Interview

The Marvels of Engineering: Marshall Brain, Founder of HowStuffWorks.com

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Marshall Brain is best known as the founder of HowStuffWorks.com, an award-winning website that offers clear, objective, and easy-to-understand explanations of how the world around us works. As a well-known public speaker, Brain has appeared on several TV shows, including as the host of the National Geographic channel’s “Factory Floor With Marshall Brain,” a series on product design, engineering, and manufacturing. Brain has authored several books and widely known web publications, including "How To Make a Million Dollars," "Robotic Nation," and "Manna." He frequently works with students to help them understand science and technology topics and entrepreneurship. Brian currently works as the director of the Engineering Entrepreneurs Program at North Carolina State University.


In your recent book, "The Engineering Book: From the Catapult to the Curiosity Rover, 250 Milestones in the History of Engineering," you have reviewed a comprehensive list of important engineering projects throughout history. Which projects from the past have impressed you the most? Any observations from them that are still applicable today?

Perhaps the most impressive engineering achievements are the ones that work so well that we take them completely for granted. Like the sewer system—we never think about it, but without sewers and sewage treatment systems, our world would be a stinking mess filled with disease. Or the power grid, which we only think about during a blackout but which is absolutely essential to our daily lives. Or the fresh water system. These are gigantic, ubiquitous, highly reliable systems that we are completely dependent on.

The Engineering Book describes 250 different engineering endeavors and innovations. One thing that comes through loud and clear is how much better our lives are because of engineering. It could be something simple like air conditioning, or something quite complex like the creation of the global positioning system, so we no longer get lost. Think about how many engineers work on various parts of the transportation system: roads, bridges, cars, airplanes, refineries, pipelines, etc. These technologies all work together to create inexpensive, reliable transportation so we can get to places easily.

How do the oil and gas industry’s megaprojects compare to other industries’?

Writing about the Alaska pipeline for the book was incredibly interesting. There is this substance—oil—located in one of the harshest, most remote places on the planet. The oil needs to be transported to a market as inexpensively and safely as possible. It often cannot be transported by boat, train, or truck in large volumes, so that leaves a pipeline as the best solution. But the warm pipeline has to go over tundra without melting the environment or freezing the commodity, cross over a major fault line, needs pumping stations in remote areas, and has to work reliably for decades in extreme conditions. The scale and depth of a project like this takes engineering to the extremes. 

With respect to offshore megaprojects in the oil and gas industry, which aspects do you see being most accomplished?

The idea that engineers can design a floating drilling platform as big as a small town is in itself remarkable. And then they keep it stable and on point in the water, deal with storms and hurricanes, and sink a drill bit through a half mile of water and a mile of solid rock—it all defies imagination. And yet the engineering and deployment of these platforms is now fairly routine. Once the well is drilled, the idea of tapping into an unseen undersea pipeline network is pretty remarkable too.

Megaprojects often hinge on successful planning and teamwork. Are there any projects that stand out to you as extraordinary because of the planning and coordination that it took to accomplish them?

Here we would have to look with awe at the Apollo moon missions. Considering that humankind had never had anything in orbit until 1957, and then just 12 years later, people were walking on the moon. How is that even possible? It was not just planning and coordination, but a great deal of basic research and a staggering amount of cutting-edge, never-before-tried engineering. The giant Saturn V rocket alone was an engineering challenge of the highest order, but so was the moon lander, and so were the space suits. All of those engineers and all of that technology came together, and it all worked. 

The International Space Station (ISS) is probably the most complex project human beings have ever undertaken in terms of the engineering and the cost, so it deserves special mention. The ISS cost USD 150 billion to assemble. For comparison, the new building at One World Trade Center in New York, also known as Freedom Tower, cost USD 3.8 billion.

In your opinion, what are the key aspects that contribute to a megaproject going well?

The full answer to this would require a book, but one aspect often overlooked is the army of invisible, super-competent people who work together to pull off any big project. Let us say you want to start a new car company. You need one set of engineers who is great at designing and fitting together the metal pieces of the body, and another set who is great at doing dashboards, and a team to do the engine, while a different group knows everything about the robots that apply paint, and so on. Then there is the leadership who inspires and organizes these people, and gets them all working and communicating together happily rather than acrimoniously. There are also usually a few inspired genius ideas along the way.

Do you have any examples of historical engineering projects that did not go particularly well or as planned?

The leaning tower of Pisa is a world famous example, caused by a failure to use a suitable foundation on an unstable site. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington is perhaps the poster child for the genre. The engineers wanted to shrink the profile and weight of the bridge, both for aesthetic reasons and to reduce cost. But they did not yet understand something called aeroelastic flutter—the same phenomenon that causes a tight rope to vibrate in the wind. When this bridge collapsed, engineers studied the problem and revised their best practices to prevent a future recurrence.

There has been a lot of publicity around trying to increase enthusiasm and participation in careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) throughout the world.  Is this something you have found in your research? Is the US and/or other countries in need of more engineers in the future?

