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Design Engineering and Social Networks

By Peter Varhol

We are all familiar with the most popular social networks – LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook – as well as many of the lesser-known ones.  We probably use at least one or two of them, whether to keep in touch with old friends, or to maintain our professional networks.

But can social networks help us in our day to day jobs?  Can the likes of Twitter or Facebook make us better engineers, or make us use our engineering skills more effectively?

I believe the answer is yes.  We can use social networks online to improve our skills, extend our reach, offer and receive technical advice, and a variety of other things that can enhance our ability to work effectively.

It’s easy to dismiss these tools as toys for those who don’t have anything better to do with their time, but there is much more to them than that.  Others are using social networks to conduct business, or to build and coordinate teams working on discrete projects.  Engineers can look at what others are doing, and adapt techniques to work in their own work.

Social networks are about communication and teamwork.  A profession such as design engineering requires both, and social networking tools can enhance these qualities.  And most teams perform best when they have the right chemistry, and the type of communication that social network tools enable can foster such a chemistry.  So social networking tools can not only help you be a better engineer, and help you create better designs, but also build better teams, especially if those teams are geographically dispersed.

Here’s how to leverage social networking tools in support of team-based projects.  If you’ve been keeping up your LinkedIn network, you can use LinkedIn groups to start a discussion and get feedback from your team or your peers on ideas or techniques.  You can also do this with a blog, but the advantage of a LinkedIn group is that you can control access to that group.  In most cases, you want to ensure that you know and trust those who are providing design advice and suggestions.

Blogs can still be used effectively as more general communications media.  They can be a way to discuss general advances in technology, good and bad experiences with different software and computer systems, or general design principles than specific projects.  With blogs, you draw a line between participating in the profession and providing employer- or project-specific information.

Twitter, on the other hand, is more of a broadcast tool, and it’s not possible to discriminate who follows you.  Further, its short (140 characters) message format lets you broadcast a brief and specific message to your followers, often with a short URL to click on for further information.  Twitter can be used to alert extended team members to specific events or activities, supplemented by a link to click on for further information.

Because you can’t control who follows you, you have to take care on what you write in a Twitter message to ensure that it doesn’t contain proprietary information.

The jury is still out on the professional utility of Google Buzz, which has only been available for just over a week as of this writing, and has already been changed several times in response to user concerns.  But it is, in effect, an aggregator, in that it enables you to work with multiple social networking tools in concert with one another.  Ultimately, that idea will come to fruition, whether through Google Buzz or another product; it’s just too good an idea not to happen.

The overall trend is clear.  Insofar as design engineering is about communication and teamwork, social networking tools can foster these qualities and improve the performance of both individual engineers and design teams.  Trying out ways to enhance communication with colleagues and customers will bring more information and feedback into the design process will improve both us and our designs.

About Peter Varhol

Contributing Editor Peter Varhol covers the HPC and IT beat for Digital Engineering. His expertise is software development, math systems, and systems management. You can reach him at DE-Editors@digitaleng.news.