Gerhard Pawelka | The Three Most Beautiful Words in Science

 In Being an Engineer Podcast


Gerhard Pawelka

Gerhard Pawelka

Being an Engineer - Buzzsprout



Who is Gerhard Pawelka?

Gerhard Pawelka is co-founder of Cooper Perkins, Part of PA Consulting. Previously, Gerhard was CEO of Tune, creator of the Power-Tap cycling computer, a company he co-founded after spending nine years at IDEO, an international product design consultancy. Prior to Tune and IDEO, Gerhard was an engineer at Cannondale, and earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering and an MA in International Relations.

Rafael Testai (cohost)


engineering, engineers, people, ideo, prototype, perkins, thinking, pa, solve, cooper, gerhard, teaching, speak, problem, learn, colleagues, question, find, bicycle, test
Presenter, Aaron Moncur, Rafael Testai, Gerhard Pawelka

Presenter 00:00
The being an engineer podcast is a repository for industry knowledge and a tool through which engineers learn about and connect with relevant companies, technologies, people, resources and opportunities. Enjoy the show.

Gerhard Pawelka 00:16
What’s the what are three most beautiful words in in science and the response was, I don’t know and is it exactly that’s what Dr. Sites forward?

Rafael Testai 00:40
Hello, everyone, welcome to another episode of The being an engineer podcast. We are co host Rafael to stay to where we have another very special guest, Gerhard Pavelka. He’s the co founder of Cooper Perkins, part of PA Consulting he previously Gerhard was the CEO of tune, creator of the power tap cycling computer, a company he co founded after spending nine years at IDEO, many of you are familiar with IDEO, and international product design consultancy, prior to tune and IDEO, Gerhard was an engineer at Cannondale and earned a BS in mechanical engineering and an MA in international relationships. Gerhard, welcome to the show.

Gerhard Pawelka 01:22
Thank you for having me.

Rafael Testai 01:24
So we’d like to start out by asking you, How did you decide to become an engineer?

Gerhard Pawelka 01:29
Well, that would suppose that I actually decided I think I really just fell into it. Going into university, it seemed like a good place to start. And I thought I might drop into something else. But I didn’t I finished the course and, and, and did well enough at it and then got a job as an engineer and I have to say I really fell in love with engineering. You know, very soon after I started my first job at Cannondale as a, as a as a designer.

Rafael Testai 02:02
Absolutely. We’re gonna dive right into the meat and potatoes here, what this honoring engineering mean?

Gerhard Pawelka 02:09
Yeah, so that’s a, that’s a phrase that really kind of ties our group together. Early on, we didn’t want Cooper Perkins to be kind of like, you know, like, everybody rallies around the bet the brand itself or the company or flamboyant CEO, we really wanted to rally around the profession. And to us, it’s a vocation Latin of calling. And, and so we really focused on, on defining our culture around engineering, and that sort of binds us all together. And, and it really says a lot about how we think of ourselves as a practice. Cooper Perkins is an engineering practice, much like attorneys might have a law practice or physicians might have a medical practice, it’s a lifelong vocation. That has a solving technical problems, and we’re learning our craft, teaching our trade. And, and in doing so, practicing engineering, so that the phrase honoring engineering, the independent with the rest of it, which is learned, well practice it, honestly, teacher generously, and that that phrase, kind of binds us together and keeps us thinking about what’s important to our professional lives.

Rafael Testai 03:31
This, let’s talk about that, again, learn it, well practice it,

Gerhard Pawelka 03:37
honestly. And teach generously. And that really sums up what we do at Cooper Perkins part of now now, after a year, we’re part of PA in the company is also very much aligned with that phrase. But yeah, so we, we practice our trade, we solve technical problems, but in doing so, we’re also always learning and those who know about something and have something to give back. They’re also teaching. So that’s really kind of sums up what our professional experiences at Cooper Birkins practicing it, press it practicing engineering, but learning it and teaching it as well.

