I recently had the privilege of interviewing David Ming. Ming or rather the ‘Engineering Maestro', is a senior lecturer of Chemical Engineering at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits), the Cofounder and Director of EWB-SA and the author of the recently launched textbook ‘Attainable Region Theory', a masterpiece which stands at the forefront of research in its respective field.
After achieving a BSc. Chemical Engineering from Wits, he worked at a water treatment company and simultaneously pursued an engineering masters degree. He later travelled abroad and started writing a textbook related to his PhD work. Upon returning, he realised that he could have a bigger impact on society if he forsook the traditional engineering track into industry.
Ming soon discovered many charity projects in operation but hardly any community development projects, and hence went on to create a space where he could employ his skills to help empower communities, leading to the creation of EWB-Wits and ultimately the formation of EWB-SA.
Despite his position at EWB-SA, he always first and foremost considers himself to be a volunteer and wholeheartedly devotes himself to any EWB-SA activity he participates in. He considers having an education and a professional skill set a rare privilege in South Africa and believes it would be almost unethical of him not to employ them to address community issues. He manages all this whilst still working as a lecturer.
Ming finds that the engineering profession in all branches keeps changing, but the thinking and problem solving ability remains constant throughout and that’s the true beauty of studying engineering. In 2014, Ming was chosen as the Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young South Africans, for his contributions in Education.
Ming's advice to aspiring engineers is the same advice that he received from his supervisor, “There is a lot you know. There is also a lot that you don’t know. Try to understand what you know from what you don’t.”
Ming drops quite a few knowledge bombs throughout the interview, exploding the intellectual space below, where you can find the rest of the interview.
1. Describe your engineering journey.
I originally applied to study a BCom at Wits, and at the last moment applied for chemical engineering. I ended up doing one year of a general BSc in my first year at university, because by the time I applied for engineering, it was too late. I then did a postgrad after completing my undergrad engineering degree. At the same time, I started work as a process engineer for a water treatment company. Most of my time was spent driving out to Mpumalanga on Monday morning and driving back late Friday evening. After a couple of years of working, I received an opportunity to spend some time overseas and write a textbook. When I returned, I wanted to do something different and got a job as a lecturer/researcher.
2. What prompted you to start EWB-Wits and subsequently to co-found EWB-SA?
I felt I had learnt so much from my degree after graduating, but there wasn’t a place outside of traditional employment where I could apply my skills. I had an interest in wanting to participate in existing community development projects, but when I started looking around for what was available, I soon realised that nothing really existed that suited this view. There were organisations that simply handed out supplies like food and clothing, whereas others offered some kind of community upliftment programme, but they all felt more like charity than impactful contributions. I looked on the EWB-International website to see if there were any opportunities in Johannesburg, but there was only one newly created chapter at UCT. That’s when I decided to start EWB-Wits.
When I started working, only EWB-UCT and EWB-Wits existed, and they were regarded as two separate entities that shared a common name. Wiebke Toussaint, who was past chairperson of EWB-UCT, had just moved up to Johannesburg and worked in the same office park as me. We met and decided to start EWB-SA as a way to unify our shared view of what the engineering profession could be in South Africa.
3. Describe what your work at EWB-SA entails.
I am currently the chairperson of EWB-SA. My job is to support the CEO, and, along with the EWB-SA board, oversee and guide the direction of EWB-SA as an organisation. What this means in practice is I try and interfere as little as possible with the day-today operations of EWB-SA, and to give assistance and vision for where EWB-SA should be headed in the future.
But just like everyone else, I’m first and foremost a volunteer of EWB-SA. If I sign up to participate in a certain activity, programme or event, I do whatever I can in my skillset to contribute to EWB-SA, and so work can be very different from one activity to another. At the moment, I am currently helping with organising the annual leadership summit.
4. What sparked your interest in community development?
The World Bank scores South Africa as one of the most unequal societies in the world. If you are fortunate enough to have a matric certificate, then you are probably already within the top 10% of the country. Knowing this, having an education and skillset in South Africa is then quite a rare privilege, and so it’s almost unethical for me as a professional to not have an interest in addressing these issues.
5. How have you been able to utilize your skills as an engineer to assist/ empower communities?
When EWB-Wits started, we had a number of projects that were closely related to my specific field of study where I felt I could directly apply my technical knowledge, such as building biodiesel plants and biogas digesters. Although, over time, I have used a lot more of my general engineering thinking and problem solving skills. Ultimately the engineering profession, in all branches, keeps changing. But the thinking and problem solving ability is always constant, and that is what is truly valuable about studying engineering.
6. What do you feel you have acquired/gained (both for your professional and personal development) through your association with EWB-SA?
I initially thought I was going to apply what I already knew to help others, in a sort of one-way transaction of knowledge for greater good, although I soon realised that I actually knew very little.
The nature of EWB-SA activities means that you’re always put into new situations, and are faced with challenges and restrictions. At times, you need to manage judgement, or identify an opportunity where you can put up your hand. Projects often fail, and when it happens, you must have the strength of character to pick yourself up, reassess, and continue on. For all these reasons, I have learnt a lot about leadership and failure, which I certainly would not have gained from just following a conventional engineering path.
I also continue to meet a lot of interesting people and friends.
7. What makes EWB-SA different or rather what makes it stand out compared to other organisations of its type?
We have a large community of young engineers, spread over a wide demographic around South Africa. Most organisations group their members into a specific discipline, skillset or interest, whereas EWB-SA has tried to do the opposite of that and challenge what the definition of an engineer is in society. We have a strong interest in leadership development and personal growth, which is reflected in our motto of “empowering engineers to empower communities”. And because of this diversity, even amongst other EWB organisations, we have a unique approach to social development and the use of technology in society.
I think a lot of our members aren’t defined just by their engineering knowledge, but they are interesting people who happen to have studied engineering.
8. How do you maintain a balance between the work at your day job and your work at EWB-SA?
If you have existing day commitments, then I don’t think you ever find a balance because there are only a finite number of hours in a day. But doing work that interests you doesn’t make it feel so much like work.
Because of this, I try as best as possible to only do work that interest me and or that I want to get better at. I large part of my growth within EWB-SA has been to understand my own strengths and interests, and when I need to ask someone else for help or when someone else would be better at the job than me.
9. Are there any interesting projects that you are working on currently or in the near future?
Nothing concrete at the moment, but there are a lot of interesting potential partnerships in the works.
10. What advice would you give to aspiring engineers?
My supervisor said these words to me that I always try to remember: There is a lot you know. There is also a lot that you don’t know. Try to understand what you know from what you don’t.
David Ming interviewed by Dhruti Dheda