Johann van den Bergh grew up on a farm in South Africa, and thanks to his dad that was always tinkering in the garage a career in engineering just made sense. We spoke to Johann about how he realized the importance of soft skills for engineers.
It was a long haul going from student to now PhD. He defended his thesis this year.
Johann, one of EIT’s newest lecturers, is also helming a lot of academic operations in South Africa (you might see his name pop up during webinars and seminars as well).
He shared some sage advice with students this month.
At the time, I was gushing about the technical aspects, how I constructed the experimental facility, some observations I made during my investigations, and the like.
The answer apparently satisfied the examiner, since I got the doctorate.
Reflecting on the question with the benefit of hindsight, however, leads me to an entirely different form of an answer, one that is only tangentially technical.
What did I actually learn in the doctorate? The technical contribution I made to the field of boiling and thermodynamics was minuscule.
The articles I published, seeming so important at the time of submission, will probably gather dust in a dark corner of the internet.
Did I really learn anything that wasn’t highly specialized in an already niche area of heat transfer? You’d be forgiven for thinking that I am being nihilistic. This is not the case. I learned a lot during the years of my studies. Time management and estimation. Sourcing equipment.
Communicating with suppliers and technical staff. Outsourcing. Dogged perseverance. The value of online tools. Writing. Presentation skills. These are just some of the ‘softer’ skills I learned.
Time management and estimation are one of the areas that I had to learn rapidly. The beauty of doing a doctorate is that your time is your own. The curse of doing a doctorate is…that your time is your own.
Sure, you can only work half a day today, but you are going to have to make up that wasted time at some point. It forces you to become strict with your schedule!
Additionally, the monthly feedback meetings I had required me to report back on the achievement or non-achievement of agreed-upon deliverables, and state with some confidence how long the next set of deliverables were going to take.
You have to commit to the marathon, keep the end goal in sight, not be too ambitious, and also not too cautious in your estimates.
While constructing the experimental facility for my PhD, I designed the components and communicated with various suppliers to get the necessary specifications just so.
I quickly learnt that there was no way on the green earth that I would be able to do everything by myself and still qualify in an appropriate amount of time.
Begrudgingly at first, I had to outsource the fabrication of certain components to the technical staff on campus, but by the end, I had built up trust in them.
This was critical when disaster struck in mid-2019, necessitating a complete rebuild of large sections of the facility.
At that time, I was at a conference in Ireland. The facility had been constructed, commissioned, and some minor tweaks had been made. I was ready to commence novel testing and was feeling pretty confident about a mid-2020 finish. Four years wasn’t too out of the
ballpark for a doctorate, right?
As I was waiting for the flight back to South Africa, the master’s student who was working on his project with my system contacted me: “You know that thing that you repeatedly warned me against would result in a catastrophic failure should it happen? Yeaaaaah… it kind of happened.”
It turns out that testing the checks and balances I had built into my control code to prevent burnout of all the heating elements in the facility would have been prudent since they failed to kick in when they were critically needed.
I kick myself for not applying basic testing procedures to the code, but my overconfidence was my weakness. So here I was, with a half-melted, burnt-out system, three years into my degree, with funding running out in the next year.
I was seriously tempted to just call it quits then and there, but I had sunken too much of my life into this. I had to see it through. That dogged perseverance I mentioned? This is where I learned it!
Bad things never happen alone, and halfway through my novel testing,
a worldwide pandemic struck. Rushing to complete my tests, I started writing the articles that would eventually be expanded into my thesis.
Long hours of writing were followed by conferring with my supervisors, iterating and fleshing out the proposed article until the final version.
All of this had to happen online due to the strict lockdown protocols that were in place.
This paid off handsomely in three articles being accepted to be published without too many changes.
My thesis was the final push, with continual improvement suggested by my supervisors, all in the midst of the throes of Covid-19.
My presentation skills were sharpened by my continual exposure to giving feedback to our worldwide consortium partners on the progress of my doctorate.
It became second nature to me and evolved from something I dreaded in the past to an enjoyable experience. There is
nothing quite like expounding on your field of expertise in front of a captive audience!
Looking back on the five years I spent completing my doctorate, I can honestly say that it was less of an expenditure of time and more of an
Paradoxically, in narrowing my field of technical knowledge, I have become a much more well-rounded person, and for that, I am eternally thankful.
Where are you from, and what was growing up there like?
I’m from a small farm in a little place called Bapsfontein, but I went to school in Benoni (close to South Africa’s largest city Johannesburg). Growing up on the farm was awesome, and I hope to retire on a farm one day.
Who is your hero?
My father. He was used to tinker a lot and should have been a mechanical engineer, and he’s part of the reason why I studied it.
In your free time, you like to…
Attempt to learn guitar, ride my Harley Davidson, and play board games!
Do you have a special skill people would be surprised to know?
I can expertly flip a pancake!
What is your greatest motivator in life, and in your career?
In my life, my mother. In my career, the hope to use my engineering training to contribute to the energy independence of mankind.