Rafael Testai 04:27
Sometimes I like to dive too deep into the details. So let me go let me know if I go too far. But the first statement, learn it well, how does one learn it? Well,

Gerhard Pawelka 04:38
you become a student of it. A dedicated student, but I think a dedicated student is also a curious student. Curiosity is something that we find is a really important trait and or a colleague’s sort of the fuel that makes people ask questions and kind of drives the scientific method forward in any kind of problem we’re trying to solve or any kind of thing that we’re trying to understand. So learning it well is, is driven by, by curiosity, and just being a student of all aspects of engineering that, that you find are important to the way you want to solve problems.

Rafael Testai 05:23
And therefore, about the second one practicing, honestly, how does one do that?

Gerhard Pawelka 05:29
Yeah, that’s a, that’s an important one as well. We feel like with engineers, you have no choice. But to be honest, anytime you’re coming across something that you kind of wish wasn’t there, you can’t sweep that under the carpet, if the deal with it in a pretty honest way. And if you’re dealing with a team, you got to, you know, whether it’s a client or a manager, or the rest of your team or subordinate, you got to speak, speak the truth. When you don’t. Planes fall out of the sky and buildings fall over. You have to be honest about what you’re looking at how you’re solving the problem. It’s all going to be out there. And that’s pretty critical. And I used to say, that phrase quite a bit, you know, planes fall out in sky, we have an example of just a few years ago, we’re plates actually did fall out of the sky, because somebody was being dishonest about the engineering. And it actually happens. And so we find that a pretty serious bit of our culture is, is honesty, transparency. It’s a really important aspect for any engineer. I think.

Rafael Testai 06:40
One of my I’m going to title together, one of my favorite people on the internet to listen to is Jordan B. Peterson. And he talks about how responsibility breeds meaning in life. And I took one of the one of my first engineering classes in college, something that always stood out to me, I’m not the most eloquent person, so I’m probably going to butcher how I’m going to say this. But it all came down to society trusts engineers, to do their work correctly. And there’s like this imply trust, When we drive over a bridge, we we trust that engineers did it correctly, we don’t think about it twice. So it places a lot of responsibility on the on the engineers to take their job very seriously. And do it honestly, like you say, what are your thoughts on that?

Gerhard Pawelka 07:25
Yeah, absolutely true. I don’t know if this is folklore or not. But they were building engineers or bridge designers that were kind of ceremoniously asked to stand underneath a bridge when the train first went over one of their creations. And it’s not exactly the kind of incentive we want to have to have everybody subjected to. But it is there’s a there is trust a lot of our professional systems on the planet, including financial. They’re based on trust, and based that not only people are competent, but you know, they’re not engaged in some kind of criminal activity or being somehow dishonest. So it’s it’s trust is more than just being honest. It’s also being having trusted somebody who’s competent and well trained. And, yeah, I think that’s really important when we’re interviewing engineers to join our team and principally focused on are they curious, because, you know, somebody that has the confidence to say, I don’t know about something? Well, that’s the fundamental part of scientific method. I had a discussion recently with somebody saying, you know, asking what’s the what are the three most beautiful words in in science? And the response was, I don’t know. And is that exactly. That’s what drives sites forward? Is when you don’t know. And the only way you can answer those questions, is to have a really honest approach. Like, I really don’t know this. And I have to test this and find out what the answer is, and come up May or May. Not that I have a bias on what the outcome might be. And I think that’s, that’s fundamentally, you know, we’re trained to look at things in a very sober, honest way. We engineers, I should say, and there’s sort of no other way to do it. If you’re not being honest about what you see, and what you observe and how you apply those, that knowledge. You’re not really doing engineering, you’re doing something else. So it’s kind of really baked into the professional.

Rafael Testai 09:44
When when you don’t know something, do you have a process that you follow that you can teach us?

