What engineers can learn from The Beatles

What engineers can learn from The Beatles

Engineers generally fall into one of three categories:  (i) Those old enough to have experienced The Beatles in their playing/recording days, (ii) Those who grew up after The Beatles’ broke up, yet still experienced and enjoy their music, perhaps even classifying themselves as “fans”, and (iii) Younger engineers for whom The Beatles are merely a footnote in history; they’re just some band that their parents or even grandparents listened to.  Music and engineering? No matter which of those three categories you fall into, you might be surprised to learn that The Beatles can offer some tips, take-aways, and inspiration for engineers and for consulting engineering firms…..

There’s been renewed interest and chatter around the office water cooler recently with the release of the Get Back documentary by Peter Jackson, currently streaming on Disney Plus.  Running for over eight hours across three episodes, the documentary consists entirely of original audio tapes and film footage recorded in January, 1969 (over 150 hours in total), as The Beatles prepared for what would ultimately become the Let It Be album – culminating also in the famous roof top performance in London.  Incredibly restored and enhanced, the footage and recordings shed new light on the Fab Four, and it all depicts a somewhat different and fuller picture than the blinkered narrative that emerged from the original two hour assembled film that was released as Let it Be in 1970.

 

The roof top concert, 1969

 

You don’t need to be a fan of The Beatles to enjoy or appreciate the documentary.  Indeed, any engineer who enjoys pop/rock music or who simply works in a team environment will be able to relate to the events that unfold, and thus take something away from the documentary.

It goes without saying that The Beatles were a successful group that conquered their industry, and there are hundreds (thousands?) of successful consulting engineering firms who have conquered their own sectors and pockets of our industry.  The two have more in common than you might think!  Let’s look at what engineers can learn from The Beatles, and look at what The Beatles have in common with successful consulting engineering firms….

Talent

 We can work it out 1965

It goes without saying, but both successful bands and successful engineering firms need talent.  The cream rises to the top, and mediocrity won’t travel far.  The Beatles were unusually blessed with talent.  Most bands have a lead singer; The Beatles effectively had three, and even Ringo chipped in occasionally!  Lennon, Harrison, and particularly McCartney, were all multi-instrumentalists and would swap instruments and duties, as required.  It was common for them to swap between rhythm, lead, and bass guitars; Lennon & McCartney also played piano/keyboards; Harrison later brought traditional Indian musical instruments into the mix, and McCartney even played drums on several tracks.

Successful engineering firms need similar versatility from their staff.  Most designing engineers will have their main-strength “instrument” (e.g. concrete, steel, timber, etc, and also their forte with the types of structures they like to analyse and design), but they should also have competence and confidence across the other materials and structures to be drawn upon when needed.  It heightens the flexibility and output of the business; it affords broader thinking; it widens the chemistry and the results that can be brought to the table.

 

The Beatles & engineering - the Fab Four

 

Synergy

 All together now 1969

Synergy is defined as when the combined entity is greater than the sum of its individual parts.  The Beatles were made up of four talented individuals who each shone in different ways.  But it was their combined chemistry that created magic.  As Paul McCartney once said: “Any band that had John Lennon in it would have been a good band.  Any band that had George Harrison in it would have been a good band, and ditto Ringo, ditto myself.  It was what we did as a unit that was the difference and lifted us above the rest.

Every consulting engineering firm will have its stars and rainmakers, but individualism in a business is rarely a key to sustained success.  (Indeed, it was individualism within The Beatles by the end that was at the core of their demise).  An engineering business has a brand, and brands are built off what the team delivers.  So play with a team mindset.  Designers need their draftees to bring the documentation to life; the office’s more creative types need to mesh with and be balanced by the firm’s more mathematical types; the firm’s dreamers need the office’s more pragmatic minds to achieve the sweet spot between innovation and practicality.  It’s the engineering firms where everyone in the office plays and contributes to a greater cause that tend to enjoy better success.

 

Engineers collaborating around the table

 

Give everyone their voice and let your staff’s light shine

 You can’t do that ♬  1964

The Beatles were dominated by the songwriting partnership of Lennon and McCartney and, to be fair, it was obviously a successful and lucrative partnership.  The problem was that it suppressed the input and genius of George Harrison.  For every album of 10 to 15 songs, Harrison would typically only get to contribute two, occasionally three compositions – leading to frustration on his part and, evidently, denying the world some brilliant music.  Harrison’s growing frustration by the late 1960’s was one of the many catalysts that contributed to The Beatles breaking up.  The general consensus of fans – and even John Lennon, himself – was that Harrison’s two songs on their 1969 album, Abbey Road, (Something, and Here Comes the Sun) were the best songs on the album.  Indeed, less than a year after The Beatles broke up, Harrison went on to release his triple album, All things must pass, comprised largely of material rejected/left over from his Beatles days.  A critical and commercial success, many critics still maintain it was the best post-Beatles solo effort of all the ex-Beatles.  It’s often forgotten that George was only 27 years old at that time.

The lesson here for consulting engineering businesses is to recognise and acknowledge all the “songwriters” in your band.  It’s easy to dwell on the winning formula or your established talent, but that shouldn’t be at the expense of the rising talent within your ranks.  McCartney later described Harrison as a “late bloomer”, and most engineers need time to develop their skills, knowledge, confidence, and mastery of their craft.  The key is to recognise, utilise, and highlight the emerging talent, and to give it a voice – lest it feel unappreciated and leaves your firm to join another band….or go out as a solo artist.

