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At the Round Table with Mechanical & Electrical Engineer Expert, Ravi Iyer

April 20, 2023

In this episode… 

Our guest, Ravi Iyer, is a mechanical and electrical engineer. He successfully led project teams, including fixed fee turnkey assignments. He teamed up to start a power/water utility. Clients included developers, utilities, attorneys and financing institutions.  

In this episode with host Michelle Loux, he explains that the first rule of being an expert witness is to be careful when you speak. The second rule is to explain complex things in simple language. The third rule is to answer yes or no when the opposing attorney asks you a question. The last two rules are soft science, which he calls likeability and communication. He recommends “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell, as a great resource for expert witnesses understanding how people communicate.

Episode Transcript: 

Note: Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Host: Michelle Loux, Assistant Project Manager, Round Table Group 

Guest: Ravi Iver, Principal, Davis Group 

Michelle Loux: Thank you for joining us today at Discussions at the Round Table. I am your host, Michelle Loux, and welcome my guest, Mr. Ravi Iyer. He is the principal of the Davis Group. His areas of expertise are project program, venture development management, engineering training and technical management, expert witness, and litigation support. Ravi, thank you so much for joining us today. I am excited to hear about your journey as an expert witness. 

Ravi Iver: I am both a mechanical and electrical engineer, which is unique. I was a project manager for three Northern California companies for about forty years. While at those companies, I worked on several big jobs. We were plaintiffs in some cases and defendants in others. When I say we, I mean the companies I represented. Let me start with the number one question: What should a new witness do? Number one, be careful when you speak, especially when working around specifications and contracts. In the United States, only one definition is allowed in court: the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary definition for a word. An exception is what you have in the first chapter of a contract in the United States, known as definitions. Then you can say a dog is a cat. As you are reading the contract, when the word dog comes up, it means cat.  

The one place where most people trip up in the kind of work that I do is performance. The judge will look at the dictionary definition; if it is not your definition, you need to write it in detail. The example I will provide you with is a cooling tower. It is a place where heat from a location sinks and cools. Now when we buy cooling towers or have them installed, we specify that it has to meet specific numbers. The cooling tower is very sensitive to temperature and humidity. We have what we call the engineering standard temperature and pressure, which happens to be 59 degrees Fahrenheit, and sea level, which is 14.7 PSI. 

Michelle Loux: Right 

Ravi Iver: The day they installed the cooling tower, it became a big fight. The guy who installs the cooling tower comes and provides his invoice, looking to get paid. I received the performance data. Now, I am going to make this very simple without getting too technical; that data then must be normalized, which means you must take that data and see how that plant will do when it is 15 degrees centigrade or 59 F at sea level. There are ten equations out in the marketplace. One of them is very lenient by the Cooling Tower Institute of America. The other one is. by some guy that says. “No, I want it more to be calculated, optimistic and pessimistic format.” You must state which equation to normalize and at detailed level. You will allow him to normalize if you do not state which equation you are using. I am just trying to give you a sense of how deeply you need to define. You need to go to that level and say, “No, you will conform with your raw data to normalize using whatever you can code.” As I mentioned, there are 10 of those out there. Now, if you don’t do that, the cooling tower will dump it, and if you do not pay for it, he will drag you to court. He is going to win because you did not specify fully. That is a classic example I use.  

I always tell attorneys, before they get into anything a little technical on behalf of the owners or the developers of these stakeholders, make sure that the engineer has looked at all these details because it might come back to haunt you when you are in court. The other guy sues you. Remember, the guy selling the cooling tower sells thousands in a year. You probably end up buying maybe three every five years. He has an advantage here. I learned that if you are unsure of a word’s dictionary definition, start the sentence in court by saying, “To the best of my knowledge.”  

The second rule is the ability to explain complex things in simple language. We had a big case in Los Angeles, where I represented the owner of the biggest ice company in San Diego. We bought the absorption machine, which takes in steam but produces ice, so it is difficult for a layperson to explain how to put in steam at one end and get ice at the other. My first job was to explain to the jury how this thing worked. It was an easy job if you did not have courses in thermodynamics.  

The third rule, which I would put on my list as the most important, is the ability to answer yes or no when the opposing attorney asks you a question. First, remember the judge who will ask you to answer the question first, which means say yes or no. That gets difficult because attorneys have taken rhetoric classes and experts have not. Attorneys know how to twist a question. An example is when you are on the stand, and the opposing attorney comes to you and says, “Did you beat your wife yesterday or today?” First, the rule is to answer immediately with a yes or no. This question is debatable. The answer is, “No, I did not beat my wife yesterday.” Then you look at the judge and say, “Sir, I would like to qualify my answer, please.” After you have answered yes or no, especially when the court reporter takes down every word, the judge will say yes. I will get on my soapbox and say, “I don’t beat my wife at all.” That is how you handle that tough question. That is the kind of question the other guys will give you. If you start giving a long lecture, the judge will interrupt you and say, “Sir, you have not answered his question. Please do that first.” So always answer yes or no. That is Rule 3. 