Gerhard Pawelka 09:51

Rafael Testai 09:53
How it was the process like

Gerhard Pawelka 09:57
it’s prototyping Here at Cooper Perkins. And when certainly with our partners, Pa Overall, it’s a very prototype driven culture. And we explain what prototype driven means. prototypes to us is really anything that you can test. Now, when you think about that, you think well, okay, does that include the, you know, something, you go into the mechanical shop and put on a lathe and a mill and make some piece of hardware? Sure, it’s that it’s also a piece of code that you can try out test. It’s also a conversation you can have with, with an expert in a field, that is a prototype, it couldn’t be a bit of analysis, anything that you can test, an idea out with, is a prototype, or a spreadsheet, piece of a question. A piece of text, is a prototype. Years ago, when I was working at IDEO, there was a saying, a picture, If a picture is worth 1000 words, a prototype is worth 1000 meetings, and that’s really true, the idea was never show up at a meeting without a prototype. And in a large sense of the word, they basically Don’t ever show up, you know, in a, in a, in a meeting without something to test. So, that’s, that’s how we that’s how we get back to your question. If there’s something you don’t know, you can have a hypothesis or, or, or not. But either way, find a way to test your knowledge and triangulate and kind of bounce into the bounce towards the conclusion. We set up all of our projects, everything that we do, as really tests that we’re always making little mistakes, and little corrections. And we always assume we’re making little mistakes that way. We’re always poised to make little corrections. And so we converge on understanding something we don’t know. We test it until we find what the answer is.

Rafael Testai 12:16
You mentioned, having a conversation is a prototype. And I just seem I just kind of laughed a little bit in my mind, because I could just imagine, my name is RAF. So somebody say, hey, Raf, and I’m say just a second. I’m having a prototype with Bob over here, like a conversation. So it could be like synonymous interchangeable. Alright, so next subject. Let’s see. What else? How do you deal with tough conversations with a client? Yeah.

Gerhard Pawelka 12:48
So first, probably close to 100% of the time. tough conversations with anybody are not as tough as you imagined. Like they kind of pick your mind. And they actually are, or actually will be. So that’s not to say don’t, you know, I’ve learned over time, not to overdramatize conversation that I need to have. The second thing is, you know, again, honesty is a very common trait with engineers. And if you’re honest, people appreciate that. And they’ll take tough news, usually better than you think. And it might take a few Gulps and a few, you know, uncomfortable moments. But generally people kind of get all on the same wavelength and say, Okay, let’s let’s, we’ve just adjusted my reality. And now I’m in sync with your reality. Let’s see what we can do next. And generally, people appreciate the honesty and appreciate, let’s say, the opportunity to solve the next problem. And as I said, when I started to answer their question, generally people are not as the conversation is not as tough as you make it out to be before you have it. So let’s say go in their habit. And things just generally work out almost all the time, everybody feels better.

Rafael Testai 14:19
Okay, let’s talk again about IDEO. That’s a place that a lot of designers and engineers wish that they could have worked out. It’s very famous ideal if anyone wants to go ahead and Google it. But we’re not all going to get a chance to work there. And it’s not meant for all of us. So if we had to pick up some of the key takeaways or golden nuggets from working at IDEO, in addition to a really good one that you already gave about never showing up to a meeting without a prototype. What are maybe like three or four other things that you learn as an engineer working at IDEO that you think other engineers would benefit from knowing?

Gerhard Pawelka 14:59
Yes, So, I worked there in the 90s. And it was pretty hardcore product development, doing a lot of hardware at the time, we were doing, you know, laptops, I mean, it was sort of, well famous for a number of things, including designing the first modern laptop. It was by grid, the, that the, one of the real, should put it attractive aspects of working in that group was, before anybody had really figured it out in a, you know, world class way. I do, I had put together all of the aspects of product development, from user research, to experience design, to industrial design to Electromechanical Engineering, firmware development, really the wide range and when you put a team with that kind of collective competency together to solve a, what seems to be an intractable problem, it’s sort of a pretty magical thing that happens. So back in the 90s, when I was working there, it was a unique place to do that. It just wasn’t like, there weren’t a lot of places that do that. But now there are quite a few places that have that kind of full breadth of capabilities. You know, I have to say, one thing we didn’t talk about much was yet was last year, PA, outfit in, in the UK, acquired Cooper, Perkins. And one of the things that I really loved about the idea of joining this group they love about it now is they, we at pa now have this wide breadth of being able to solve business problems on a pretty wide scale, not just engineering and design and user research, user experience, but you’re solving. We’ve got colleagues who are solving strategy problems for companies and operations problems, how to grow organization or market. So that sort of breadth of capability in this really wide range of capabilities. Not just across design and engineering, but across business, other business aspects, is really alluring. And really a critical, great thing to be part of USB four, three or four of them, I spent a lot on just everyone.

Rafael Testai 17:42
It’s okay, you can do one though, those going.