Engineering and music - The Beatles

 

There will always be a Rolling Stones

 Two of us 1970

As brilliant, game-changing, and appealing as The Beatles were, they weren’t the only band going around, and they weren’t everyone’s cup of tea.   “Are you a Beatles or Stones person?” was a question that once had currency, and whilst the dichotomy was never really that black or white, the point is that consumers will seek out and enjoy products from more than one supplier.   If there was any rivalry between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, it existed mostly in the minds of music journalists and the media.  Certainly, members of both bands have repeatedly said over the years that they all got on well, hung out as friends, and admired each other’s work.   Commercially – by which I mean making money – neither band evidently suffered from the other’s existence.  Fans of pop/rock music in general bought the albums of both artists.

The same must be said of consulting engineering firms.  No matter how good you are in your sector of the industry (e.g commercial, industrial, residential, infrastructure, etc), few firms realistically enjoy a monopoly.  There will always be competitors; there will always be other firms playing in the same playground as you; and even if your last project with a particular client was a roaring success by every metric, that same client might turn to your competitor for their next project.

The key is to focus on your own performance.  Sure, you can take inspiration from your competitors, you can even emulate aspects of what they do (just as the Stones did with Their Satanic Majesties Request album, which was clearly influenced by, if not directly modelled on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), but success comes from focusing on the quality of your own product, rather than looking over your shoulder.

 

Engineering and music - a designer at work

 

Innovation & re-invention

 Not a second time 1963

Make no mistake, The Beatles were innovative.  Whether in their songs’ styles, their lyrics, their instrumentation, and especially with the technical wizardry employed by their studio engineers and recording staff, The Beatles forged new ground in many areas.  They invented or developed tricks and sounds in the studio that would become the standards and benchmarks in the decades that followed.

Hand in hand with this innovation was re-invention.  The Beatles rarely stood still and re-invented themselves several times through different styles and sounds over a relatively short time frame – more than merely just their fashions and hairstyles.  Imagine how enduring they’d have been (not!) if they’d just stuck with their early 1950’s rock’n’roll-influenced 12-bar blues sound?  Imagine if they’d never progressed to the folk/rock of Rubber Soul, the pop/rock of Revolver, the psychedelia of Sgt. Peppers/Magical Mystery Tour, and the edgier rock of their final two albums?

It’s temptingly easy for engineers to dismiss innovation or re-invention.  We are, by both learned and instinctive nature, a conservative bunch of professionals, much more inclined to play it safe rather than be daring.   And while the laws of physics and mathematics may not change, it doesn’t follow that how we apply them to engineering should be equally static.   We have advances in materials (e.g. higher grade concretes and steels); advances in more environmentally friendly and sustainable materials and construction methods; we have more powerful software and analysis tools that allow us to design more accurately and efficiently than ever before.  If you’re running your operation exactly as you were 10 years ago, then your effectiveness, reach, and success will be limited.  It behoves us as engineers to bring about improvements, efficiencies, innovation, and change.  And with that, as The Beatles ably demonstrated, comes success.

Engineers outsourcing

 

Welcome collaboration and assistance where you have gaps in your skillsets

 Help! 1965

The Beatles may have been the Fab Four, but don’t think for a moment that their success came wholly from within…there was always a fifth or sixth Beatle working in the wings.  Would they (could they?) have achieved what they did without the input and steering of Brian Epstein, their manager, who set them on the road to success?  And what about the contributions of George Martin, their producer in the studio?  Martin was responsible for most of the orchestral arrangements and song direction, refining their sound, and he also played on many of the recordings.  Similarly, listen to the live tracks on the Let It Be album (those without any overdubs) and imagine those songs without Billy Preston’s electric piano.

The point is that engineers and the consulting firms they work for can benefit tremendously from out-sourcing aspects of their operation to better-credentialed professionals.  Our tertiary education (that is, an Engineering Degree) teaches us maths, materials, and design…..but we are rarely given formal training or education in the ways of business, marketing, mentoring, HR, management, emotional intelligence / EQ, and so on.  Don’t be afraid to let others assist you on your road to success.  You can’t do it all yourself – and that’s the difference between being in a band and being a solo artist.

 

————————-

 

If there’s one last thing The Beatles taught us, it’s that your time in the spotlight can be fleeting, but your legacy can be incredibly enduring.  The Beatles’ albums came out 50-60 years ago, yet are still being talked about, played on the radio, and influencing others.  Equally, we live and work in buildings that were built 50-60 years ago; we drive over bridges that are 50-60 years old; and – of course – there are landmark structures all over the globe that are much, much older and still going strong.  What project or structure are you working on right now?  Don’t lose sight of the fact that your next hit single will live on for decades after it slips out of the charts.

Cheers,
AD

 

About the author:  For the record (pun not intended), I was born three years after The Beatles broke up, yet they were a major part of my musical upbringing.  As a young boy, I would spend hundreds of hours listening to my parents’ Beatles vinyl records, and they were a major influence on me in latter years as a semi-professional performing and recording musician.  (Working as a structural engineer by day and a musician at night and on weekends, at one point my income from music supplemented my engineering salary by almost a third.  And with that bit of info, I’ll leave you to ponder whether a part-time musician can earn decent bucks or whether engineering salaries are low! ? )

 

PS:  If you enjoyed this piece, you can subscribe to The Working Engineer for free and be notified each time a new article gets posted. 

Did you like this article?  Why not subscribe for more?

Subscribe for free and receive an email notification when we publish new articles...

Invalid email address
We promise not to spam you. And you can unsubscribe at any time.

The Working Engineer logo

2 thoughts on “What engineers can learn from The Beatles

  1. I thought the documentary by Peter Jackson was fantastic. Interesting to see how this has been applied to engineering!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top