There are five rules, and I gave you the three key rules. The last two rules are what I call soft science. My workshop stresses the soft sciences. The Project Management Institute in Philadelphia puts out an extensive document. I have worked very closely with them and done workshops for them worldwide. This organization has a book that the International Standards Organization ISO in Switzerland has deemed the standard for procedures for everything from accounting to finance. The Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMB) is a big fat book printed in 26 languages and accepted worldwide, including the United States. I was one of the editors of that book. It has too many details that every organization must have. You can delete and tailor it for your organization, but it ensures you do not do all kinds of inefficient things when you operate or execute anything. It is a good book.  

Communication is one of two important topics that arise. I teach a course called Cross-Cultural and International Communication. When I say cross-cultural, I do not mean between countries. I mean your ability to talk among your kind of people and other people is number one. It is essential when you deal with juries because of the jury composition in the United States, and I am sorry to tell you it is more challenging to be an expert witness in Canada than in the United States. In the United States, it is a beauty show. If the jury likes you initially, they will be biased toward you. Your ability to listen is important, and listening is not just hearing. Listening is processing what you have read in an e-mail or what somebody said and then processing it in your brain and making sense of it. I call It the B1/B2 when the top guy talks. B1 is what is in his brain. He is either writing an e-mail or talking to you; then, he has his B1. As an engineer, I tend to write and talk like an engineer.  

A person in the liberal arts field talks and writes differently, but B1 is not a big deal. The big deal is if you do not know your audience, or you do not know how each of them processes. I did a three-day conference on communications in Scottsdale, Arizona, for the presidents of large manufacturing companies. I started with the anatomy of communication. I draw 22 guys up and write the B1 guy talks B2; if B1 is equal to B2, you have perfect communication. That does not mean the other guy will agree, but he understands you. Each of the jury members is a different person. There will be a 75-year-old grandmother and a guy who barely finished high school. Your job as an expert is to convince them. It Is the biggest challenge of this job because, in the United States, one guy does not like you because of the way you talk, the way you stand, and the way you dress, which is why all attorneys, especially in criminal cases, make sure their client is shaved and wearing a suit and tie. Some of these people have never worn a suit in their life. These other factors have nothing to do with your explanation, but it has to do with what I call the likeability factor.  

Malcolm Gladwell has a great book titled Talking to Strangers that I recommend to my class. I read it three times. Gladwell has written many books, but Talking to Strangers gives historical references where people talk and misunderstand. They were communicating through a translator, and there was a misunderstanding. He used the example of Hitler and the British Prime Minister Chamberlain. They had a three-day meeting, and Chamberlain left thinking Hitler would not start World War Two. He went home back to London, and he received a great welcome. The day after Chamberlain returned to London, Hitler invaded Poland. I cannot give a better example of poor communication. He sat with Hitler for three days, came home, and announced that Hitler was not going to invade anyone and there would be no war. At the same time, he was saying on BBC that Hitler had already invaded Poland. Gladwell also talks about how Mexico lost to the Spanish and killed their last emperor, Francisco Pizarro, or whoever went down there, had a Catholic priest who lived in Mexico and spoke the native Indian language. He was not a master but a Spanish Catholic priest. The other side had a guy translating to the priest from the emperor’s native language. For three days, everything went well. But on the last day, the Spaniard got upset about something mistranslated. He told his people to behead the emperor Montezuma.  

Likeability and communication are the two soft sciences. When you interview an expert witness, you want to ensure he has mastered those two sciences perfectly because that is not something you can teach someone. It comes from practice. I was not originally like that. I have worked in 18 countries and speak seven languages. I speak four well, including Spanish and French. I can read all seven, including Mandarin, so I have no problems listening, but I do not say it. It can go the other way when you don’t speak a language. One of the things I tell people is when you know somebody is Hispanic, French, or Chinese, how should you reframe your sentence so the B1 is equal to B2? 

An example is on the phone, you communicate with anyone worldwide. I do not mean your neighbor or your husband. You do not know their speed or how to phrase sentences between men and women. There are many books on this. These books will tell you that a lack of understanding of the B2 of the other person causes most divorces. They also did studies of twins who were not identical but a male and female. They followed these twins for 40 years, and when they were in their 60s, the brother and sister could not talk to each other because the B2s were different. In my workshop and this podcast, I will say my metrics of success of this workshop are three things. I consider this podcast or my workshop a success if you think you are still thinking about something I said as you are driving home after this workshop. And a month from now, you are still thinking about the seven C’s of communication: Complete, Correct, Courteous, Cross-referenced, Concise, Convincing, and Clear.  