Gerhard Pawelka 17:45
The The other thing I’ll I’ll say about a little more about prototyping is, this is something we did it at IDEO. And I’d say it’s very strong, not only at Cooper Perkins, but also at pa when we’re solving problems. I look for people who figuratively are, like polyglots. So you know, graph, when you’re speaking with people who know several languages, you can tell that they’re fluent when they’re speaking. In a way, let’s say they’re thinking in the language that they’re speaking. So that translated, you know, if, if I’m thinking and in Spanish I can, I can be more fluent. And if I’m thinking in English, and translating into Spanish, and that kind of fluency is figuratively what we look for in engineers and other people that we work with. Natalie Perkins, also PA. So an example of this is, an engineer might go into the workshop, because they have to build something to understand what’s in their head. So they build some prototypes, and they test it. And then we’ll go over and write some Python code to simulate what they were thinking. And then they’ll go over and do some finite element analysis to understand kind of, what are the constraints and loads on this, then we’ll join their colleagues in a room to brainstorm some solutions to a problem and very creatively, and in a very, highly creative and highly organized way, collect a bunch of ideas to solve this problem. So that’s what I mean by polyglots, you’re able to kind of switch your thinking and your soul, so to speak, language. So when you’re in a shop, you’re thinking very different and speaking a very different language than when you’re sitting in front of a computer doing writing some Python code, or when you’re in a group of people creatively solving problems. So we look for people who are polyglots like that they can they can work in any of those environments, and modulate between them in a very dynamic way. If that’s something that we find is really important, that was kind of how everybody idea was defined. And that’s certainly how I, how we define our colleagues here at pa Cooper Perkins.

Rafael Testai 20:08
Very interesting that you bring this up. This thought, What did you call it? Again? The capability of speaking different languages?

Gerhard Pawelka 20:17
Well, the one who speaks multiple languages is called a polyglot. Not a very attractive word, but it is nonetheless. A description of someone that can speak multiple languages, they use that as a metaphor, or an analogy for what I just described. Engineering.

Rafael Testai 20:39
Great. Yeah, do I never heard that word before so polyglot. I just Googled it. Yeah, that’s a very good thought. Um, not only you have to think in a different languages, but when you communicate it, I don’t know about you, but when when I speak Spanish and English, you speak a different. You also speak another language in addition to English or now? Yes. Okay. What’s the other language that you speak?

Gerhard Pawelka 21:05
I would call it rusty German, Rusty French.

Rafael Testai 21:09
Okay, but in Spanish in English, I use completely different muscles in my mouth when I speak them. So it’s not only thinking differently, but also how the muscles are used to communicate it or different. True? Well, I think this is a good time to mention to our listeners that Team is where you can learn more about how we can help build medical device and other product engineering or manufacturing teams. Sorry, I butcher that is where you can learn more about how we can help medical device and other product engineering or manufacturing teams develop turnkey equipment, custom fixtures and automated machines to correct rise inspect, assemble, manufacture and perform verification testing on your devices. Also wanted to mention to our value listeners that we’re doing a raffle of five $50 amazon gift cards, if you simply give us a five star review and your platform of choice, we’re trying to get to 100 ratings on various platforms for the podcast so more people can find us and learn. Alright, so let’s talk about what drew you into engineering. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

