UMBC Mic'd Up

The Art of Failing Up in Engineering and in Life

February 24, 2021 UMBC Mic'd Up with Dennise Season 1 Episode 1
UMBC Mic'd Up
The Art of Failing Up in Engineering and in Life
Show Notes Transcript

“Failing is a stepping stone to progress,” says UMBC graduate faculty instructor, Dr. John J. Johnson, IV. Behind every success story is a story of where someone learned a lesson and grew stronger from that. 

In this episode of UMBC’s Mic’D Up podcast, Dr. Johnson shares his insights on the field of engineering, how students can best succeed, and profound lessons he learned from learning to embrace the art of failing.

Dr. Johnson credits his HBCU experience at Tuskegee Institute and growing up in Tuskegee, AL as key components in his development.  “I stand on broad shoulders.  So much of who I am and what I do is because of my Tuskegee experience.”

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Dennise Cardona  0:00  
Welcome to this episode of UMBC's Mic'd Up. My name is Dennise Cardona from the Office of Professional Programs. We're joined by Dr. John Johnson today, adjunct graduate faculty instructor with UMBC's professional engineering graduate programs. We hope you enjoy this episode. Thank you so much for joining us today. Dr. Johnson, we really appreciate you being here with us.

Dr. John Johnson  0:25  
You're welcome. It's good to be here. Nice to meet you. Nice.

Dennise Cardona  0:29  
To start off, can you just tell us a little bit about the path that you took to land here at UMBC?

Dr. John Johnson  0:35  
Well, so the path I took to land at UMBC, I probably best could describe it as a zigzag path. I mean, I've I grew up professionally working in industry, as an electrical engineer at first and then a manufacturing engineer, and then an industrial engineer, mostly manufacturing environments at Motorola, at&t, Corning Glass, places like that. And then I kind of zigzag my way up the East Coast to Virginia chasing the remember era when everybody was going to get rich with company. Oh, yes, ma'am. So I came in just as the dot bombed. So I got in and enjoyed a nice run with a local high speed digital access company. And then we were sold. And then I changed careers and did some consulting. And one thing led to another, I found my way, we'll start at the bottom again, from a, I was a pretty Senior Executive Vice President of Operations, I found myself as an engineer, again, working in government, that led me to start a business. But my business was always kind of, I guess, balanced with school. And I've been in school forever, you know, several graduate degrees, my wife, in fact, the last time I got my PhD, she outlawed school, you cannot go to school anymore. So that's funny. So then what else do you do if you can't go to school? Teach? Teach? That's right. Right. So that's, that's kind of how I found myself teaching that I always love teaching. No, that's, I might say, it's kind of in our family history. My grandparents were teachers, my parents were teachers. So I always love teaching.

Dennise Cardona  2:19  
And it sounds like you have a wealth of experience to be able to bring to the classroom and to be able to teach students what you've been through. And some of the lessons that you've learned throughout your career, your zigzag career.

Dr. John Johnson  2:32  
Yeah, I like to think so. And that's, that's kind of my approach to teaching, by the way, I like to bring, you know, you know, anecdotes from my experience, but whether it's academically or professionally, or as sometimes as personally, you know, it's, you know, being a graduate student and married with children and business and, and life, you know, you know, graduate school is hard. And so I can appreciate that when I can see students, you know, under stress and trying but failing and needing some encouragement, I can relate to their situation. No, it's not all about making sure they understand how to do the math, so to speak, it's,

Dennise Cardona  3:13  
yeah, that work life balance is an important element to grad students. It is a tough job to balance your work, your family, and your schoolwork. It's one of the challenges that have that most grad students deal with. So it's really nice to hear that you as an instructor are cognizant of that and empathetic of that. I think that's probably really special for the students. What courses do you teach?

Dr. John Johnson  3:37  
So I teach two courses at UMBC, I teach the Quality Engineering and Management course. It's a engineering engineering management course. And I also teach risk and decision analysis, which is often listed under systems engineering. So SYST 672, for decision or risk and ENMG 664 Quality and engineering manager.