Michelle Loux: So, we were taught. 

Ravi Iver: When you get work for big companies doing international work, as I did, every business correspondence has to have a number because we are talking to people in other countries. If it is on the phone, I can say, “Michelle, I got answers to numbers one, three, and five, 2-4, and six. I’ll have to call you back.” Next week it gets easier, but what they do in the United States is they send you a long e-mail with 20 subjects that are not allowed. You only get one subject per paragraph. Now we like to number in engineering because I will talk about this and something else when I communicate with you. They are all different subjects, and I cannot lump them all together, so I may have to put one, two, three, or four, and it becomes easy for you because you can pick up the phone or send me an e-mail. I know the answers to three, six, and eight, and I am waiting for somebody else to give me the answer because it is a group effort. Sometimes I get letters from attorneys that go on and on. Paragraphs will have five things, and I can only answer two. It is so meshed and melded into the whole paragraph that it makes it difficult. 

In 1972 when I was working downtown, I had a boss who was a Swedish American from Montana. He was a big guy with blonde hair and huge wrists. I always wondered how strong he was. He had worked at the company for 35 years and took me under his wing. He was one of my mentors. He was the project director and had to sign every letter. He said, “I will tear it up and throw it away.” Those were the pre-computer days, and we did not have copies as we do now. If somebody says the old one was incorrect, you were in trouble. You had to rewrite the whole thing.  

You asked how we prepare to go to questioning. First, walk in, see the people inside, and make some conclusions. You cannot go up there and yack away. I received several calls after the rail derailment in Ohio. I talked to [Adrienne] about it because I worked on one of the biggest spills on Lake Wabamun in Alberta, Canada. It was a more significant train accident than the one in Ohio. Two tankers fell into the lake, and the lake had power plants on both sides. This accident ties in with that cooling tower I mentioned at the beginning of this podcast. 

PG&E, the only utility in Alberta, said, “Performance of our plant has gone down, and you must pay us billions” even though the Canadian railroad, in all good faith, cleaned up the whole lake. Then there comes the point where you cannot clean anymore, so they hired me. They said they wanted billions and did not know how to justify this to our stockholders. So, can you go to court and be an expert witness, but your job is not to say anything about the accident because we know it is our fault? It fell, but we want to know how you came up with the billion. I had the opportunity of working with one of the best attorneys I have met in my career. His name is Bill Kenny, and he is one of the most senior, and most importantly, he is the Queen’s Counsel. If you are a Commonwealth lawyer connected to Mother England, you get invited to Buckingham Palace to get the Queen’s Counsel (QC) title. It may be a KC now because they have a king, not a queen. Bill Kenny was one of them, and there are few, even in Canada. He is my reference, knows me well, and is an amazing guy on many levels. I worked with him on the government case. Bill never stopped me when I would give him some ideas as an engineer, and he said, “No. I don’t see any problem. You can meet them, but make sure there are no lawyers from their side.” So, we met in Calgary, but they called me every evening at 5:00 o’clock and reported on how the whole day went. 

What I am trying to say is you need to work closely with lawyers so they trust you. In San Francisco, I have four of them. Mike Van Zant is one of our excellent guys. Now they are environmental engineers, so everyone has his little group. When I went to Fallon, I had never done a utility. I tried to find out if anyone in the United States was around because the first thing I like to do when I learn anything is to find someone who has done what I am about to do. I have lunch or coffee with them and learn more than I am going to sitting here, talking, or even going through the Internet. The best way to gather knowledge is by leveraging. I had never worked there before when I opened an office in China. We had the most significant contract with the Asian Development Bank. Before I went to China, I called everyone in San Francisco because this is the only place I have lived and said, “Do you know anyone from San Francisco living in China?”  