Gerhard Pawelka 22:20
Yeah, you asked earlier ref. You know, I have I decided and I said I kind of fell into it. And I learned to love it. In my first job at Cannondale, it was an interesting experience, I was looking at a working on a on a bicycle frame. So Cannondale makes had just started making these really innovative, aluminum welded bicycle frames. And at the same time, I’d read this article, you know, about just how efficient these things are D storage would have an efficient mode of transportation. Bicycles are and and here I am holding this, you know, one kilogram frame of, of welded aluminum tubes. And I thought, well, you know, where does this come from, you know, once it’s, if you take the paint off, you know, you just have you know, welded tubes. And if you take the welds off, then you just have these tubes, these tubes are shaped and Mitered and suede aged into whatever shape you want before you weld them. And before that, it was a hunk of aluminum alloy that hadn’t been shaped into into tubes yet. And before that, the aluminum alloy was just a number of different types of metal, principally aluminum and aluminum comes from an iron ore called bauxite, and there’s like a couple of process processes chemical electrical chemical processes, to turn bauxite ore into aluminum. And before you take the your oxide ore into those processes, you find it in dirt that you like in tropical dirt, you pick up a handful of dirt, and there’s bauxite ore in that and you take the Bauxite out, goes through that whole process to turn into bicycle and they had thought about this, sort of like this story, you know, like I’ve got a pile of dirt in one hand, and then I have the most efficient means of transportation ever conceived by humans. And that’s what we do we turn dirt into bicycles, or spaceships or other things. And that I thought was kind of magical. That’s what engineers do, they, they convert things that you find in the ground into some useful tool we’ve been doing it for, you know, millions of years whether it’s taking a piece of stone and turning it into a blade to process game that you caught or, or building a spaceship that goes to Mars. It’s it’s really finding stuff you’ve Really taking stuff you find in the ground, and shaping it into some useful tool. So that’s how I kind of regarded engineering from an early age. When I first started my work as an engineer, I thought, like were magicians, taking stuff you find in the ground, and turning them into useful tools. That’s, and we’ve been doing ever kind of doing it ever since. And that’s sort of how I think about engineering.

Rafael Testai 25:28
It’s like, it reminds me of like finding a diamond in the rough or I share the sentiment of engineering, very passionate about it. Well, when I’m having a conversation, sometimes questions are seem to pop up in my head. And this is a question I have from one of the initial topics that we discussed, which was you talked about teaching it generously. Because you feel this? Maybe you have examples or like a process in which everyone teaches internally? Cooper Perkins?

Gerhard Pawelka 26:01
Yeah, it’s it’s sort of it’s the projects we work on often their projects, you know, we don’t know what the answers are, we have to find them. And so we’re, we’re often learning it’s, it’s, it’s rare that we’re just kind of on a project where we’re turning the crank doing things that we’ve done before. Almost always, we’re in a position to that we have to learn something, well, we’ll tell our partners or clients this as well, saying, Look, you know, look, we, we don’t exactly know how to do this, but here’s what we’re gonna propose to do. And here’s how we propose to find this, this answer. Generally, it’s okay, we trust you go and do this. So there’s the very nature of the work is that we have to learn something your question was, was about was also about teaching. And so it’s very common, that somebody on our team, with all of our colleagues that we work with even colleagues outside of our company, Cooper Perkins, er, PA, will ask a question like, you know, have you ever done such and such before? Or have you seen this? Or does this make sense to you? Yes, I do have some experience with this, and I do have some insights, and let me tell you about them. And communicate communication is, is, is teaching, you’re, you’re parting your wisdom, your experience, your knowledge, in a very kind of applicable, applicable way to someone else. And that’s, that’s what we’re doing. And, you know, that can be very, actually put a track tractable and very explicit, but it can also be more more tacit in that. You might not be teaching somebody, you know, here’s the answer to your problem. But here’s how you might go about getting an answer to your problem, like, use this process or this methodology. And, and, and that process will lead you to the answer. I don’t know what the answer is. But here’s a tool you can use to get to the answer.

Rafael Testai 28:19
I sense an underlying theme of being comfortable with the unknown throughout the whole process. Would you agree?

Gerhard Pawelka 28:27
Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s that’s, I think, the fundamental well caught, Raf, it’s sort of the fundamental way of being for us, because we’re always in putting ourselves in a position of having to figure something out. And it basically exercises that curiosity muscle, which we like to, we’d like to think is, you know, it’s a pretty active one and all of us, we look for people who are curious. And I like working with people who are curious about everything, because they’re always kind of moving in a way that converts something that is unknown, or something that is believed into something that is known. And curiosity is a machine that consumes beliefs, and uncertainty into certainty. And I think there’s something very attractive about that.

Rafael Testai 29:38
All right. So we’re getting close to the end of the podcast just about getting great to wrap up and I just have two questions left. You’re a co founder, someone that started a company. So this skill sets and your interests, all of our skill sets and interests differ from one another. But I wanted to ask you if you had to make a Venn diagram of your three most important skills. The three areas that you really excel at. One of them would be obviously engineering. But what would you say are the other two things in your Venn diagram?