Engineering is interesting because it is incredibly important but largely invisible to people. Sports stars, politicians, actors, and celebrities are constantly topping the headlines. We run into individuals that are teachers, doctors, firemen, police, and shopkeepers in our day-to-day lives, but when do you ever meet the people who design the antennas in an iPhone, lay out the transistors on a CPU chip, or who arrange the steel girders for a skyscraper? There are about 2 million engineers in the US, but you rarely see them in the public spotlight. The STEM effort has definitely improved visibility, as have efforts like Dean Kamen’s FIRST [For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology] program. Kamen is an inventor, entrepreneur, and advocate for STEM.

Do you think engineers make good project managers? Any interesting historical figures who served as project leaders that caught your eye?

The title “project manager” is a little spongy. For example, a big film project needs a good project manager, but an engineer might not be a perfect fit for that. On the other hand, when it comes to starting technology companies, engineers are often very good in those roles. In an article on Inc.com that debates the merits of an MBA vs. a technical degree, the author Jessica Stillman points out that “Three times as many [CEOs and founders] had advanced degrees in engineering than had an MBA” (http://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/nerds-beat-suits-in-the-world-of-entrepreneurship.html). Engineers are, among other things, good at analysis, good with numbers, and good at understanding and solving problems.

John W. Bowser is noteworthy. He was in charge of construction for the Empire State Building. This project was amazing in terms of its organization and timeline. Construction started in March 1930 and the 102-story building was complete 1 year and 45 days later, and 3,400 people worked on the project. To build something that big that fast in a downtown area in 1930 during the Great Depression is remarkable. That may be something helpful to keep in mind as your industry is currently seeing volatility.

Nowadays we complete larger-scale projects at a much faster pace than in the past (Great Wall, Gaudi Cathedral in Barcelona, etc.). What do you think has made this possible?

It might have taken a century or more to build a big Gothic cathedral in the past. But they are building a similar-sized cathedral down the street from my office right now, and it will be done in a year. The differences are interesting. First, this new cathedral is being built on a steel frame rather than stone arches. The steel arrives quickly on trucks, rather than being hand-carved in a quarry and then dragged out on ox carts. Today we have cranes, joining systems, logistics, and computer-aided designs to make everything easier. In 30 years, a whole cathedral will be built in a week. Either we will 3D print it, or robots will assemble it automatically in what seems like a blink of an eye. In China, they have managed to erect a 57-story skyscraper in 19 days using similar techniques (See a time-lapse video: http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2015/apr/30/china-build-57-storey-skyscraper-19-days-timelapse-video). 

You originally graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and then earned a master’s degree in computer science. What made you move into more entrepreneurial endeavors and become an author? 

In a nutshell, I graduated into a really crappy job market. Creating a job for myself was perhaps an act of survival. In college I discovered technical writing, and I really enjoyed it. I also discovered I was good at explaining things in ways people could understand.

In 1998, you founded the HowStuffWorks.com website and franchise. Do you have any entrepreneurial advice to young professionals on getting their idea from paper into practice?

We live in the greatest time ever in the history of humanity to get something started. First, there are so many different free or nearly free platforms that let you reach billions of people. You can start a website or a YouTube channel tonight, and if people like it, they will tell their friends. You can write an app or a Kindle book and publish it immediately. You can put a project on Kickstarter and people might give you money if they like the idea.

Second, almost any question you can pose has been answered, and the answer is usually available for free via a search engine. So if you do not know how to start a business, create a website, or get traffic, you can ask questions and get answers for free. Third, there are entrepreneurial communities in just about every major city that have networking events, so it is easy to meet like-minded people and get advice. Take advantage of this rich ecosystem and get something started.

For example, in Raleigh, North Carolina, there is a vibrant entrepreneurial community. They have regular networking events, places where they gather to collaborate and share ideas, host conferences, and more. But all of that activity is largely invisible unless you take the time to seek it out. Go to a search engine and type in something like “Raleigh entrepreneurial events” and you can find out how to meet all these people and get involved. Entrepreneurs tend to be friendly people, and they love getting together.

From speaking at universities across the country to hosting a national television show, you spend much of your time speaking to the public. Many young professionals are intimidated by public speaking—do you have any tips you can share?

First, like most things, public speaking gets easier with practice. There are Toastmaster groups in most cities that will help you get tips and practice at being a better speaker. Also, there are a lot of books on the topic, as well as thousands of websites. How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie is a classic.

You can learn a lot from a trip to the library or a web excursion. While you are at it, pick up some books on negotiating. Negotiation skills can help with public speaking—they help you understand your audience, empathize with them, and communicate effectively.

Among your other activities, you also dedicate time to several universities and scientific boards. Do you have any advice for those who are preparing for a career in engineering?

One of the things that really gave me an advantage in the marketplace was the book I wrote while I was in graduate school. Since I was doing a master’s degree in computer science, this was a software book. Pick any topic in your field that interests you, and write a book about it. In the process of writing the book, you will become an expert, and being able to say “I wrote a book on XYZ” is a great thing to talk about in an interview or to put on your résumé.

 

 

 


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