Photo by Silas Köhler on Unsplash

There are may different types of engineer. Recently, I read some interesting articles about defining engineers by their skills and depth of knowledge. This blog asks you to consider, what’s your skill shape: I…T…or Key?  

In the 1970’s, companies wanted staff with an I-shaped skill level. What does this mean? I-Shaped Skills reflected a person with a deep (vertical) expertise in one area and practically no experience or knowledge in other areas. This person would typically be known as a specialist. It could be one process, one type of distillation, one type of pump, etc. I remember the days when my customer, Eastman Chemical, had flange specialists, o-ring specialists, vacuum pump specialists. The other large chemical companies, such as Dow Chemical, had similarly focused engineers.

In the 1980s, McKinsey & Company developed the idea of the T-shaped professional. The vertical bar on the T represents strong knowledge in a specific discipline. The horizontal bar represents a wide yet shallow knowledge in other areas. This allows the person to collaborate across other disciplines and acquire new skills or knowledge. Chemical companies have T-shaped engineers such as filtration experts, drying experts, solids handling experts, etc. These engineers can support all types of applications across all of the operations at various sites.  

One classic T was Thomas Edison, who wanted the people around him to know a lot of different things. All his prospective employees had to take a test of 150 questions geared toward different jobs and classifications of workers.

Today, the visualization of skills concept has expanded to include the elusive key-shaped professional—a person who has several areas of expertise with varying degrees of depth. The introduction of the key-shaped professional is largely due to the rapid proliferation of technological advances and the cross-disciplinary nature of work. Across industries and professions, the ability to use technology to assimilate and apply information has created a new, broader expectation of the standard skills professionals should have.

As a result, we’re seeing new parallels between skills sought in business and process engineering.  The top skills include embracing new technology, understanding data, and thinking critically about that data. 

Becoming a Key-Shaped Engineer

So, how do you become a Key-shaped professional? I have made several suggestions in other blogs:

So, now you may ask, how do I describe myself? Early in my career, I was T-shaped with knowledge about solid-liquid separation. As I progressed, I became more of a Key shape with knowledge about varied topics such as centrifugation, drying, solids handling, mixing and other process operations as well as technical business marketing and startups. 
I encourage you to think about your own skills shape. It might prompt a learning opportunity, and I’d be happy to help where I can with your transformations.