Dennise Cardona  4:06  
Could you talk a little bit about what you enjoy most about teaching those specific courses.

Dr. John Johnson  4:11  
So I enjoy different things about each of the courses that I teach. On the on the quality side, remember, I mentioned that I grew up at Motorola professionally. So Motorola is the home of Six Sigma, this is, you know, one of the houses of quality, if you will, in industry and in manufacturing, so, so as a young engineer, this is this is how I was taught, I was taught quality and it's kind of ingrained in everything I do, whether it's engineering or how I do work at home, you know, continuous improvement, you know, managing variability, all of those things are kind of in my nature because of how I grew up professionally. So I enjoy bringing that kind of continuity from from modern day quality history at Motorola to present day applications and in information technology I really like like that element of it. And I like the risk and decision analysis, because quite frankly, this was one of the harder courses I had in grad school. And I feel really good. I can't, I don't like to say I've mastered the course. But I liked that I've come from a point of being challenged by the course. And now that I can teach the course. So I know where students often struggle, because I struggled with it. And I can address those struggles from a point of experience. And it's also very practical course, math and statistics can be intimidating for people. And they often don't see the practical application for it. But risk and decision analysis is very practical to your everyday lives. In fact, we do a project every year, a real life project. And often those projects are not related to engineering and technology. One of my favorite ones, was a student who did one on her wedding, wedding planning, and planning, you know, all of the risks and decisions, you might imagine that go along with planning a wedding, or buying a house or selecting a car or a snowblower. I mean, those same principles apply to technology, if I'm selecting a piece of equipment, or a manufacturing site, or an investment in buying a business, you know, so it's universally applicable across all really academic and professional domain. So I love that about that course.

Dennise Cardona  6:29  
Well, that's fascinating, because it brings, it brings me to that point when I remember when I was younger, and I was learning math, algebra, specifically. And I asked my teacher at the time, how am I going to apply this in life? And I remember her saying, unfortunately, I remember her saying, it doesn't really matter, you just have to get through the course. And talk about D motivating a student. Sure, it would have been so great to know that when I got older, and I went shopping, to be able to figure out what 30% off shirt would be, I need algebra to do that. So that would have been an important like a really great opportunity for a teacher to be able to show the practicality of what you're teaching.

Dr. John Johnson  7:11  
Yeah, I got that from that approach. For me came same question, same class and algebra. But my typical teacher was Mrs. Parker. and Mrs. Parker was a character. And and I have to say a lot of my teaching style and what what kind of motivates me about teaching is from business, Parker, in the you know, in high school. And this is Parker, when asked that question, she would talk about math, as you know, she liked football. And she said, so you know, just like those boys go to the gym. And she talks like that, and they lift all those weights, and they get their muscles big and strong. You know, math makes your brain big and strong. You know? So doing those math problems, makes your brain big and strong. So you can think and I don't know, that got to me.

Dennise Cardona  8:03  
Oh, I love that. It's exercise for the brain. It always exercise

Dr. John Johnson  8:07  
for the brain. Makes your brain happy.

Dennise Cardona  8:10  
that's great. So what can students expect out of the classes that you teach?

Dr. John Johnson  8:16  
Well, they can expect for sure practical application. This This is, like I said, I've been in graduate school a long time had lots of classes. And the the very best of those classes always walked away with something I could use. There are some cases and some classes with theory, and just, you know, advancing knowledge and research is the point. And that's good, too. The classes that I teach aren't those classes, like the classes I teach, and the way I approach them, is very skill based. Meaning there will be some theory about why we do the things we do and quality in engineering management or, or in risk and decision analysis. But we quickly move into how to do something, how do you perform an analysis? And then how do you use that analysis to ask good questions. Remember, when we're training engineering managers and systems engineers, and in my again, from my experience, a good engineering manager asked good questions. No recognize this when, when what's being presented has risk associated with it? And then even if you are not the subject matter expert, you should be able to apply good quantitative analysis and good sound robust evaluations to situations and either formulate a good question or defend your own proposal. So students walk away with the I think really good skill sets to ask strong questions and defend good decisions.

