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The Story - Closing Blog Post Pt. 1

Updated: May 13

The idea for Just Engineering came to me in my last semester of college in 2017. I had been reading about ethics in the engineering industry, while simultaneously participating in a design class that collaborated with NGOs to create technology for the developing world. I was learning about the inequitable distribution of the engineering industry’s resources, while also coming awake to a humanizing and impactful way of using my engineering skills. I sensed that society was waking up to both as well: more engineering friends of mine were looking for ways to put their skills toward social impact, and companies were starting to publish their efforts in “Corporate Social Responsibility.” Didn’t it follow then that both CSR-minded companies and their engineers would be interested in projects to design impactful technology? What if there was an organization that helped them establish and manage those projects? This was the “aha!” moment I experienced while studying for midterms in a little coffee shop just off campus. This was the first “what if” I felt was important enough to take a risk on, the first idea for my future to which I could dedicate all of my time and energy.

Instead, I went to work in industry and put such a dream on the backburner. It did not come off the back-burner until 2019, when it was steaming with the pressure of job unfulfillment and had steeped in learnings about industry. In February I shared the idea with a former professor at Stanford whose PhD was on the mental wellness of small groups of engineers working with communities to design impactful technology. Bhavna resonated with the concept of a professional platform for ethical co-design, and she agreed to become a mentor. Her first piece of advice was to assemble a team.

In March I asked my cubicle neighbor Aditi if she wanted to help me start an organization that facilitated projects in which engineers in industry collaborated with impact organizations abroad to design technology. For the rest of 2019, the three of us spitballed business models while laying the philosophical foundation for Just Engineering.

In December, we met Daniel, a graduating mechanical engineer who got jazzed by the idea of every tech company having a social impact project. He connected us with our first potential partner, Looma Education, who agreed to take a chance on a fledgling organization of eager millennials. In February of 2020 we were in talks with a group of engineers and their company about partnering with us to design a new version of the Looma. In March of 2020, the floor fell out from beneath us, as it did for everyone.

 

Aditi, Daniel and I were so eager to launch our first project and move Just Engineering forward, that completely halting our momentum didn’t feel like an option. So we trudged forward. We edited plans for physical meetings to work for virtual collaboration, and asked our partners if they were interested in working on the project from home. Looma, flexible and gracious as always, agreed to flex, however our corporate partner was going through a round of lay-offs with the economy collapsing, so the engineers pulled out.

By this point, the design project was already underway, so we scrapped our ideal model of partnering with a company and in June 2020, we looked for individual engineers who were interested in volunteering their time from home. Surprisingly, 10 people reached out within the day, and we had narrowed down to 3 within the week. While we were not enthused about recreating the volunteer model that other organizations struggled with, our original thesis was confirmed: engineers are desperate for opportunities to use their skills in more impactful ways.

The volunteer model worked well for about 5 months; volunteers had a lot of energy and time (thanks pandemic) to pour into the project, the design thinking process was engaging for folks who typically are immersed in corporate engineering work, and there was direct communication between stakeholders (teachers, Looma admin, volunteer engineers) on a frequent basis.

What, then, happened at 5 months? The team’s energy for a design marathon began to wane, volunteers invested their free time elsewhere during the holiday season, we failed to transition from a design thinking process to a product engineering process, and project management became unclear.

This culminated in Just Engineering’s 2nd challenging moment: the engineers submitted a final design to mark the end of phase 1 and the partner organization asked us to redesign the whole thing. Not only had we not delivered a design that our partner wanted, but now our engineers felt defeated and exhausted.

We had taken 5 months to arrive back at the original design the partner organization asked us to realize. Maybe we should have just taken their word for it and dived straight into product engineering? Maybe our value proposition to organizations should be the corporate model of product development combined with the engineering talent to execute such a model? Maybe we should just trust the partner organization to have done the need-finding, market research, business modeling, and stuck to what engineers do best?

 

This is the approach we took with our second partner organization in 2021. Having vetted 15 organizations who requested engineering help, we chose the organization who we thought had the clearest idea of what they wanted (after several years of design research) and sincerely just needed the engineering expertise to make it happen.

With a new group of volunteer engineers (we still hadn’t cracked the code on corporate partnership), we took the design proposed to us by the partner organization and began to execute. One month into the project, the partner organization had changed the design and the target community. We adapted and began executing the new design for a new context. Another month later, the design had changed again, along with the manufacturer. Then again a month later. With such unstable ground, our volunteer engineers moved on, and the project fizzled out.

Maybe we should have taken the design thinking approach and spent 5 months exploring different designs? Maybe we should have just moved on to another partner organization that was more sure about the design it wanted to pursue? There was, at the time of this project losing momentum, several directions in which Just Engineering could have moved in order to keep developing impactful technology around the globe.

The dissolution of this second project, however, coincided with a few other things that made it hard to start a new project. Firstly, a few people on the co-founding team were going through career changes which required more of their focus and diminished their free time. Secondly, the other half of the co-founding team was burned out and needed to take a mental health break from work in general. Thirdly, I myself was also deep in the weeds of fundraising, researching donation sources, and applying to grants. Managing this, plus finding new co-founders, plus trying to scope and start a new project, was way too much to manage as one person. Not to mention I had planned to travel for a year with my partner Hannah, and starting up a non-profit could be two full time jobs; this was not something I felt I could balance with being present to the year of travel coming up in the fall of 2022.

This was the perfect storm that made it difficult for Just Engineering to keep existing in its current form. When I recognized the herculean effort (read: immense sacrifices) it would take to jump start the organization, I made the executive decision to bring the organization to a formal close, rather than let it slowly die out from neglect over the course of a year.

 

The team supported the decision to close with intention. This gave explicit permission to lean fully into the new horizons each of us were taking on (career changes, getting engaged, travel, etc.) without feeling the guilt of not working on Just Engineering. It also allowed us to think about how we can transform the work we’ve done with JE into something useful for the world. We have reflected over the last few months on what we have learned as an organization in the last few years, and have boiled down these learnings into what we hope can be guiding pillars to future work at the intersection of social impact and engineering, whether in our own lives or for others venturing in the space. You can read these synthesized learnings here, in part 2 of our closing statements.

In our intentional closing, we also realized that while we’re all taking our careers in different directions, one thing would always unite us: the desire to see engineering used to help meet serious needs in the world, and the opportunity for more engineers to have such an opportunity. While it may not be through Just Engineering, we are all committed to seeing the landscape of engineering work change in our life times. You can read our hopes for the future here, in part 3 of our closing statements.

We have so many thanks to give. To the amazing organizations we’ve been privileged to partner with and serve, our most sincere thanks. It has been an honor to support you and learn from your many years of wisdom and hard work. To all of the volunteer engineers who so excitedly jumped on board to do whatever was needed, thank you for your enthusiasm and heart. We hope your time with us has transformed the way you see engineering work. To all of those who believed in our organization, from reading our email newsletters and connecting us with partners, to giving feedback on our website and simply asking about the organization, thank you for your generous support.

Aditi, Mihika, and Daniel have all begun working for companies focused on making technology for social or environmental impact. They all say their work with Just Engineering has inspired them to refocus their career. Triple has reinvested in his teaching career, hoping to transform the landscape of engineering work by helping future technologists vision new values and realities for the human-systems around engineering.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for sticking with us, both through this post and through our story at large. We hope you feel inspired to join the revolution of engineering work.