Finally, two weeks before I left, I got a call from a guy who said, “You don’t know me, but I’m a friend of Bob. You know Bob in Palo Alto?” I said, “Well, I heard your roommate at Stanford has lived in China for the last 16 years.” He said, “His name is John Eichelberger, and he was at Stanford with me. He went to China, and then he returned to Harvard Law School. He is a partner at Baker and McKenzie, one of the biggest law firms in the Bay Area.” I said, “Can you introduce me to him?” That was 22 years ago. I went to China and checked into the Beijing Hilton. I called his number and said, “John?” He said, “Yep.” I said, “Are you free for dinner?” I said, “You select the place because I do not know this place, and I am on an expense account. I will pay for it.” We ordered the best bottle of wine. I talked to him on the phone and said, “I am going to ask you a question which answers my last question about the Reverse Image Letterman. I wanted him to tell me the ten things I need to know about working in China. I have worked in South America, France, and Denmark but never in China. What do I need to know about China from a working point of view, the people, the culture, and communication?” He said, “Yes, I already prepared the list.” It was the most productive 2 hours of my life. He told me more about China in 20 minutes than I have learned in 20 years of working there. Today, I can read it tight because he hit the first thing. And by the way, to close this story out, his first point was never to talk like an American. You know when the B2 is how people will process what you say or write in an e-mail. He said, “Since the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese languages have characters, simplified pictures, not alphabets, do not use words like concept. There is no way they can process it.” Now, you can say, “I want something as big as that building.” Now that makes sense, but you cannot say, “I want a big thing.” Big does not mean anything in Chinese unless it is a picture. If you have a Chinese business card and can read it, you do not need a map. You can tell what part of town the office is in. 

I read Alfred Denison’s Who are you? I am a part of all that I have seen. Every aspect of our childhood is [a piece of] fabric integrated into our personality, which is the hardest part. I have done very well with juries because I know you are to be cautious, but that can backfire. It is one of those things. Talking too much is wrong, but talking too little is also bad. That is the bell curve.  

On the other hand, you cannot let them misunderstand. So, you are walking a fine line between talking enough and ensuring you give enough data not to be misunderstood. That is the danger when the clock is ticking, so I was told to answer yes or no in code. Do not mess around. Did you beat your wife yesterday or today? You say, “I didn’t beat her today.” Then you ask the judge to expand on that, and he will always say go ahead. Now you can make sure the seven C’s are spelled out there because some things you do not want to avoid in the seven C’s. If you avoid them, you misunderstand the other person. Or the other person misunderstands you. I think that is crucial. [Another story to illustrate], the guy on this case in Saskatchewan was from North Dakota, an old engineer in his 80s, and a nice guy. In court, he used one word. In the United States, he would not be reprimanded. He used a word, and the judge, who is an intelligent guy, said, “Excuse me. I do not know whether I agree with your meaning of that English word.” The bailiff brings the unabridged dictionary, and the judge opens it up and finds the word. The judge was right. It had a different meaning. The North Dakota guy started getting mad, which happens when you do not have control. I have seen that. He looked at the judge and said, “You know, I only speak one language, English. I’m one of the first professional electrical engineers registered in North Dakota, and no one has corrected me. Then and I’ve used it for the last 70 years.” The judge looked at him and said, “Then you have been using it wrong for the last 70 years because it is not in the dictionary.” Now you could have put in the definition [in your report]. I am tying the loose ends I told you about in the beginning. You could have said my meaning of this word is whatever it is and gotten the Webster’s. That is allowed. I don’t know if you know this is the first thing judges will ask you. You used this word. Have you defined this word in any other way than what is in the dictionary? They will ask you that because they need to find out because not everybody fits the definition carefully. That is why reading the definition is the first thing you must do in the contract before you go to court because if that word is defined elsewhere, you can say, “Hey, I agree with you.” In the dictionary, it is like this, but for this contract, we defined it this way, a dog is a cat. That is important. The judge will back off. But I will tell you, in the United States, the jury has a lot to do, and the jury, many of them, I am sorry to tell you, are just local people. Nothing wrong with it. I do not mean it negatively, but you will not find the questioning you have in Canada, which is why when I give my qualifications. I list the six. The first question they asked me in all the interviews I had in the United States was, “You mean you were on the prevailing side in Canada with a judge and no jury?” Let me tell you, that gets me more points in a [client attorney] interview than anything I have said all day long.

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After a quarter century helping litigators find the right expert witnesses, Round Table Group’s network contains some of the world’s greatest experts. On the Discussions at the Round Table podcast, we talk to some of them about what’s new in their field of study and their experience as expert witnesses.

At the Round Table with Mechanical & Electrical Engineer Expert, Ravi Iyer

Mr. Ravi Iyer, Principal, The Davis Group

Ravi Iyer’s areas of expertise are Project/Program Development, Management, Engineering, Training/Coaching/Mentoring and technical/management expert witness in court. Mr. Iyer successfully executed projects from the development/feasibility stage through detail design, financing, completion and commissioning. They include sectors in the Energy, Infrastructure and others, for public and private clients. Mr. Iyer formally trained in a multi-industry/multi-disciplined engineering/management rotation program at Bechtel and Kaiser Engineers in California, where he worked most of his career.