Dennise Cardona  9:50  
Yeah, finding those really solid solutions depends greatly on being able to ask those really great important questions to get to the rest of it.

Dr. John Johnson  10:00  
Yes, exactly.

Dennise Cardona  10:01  
Can you talk about student engagement in the classes that you teach?

Dr. John Johnson  10:05  
So student engagement in the classes that I teach is really is part of the fun of the job, the students make the class fun for me, if you ask some of them, you know, you'll, you'll find the begging for feedback, you know, so what do you guys think? So what you know, what is it tell me something, you know, so I need the feedback as fuel for me, in the in the class. So it comes in the form of conversation and interaction with students during lectures. And then there's engagement with students outside of class in the form of help, assistance support, sometimes, not everybody is going to ask the question in class, and they need the the safety of a one on one conversation, to ask it not be concerned about how it's gonna sound, not even know exactly how to ask the question. But just to say, I'm not quite getting this, you know, you don't want to say that in a classroom where, you know, the really, you know, the a personality person is raising the hand all the time, and given all the answers, and then you say, I don't get it don't know, not everybody has that type of approach to their learning. So outside of class, I, I enjoyed the one on one interactions with students. I'm an early guys, we talked about setting this up. So you know, if they're willing to get up early, are they willing to, you know, hang out on Saturday morning, you know, I'm good with scheduling of, you know, a meeting and we can talk as long and as deep as you want to about any of the topics, I enjoy that part of the interaction as

Dennise Cardona  11:43  
well, that's really fantastic for students to know that you are so engaged in their learning, that's pivotal for a lot of people.

Dr. John Johnson  11:51  
It was pivotal for me, I experienced that when, when the light bulb went off for me, in cases because I had instructors who invested in my learning. And, and sometimes I wanted one guy in particular, Jose Padilla is a good example of a guy who was not officially my teacher in a class, but he invested in my academic training to help me advanced, they helped me with my research. And he, he didn't ask for anything he didn't, he didn't get paid to do it, per se. He did it because I was willing to invest. And he knew I wanted to learn and he wanted to teach. And so No, it was it was a good marriage. And that's kind of how I feel is my it's an opportunity to do that, at least, that every student is interested in going deeper. And that's okay, too. But some students really want to get it. And if they do, I'm willing to invest and they're willing to invest. So

Dennise Cardona  12:49  
sometimes students just want to know that they have somebody there encouraging them and supporting their, their their actions and their journey towards education.

Dr. John Johnson  12:59  
Yeah, and telling them they can do it. Because sometimes you're not sure, you know,

Dennise Cardona  13:03  
that's right. Yeah, absolutely. How does the class prepare students for success?

Dr. John Johnson  13:09  
While the class prepares students for success, you know, kind of beyond the technical or academic components, we could talk about that. But I think it prepares them for success in some maybe broader or more intangible ways, by putting them in a situation where they're, they're having to acquire new information, new knowledge. And professionally, that's been my experience, you're no matter what you learn at school, you're always going to find yourself in some situation, well, you don't know what you need to know. And so you're gonna have to have the skills or how do I acquire that knowledge? As people I'm gonna have to read, I'm able to research and I have to trial and error, there are different ways. And so in this class, students are kind of put in a position Usually, it's new to them not many times. So I encountered a student who is already familiar with the decision to risk analysis and Bayes theorem and conditional probability. They know they know a little bit, but they don't know it was scary to come at him in this class. And they maybe knew a little bit about quality, but they're not quite sure about, you know, six sigma, and Lean Six Sigma. And you know, how to reduce variation. And all these things are new concepts in most cases. And so they're having to dig. And I give them the opportunity to dig, it's very challenging my best classes what I try to just take the best of the best classes I've had, and try to incorporate those things and try to correct the things I thought were the worst, the worst class. And so I want to make sure it's challenging. I want to push them beyond what they think they can do. And then I want to give them a path for success. And so that's a lesson in learning. So if you get used to doing that, then after this class, you'll encounter it again. You'll have another class or another life situation where you don't think you can do it. It's very hard. It's very difficult. You'll keep working at it, you'll find a path to success. This, it'll be good. And so you'll know how I did it before I can do it again.