Gerhard Pawelka 30:13
I think my ability to communicate effectively is an important part of my being. Being able to simplify concepts and communicate them is important, really, any kind of business that I know of. It’s an engineering is no exception, no exception. The other part is, I think it might come from because being a parent or being old, is I really care about people’s experiences. So when I’m working with my colleagues, I care about what they’re learning, I care about what they’re doing, and how they’re developing their careers, and how they’re experiencing engineering, and hopefully, in a way that is as rewarding as it was, for me. I think, I think as far as being a leader, or somebody that organizes a company, being technically competent, or whatever field you’re in, being able to communicate. Second part of that venue, or that circle of your Venn diagram, and the third is really, you know, caring about the people you work with. You can’t get away from that. That’s, that’s a big, that’s a big circle. In your, in your Venn diagram,

Rafael Testai 31:48
how do you show people that you care?

Gerhard Pawelka 31:52
I don’t know. I don’t really, I don’t really think about it. I don’t think about it. It’s, it’s just something that that comes out. And I think, once you’re working in a tight team, it just touches people describe it, like, people go there anyway, when you become part of a team, and it’s a good team. And as a team you care a lot about and team cares a lot about you. That just that just happens. And people get to know each other, and people get to really start thinking a lot about other people’s experience. So I think it just sort of happens if you’re, if you’re equipped in that way. And it’s remember the honor engineering learning well practice, it honestly teaches generously. Generous is another key word here. And you know, being there to teach generously, that means you care about, about what you’re teaching and who you’re teaching. And that’s every one of those words in that phrase goes to not only what we’re about in Cuba, perkin, but we’re about it. And PA and I think beyond that, what our clients are about, you know, working with smart people who care to, you know, practice whatever they’re doing, honestly, and recognizing where I was learning and recognizing that we’re generous and teaching each other what we’re doing, I think it makes kind of a good work experience, whether you’re a little company like Cooper Perkins or bigger company, like PA or a bigger company, like what like one of our many clients that’s know that that phrase applies.

Rafael Testai 33:43
I think that the word caring, it’s a key trait for leadership, because it develops trust. And it reminds me of Aaron Moncure, the founder of pipeline. I think that everyone that pipeline who sponsors his podcast, everyone that works our pipeline, we we honestly feel like Aaron cares. And I think that’s a good leadership trait. Well, yeah, go ahead, if you want to add any last remarks.

Gerhard Pawelka 34:10
Yeah, it’s it’s a scent. short text to one of my colleagues who was a veteran a few weeks ago, and Veterans Day, you know, just saying something about, you know, admiring people who serve things that are bigger than themselves. And I think that’s where, you know, caring about what you do and caring about what experiences your colleagues have, is you’re serving something bigger than yourself. And, you know, if you’re an employee at a company, if you’re, if you care about your team or you care about your company, you’re serving something bigger than yourself. It just sort of comes naturally. And I think there’s a it’s a very, very rewarding thing and As they mentioned, that colleague who’s a veteran, you know, he knows what it’s like to serve for multiple years for something bigger than, than himself. And I think as I said, it’s rewarding. And it just kind of brings the best out in people. And it’s the same at a little engineering firm, or a big consultancy, or, or a big company, and many other institutions.

Rafael Testai 35:29
Well, Gerhard, I really appreciate being on the podcast. I appreciate this conversation we had about engineering, caring leadership, best practices. Any last words for our audience, and how can they find you?

Gerhard Pawelka 35:41
You can find us, Perkins on a website, just type in Cooper Perkins. And you’ll find us. PA Consulting is our parent company, and you’ll find them pretty easily. Lots of cool stories. If you’re interested to find out more, give us a call. But poke around in the website. We have tons of tons of great stories we were lucky enough to be part of. And happy to talk engineering or anything related to engineering anytime happy to hear from you.

Rafael Testai 36:17
Alright, thanks for being on the show.

Gerhard Pawelka 36:19
Thanks, pleasure.

Aaron Moncur 36:24
I’m Aaron Moncure, founder of pipeline design, and engineering. If you liked what you heard today, please share the episode. To learn how your team can leverage our team’s expertise developing turnkey equipment, custom fixtures and automated machines and with product design, visit us at Team Thanks for listening

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