers. These skill sets are valuable no matter what work environment an engineer chooses to work in. In my experience, leadership and management skills grow fast when we work in the unknown – nonprofit work can definitely provide engineers with new challenges and a lot of unknowns to explore and grow in.

The second reason is that engineers can add a new perspective and skill set to the nonprofit world that can lead to a lot of good work being done. Many engineering students and professionals I have met have stated a desire to do something different that has a different kind of impact. Nonprofit work, whether it is development oriented like the work EWB does, or it focuses on a different cause, can be an exciting way that will provide engineers with a change to share their skills, experiences, and ideas in a new environment that might be able to use them for great good.

CV: Can you provide an example of the type of work you might do on a regular day, and how it reflects the skills you developed while earning your engineering degree?

PM: While working with EWB, a lot of my work has to do with leadership and strategy development. When I was president of the University of Calgary Chapter, I often found myself working with bright leaders on breaking problems down, understanding the constraints we were facing, and working to develop a number of plans to move a project forward. Whether we were trying to find new ways to engage first year students, or develop compelling arguments for MPs, I found the problem-solving skills developed in my degree were quite helpful. Framing problems, understanding constraints, and setting out clear goals and pathways is a very important part of nonprofit work – this type of thinking is also at the heart of engineering.

CV: Is there any specific area of work that you feel your degree did not prepare you for?

PM: I feel my degree did not provide enough opportunities to learn about some of the often called “soft” skills of engineering. My degree offered a primer in concepts like communication, conflict management, team building and general management, but it didn’t explore these topics at great depth. I found my experience with EWB challenged me to really develop skills in these areas. These skills are often developed in the first few years of practice and are not absent from the engineering profession, but are perhaps stressed less than they could be in undergraduate education.

CV: What experience do you have working at other local nonprofits, and how did your engineering degree tie into your roles in those organizations?

PM: I have volunteered with other nonprofits that mainly focus on urban issues, politics, and the environment. Similar to EWB, my role with these groups was on the planning and leadership development side of things. Similar to above, working to break down problems and find clear paths forward was a role I ended up playing in almost every situation. As a volunteer, I have never really done “technical” engineering work – however, I feel the clear presence of the same problem-solving mindset that engineers may use in technical work demonstrates the potential for engineering skills to transfer to the nonprofit world.

CV: How would you advise someone looking to hire a recent graduate coming out of an engineering program? What would you tell them about the potential strengths and weaknesses of someone with this background?

PM: It really depends on the discipline of engineering they are coming out of! In general though, I think people can count on engineers having a baseline competence in technical problem solving. When considering an applicant, I really believe it is important to look beyond the technical engineering program and see what else they have been up to. What sort of jobs have they held? Where have they volunteered?

Engineering degrees guarantee a set of skills has been taught, but when you hire an engineer you are hiring their ability to apply knowledge and skills to tackle challenging problems. The sort of jobs a graduate has held and the volunteer work they have done is a strong testament of their ability to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom and synthesize it with their background in other areas.

In terms of potential strengths, I think engineers can be great leaders, dynamic problem solvers, and effective managers. However, like I mentioned above, these traits need to be confirmed and explored based on what else the graduate has done.

In terms of weaknesses, if a graduate just has the four year degree it’s a gamble – without a background to see how they apply what they have learned, you have no way to know if this person can jump into an ambiguous environment and add value, or will sink to the bottom.

CV: Do you have any advice for recent graduates of engineering programs looking to break into the nonprofit sector?

PM: It’s really important to chart a course for the impact you want to have and start looking for opportunities to help you get there. Identifying a personal ‘why’ can be a very powerful experience that will guide personal development and allow you to find the best way to contribute. Right out of university it might not be clear what exactly drives you and what you have to offer. Taking some time to try smaller volunteer roles and going through lots of personal reflection and leadership development can challenge you to find out what really drives you or encourage you to outline what role you want to play. When equipped with a clear purpose and an understanding type of input you want to share, it will be much easier to market yourself to nonprofits and find the nonprofits that matter most to you.

Another item would be to not fear failure! Use failure as a chance to learn and don’t shy away from mistakes. The space nonprofits operate in is very complex and requires a lot of learning on your feet. Take chances and use every success and failure as a point of reference for your future work. Often times I have worked with graduates who are focused on a processes – raising money for a nonprofit or perhaps running presentations – but at the same time, they are also removed from an overall purpose. Many of these people have found their experiences unsatisfying since they’re not sure if they’re actually contributing value and they are not really sure where their work is going. Other graduates who have identified a purpose, such as confronting injustices in Africa, find it much easier to define how they’d like to contribute to that challenge. To get there, I really encourage people to reflect and explore all the opportunities that exist in Canada. These include volunteer positions, further learning about particular topics you are passionate about, or even jobs that align with your end goal.

After exploring, it is much easier to find the problems that matter to you, map out how you want to contribute, and look for the leading NGOs in that field and try to get involved. It is a sort of baby to big steps process that takes time and effort, but is thoroughly worth it.

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