Dennise Cardona  15:04  
Oh, that's great. I love that. That's so so powerful. Can you talk about the nature of the engineering field sort of in general, and why it's important to the world and to organizations.

Dr. John Johnson  15:17  
So the engineering field at large isn't important to the world. Because engineers are it sounds cliche, but engineers solve problems. That's, that's what, that's why engineers really are in place in our society is to solve problems, whether it's know how to move people from point A to point B, or how to move information from point A to point B, or how to make a decision about which alternative to select, or how to make something better, less expensive, more effective. Those are all problems that engineers gets us off. And I think preparing engineers to have the skills to solve problems, and then the, I'll say, the soft skills to ask good questions, I shouldn't call them soft skills, because there's some really tangible skills to formulating and asking strong questions, hiring engineers with those skill sets make them more effective problem solvers. Engineers contribution to society is we solve problems. No, that's, that's what we do. And we solve them in a variety of domains and capacities, you know, whether we're solving them as managers, engineering managers, we're solving them as technicians, you know, figuring out technology? Or are we solving even in social constructs, you know, how to organize people in a way to accomplish a goal, those are all problem solving activities that that engineers address in our society?

Dennise Cardona  16:44  
How can a student get the most out of your class? Like, what should they be going into this class classes with so that they can get the most out of it?

Dr. John Johnson  16:53  
So students in order to get the most out of the classes that I teach? In fact, in my syllabus, I give a list of success factors, you know, these are things that you want to do, you want to be successful in this class. So you want to read the material, and you want to try every problem. You don't have to successfully complete it, but you want to try everything, and the homework, trying the problems and the reading all preparations to put you in a position to ask questions, come to class and ask questions. If you read you practice problems, and you ask questions, those students I find are very successful. And of course, if you shy away from the reading, you don't really have a foundation for asking a good question. If you don't try to problems and fail, I really like it with students try problems and fail, because that usually leads to the best question. If you don't try it and fail, then again, you don't have the basis for a good question. So a failure followed by a question is the best route to success, in my opinion, that in that experience, if you do those things, you'll be successful in the course, I give lots of opportunities to be successful, but you got to put the work.

Dennise Cardona  18:01  
What excites you most about being in this field?

Dr. John Johnson  18:04  
What I like best about being in this field, technically, is that is changing, you know, is is constantly in motion, since I can't go back to grad school anymore, so I get to learn. You know, in my field, for example, I'm currently involved in learning some more about cybersecurity. As I lose my business, we're working towards certifying our business in one of the cybersecurity domains, well, I'm not a separate cybersecurity expert. So I'm having to learn about that, that technology. And as I learn more about it, I'm able to apply it in other areas of our operation. So I like that it's changing, and it's dynamic. What I like about the teaching environment, is that I get to share that with with students. And maybe the best thing I like about the teaching part is I get to see when someone has had a great experience in the class, and it's led to a great experience outside of the class. I think when I've had one of several cases, students will want solid working really hard in class and they go off to an internship or to a job. And and they'll write back and they'll say, No, sir, no, I'm working on this, this six sigma project, and my manager told me that I'm applying this better than anybody's ever seen do it before, you know, you know, and when they're excited about what they've learned, and they've applied it somewhere, that's golden. You know, that's what's what's the MasterCard, question? Come every one of those day that's priceless. Yeah. That's that's what I probably enjoyed best about.

Dennise Cardona  19:50  
Oh, that's Yeah, it's priceless, right? That's perfect. It's golden. Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about your business because you've mentioned it a few times, and I think that would be really interesting. for students to understand what you do in the field, and what you bring to the class from them from that exchange for

Dr. John Johnson  20:07  
sure. So my business is systems thinking and solutions. So I started that, after my corporate career moving around in manufacturing and supply chain operations, quality assurance, and just a variety of the collected jobs in corporate America started a business systems thinking and solutions, and we are an IT services and professional services company. Basically, what we do is for, primarily for government agencies, we provide the information and technology support, to allow enterprise software and applications, the infrastructure of an operation to work, we also provide the technical support to acquire information technology. So we like to say to acquire, maintain, and improve Information Technology, those are the kinds of things that we do. So we have a list of capabilities that kind of relate often to these classes. a continuous process improvement is six sigma work that ties directly to the quality and engineering management course. And then the a lot of the things around enterprise architecture and technical support for enterprise software, have to do with decisions that have to be made in the enterprise, which is relates directly to risk and decision analysis. So that's what we do. And

Dennise Cardona  21:36  
that really does relate nicely to what you're, you're you're teaching in the class. So the students are gaining this firsthand knowledge from you from somebody who's actually in the trenches doing the work and rolling up their sleeves and getting the work done.

Dr. John Johnson  21:50  
Yes, absolutely. In fact, it was just yesterday in class, I was we were discussing a decision and risks situation. And I gave them an example of a real life model. We're building a simulation model. And I was able to use that example, that I was fresh out of a meeting on the day before. You know, we use that example, in the class on Wednesday. So yeah, I think that's one of the values of having adjunct teachers in the program is that they're bringing real life experience, current experience to the classroom.

Dennise Cardona  22:26  
So you've talked a little bit about failure, right? And how it leads to great questions and to ultimate success really in a project? Could you give an example of a failure that maybe you went through in your career that has shaped the way you teach? Hmm, interesting.

Dr. John Johnson  22:44  
Well, let's see. I'll give you a good one. When I was working, and there been many, that's why I hesitate. So, you know, I guess I'm proud to say I've had many failures, this is true. So academically one, one thing that was around as a priority and focus, focus on preparation, when I was in my Ph. D program, I got distracted at some point. And that distraction with life and everything else. I didn't put the focus on finishing a dissertation that actually led to an additional year in the program for me. So imagine the heart ache, when I get a call from a classmate who's john, I just walked across the stage. You know, I'm looking for you, where are you? And I there, buddy? Because I didn't graduate. No. But that failure gave me a renewed sense of focus. And that renewed sense of focus. I dug deeper. And I think I ended my my dissertation and subsequent papers that I wrote, and eventually some published in journals were better, because I spent that additional year at a level of focus that was unparalleled to what I had done before. No. So so by failing, which I really I can't say I would do it again. But that failure led to a level of the intense focus that led to better products for me academically.

Dennise Cardona  24:22  
It's a powerful story right there. Most of us don't view failure as a positive stepping stone, if you will, where as through your experience, it proves that failure can be a positive stepping stone to greater success down the road.

Dr. John Johnson  24:41  
Yes, absolutely. And another example of failure for me would would beat this class that I'm teaching risk and decision analysis. I ultimately got a good grade in that course. But when I took it in grad school, the first part of that semester I was failing that course. I couldn't have Understand it, the professor was teaching and he was speaking Greek as far as I was concerned. And I just couldn't get it, I didn't understand it. And I remember getting a book, statistics for Dummies. And I had a friend, I had a classmate who encouraged me and said, john, you can do it, get this book, and again, got a renewed sense of focus. And I read more, when I realized that you need to read more, you need to read this book, more, you need to read it, if you for me, I needed to read it three times. For someone else, you know, they were they got away with reading it once. But what I what I kind of came to grips with, you need to do the things you need to do for you. So that you get it. And that's what I encourage students, if, if it takes one time reading, and you get it great, good for you. But if it takes 234 times, then that's what you have to do. And that's what I did. So I dug in deeper. And I read more, which is why in assist, and I tried the problems and failed at the problems, and came to class with different questions for different questions, different levels of reading, eventually, I started to get the concepts once I got the concepts, then I could learn on my own because I had the foundations. And so that taught me two things, a teach students concepts, I think my what my professor didn't do, as well as I'm trying to do is to give the foundation of concepts so that helps students on their self learning path. And then to and to encourage the questions and failure. So that you try, you fail you as you learn. And, and that's what I got. And I, in fact, he uses my project from that class, as his example, I went from the bottom student to the example student in that class, because I knew I could do that. My experience, I encourage other students know just because you're failing now, doesn't mean that's where you end, go to work, read more practice more, as most questions. And and when they do they succeed.

Dennise Cardona  27:03  
That's proof of concept right there nice role model for people to be able to say, yeah, if I can do it, you can do it. It's that mantra of if I can do this, I can do anything.

Dr. John Johnson  27:13  
Yeah, exactly. Once you've had that experience, the next experience that sounds similar, and feels like I can't do it, you say I recognize this, I felt like that before, what did I do, I dug deeper, I did more, work harder. And I said,

Dennise Cardona  27:29  
I am gonna be thinking about this whole failure thing in such a different way. Because I tend to be kind of a perfectionist. And I think that that's not a very, that's a limiting place to come from when you're trying to get to the next level,

Dr. John Johnson  27:41  
there was a class, it just made me think about a class I took when I was at Motorola. And this class was about how to, I can't think of the name of the class maybe was an efficacy class or something self efficacy, I don't know what it was. But in any case, there was an exercise. And the exercise was, you would try to get points by tossing a ball into a bucket. If you stood at the five foot line, or one foot line, three foot line, five foot line, 10 foot line, right? You stood the 10 foot line, you can get 100 points, if you got it in the bucket. If you stood at the one foot line, you only got one point. And you can imagine and that's the further you got the more points, right. So make a long story short, where do you stand to maximize your points, your wins, right. And what the experiment showed was that people who stood too far away from the bucket, trying to score, the max points every time tended to lose the people who played it too safe, standing at the one foot line, and only getting one point at a time 100% success, but very small victories, they'd lost. The people who tended to win the game, were people who stood a little further back, had some failures, but a few successes, learn from successes and got more points. And so the moral of that story was, if you're hitting a bull's eye, then you're too close to the target. And that's that's what we took away from that training. And so you need to stand further back, so that you don't always hit a bull's eye, but that you learn from missing it. And you get better each time. And that's what I'm that's the whole failure and learning concept. Wow, that's

Dennise Cardona  29:25  
so cool. That's such a great analogy, such a great way to view that. That's actually a very strong analogy. So something that I will be able to remember when I am thinking back on this conversation is that whole bullseye. If you're too close, you keep getting those bullet Bull's eyes. You're too close. And you're not you're not challenging yourself enough.

Dr. John Johnson  29:45  
There you go. Exactly.

Dennise Cardona  29:46  
So this brings us to the last question. Is there anything else that maybe I didn't ask you that you think would be of value to this conversation that I might have left out?

Dr. John Johnson  29:56  
You know, Dennise, I can't think of anything you haven't asked. Me are something that I would add this has been an interesting conversation I've enjoyed chatting with you made me think about a few things, particularly that question around failure. You know, I'm not sure what I would say next time, I have to think about that some more so, so good job. as journalists, they're, you know, pulling that up.

Dennise Cardona  30:19  
That's great. Thank you so much, Dr. Johnson, for being here. It's been such a pleasure talking with you. You've expanded my mind when it comes to this whole failure concept. And you're really going to have me thinking very differently through it. So thank you for that.

Dr. John Johnson  30:34  
You're very welcome. You're very welcome. Have a great day. And tell everybody to fail up, because it's, it'll lead to success.

Dennise Cardona  30:44  
Thank you for taking the time to listen to this episode of UMBC's Mic'd Up. We hope you enjoyed it. If you'd like to learn more about the professional engineering graduate programs at UMBC, please visit us at