Ode to Engineers
Installing Probe Insight - Courtesy JPL-NASA with colaboration of ESA
Being an engineer myself, I’m often taken aback by the lack of understanding of the work engineers do. I’m addressing this to all non-engineers so that they understand what it means to be an engineer and to debunk some unfounded common misconceptions.
Engineering is not creative work - False
People imagine engineers as ultra-rational and mathematical geeks, incapable of creativity which cannot be more far from the truth.
Although engineers don’t paint, dance or write professionally, but they do a very creative work.
To solve a problem elegantly it takes knowledge, creativity and inspiration. First to find several possible solutions. Then a methodical approach to depurate the best one, which again is quite subjective because different people have different perspectives.
It’s art with mathematics, and this demands a very particular and rare combination.
Software engineers for example, are the champions of abstraction, and mastering this skill is not easy. Between 30% and 60% of students of every university computer science department fail at the first year. Another study  has determined that after a year of learning a programming language, only 17% of students had viable mental models. According to Turton, a personal consultant, only 5% of the population has the ability to become programmers . Although software engineering requires a lot of abstraction, the same can be said for all other domains.
School educate engineers to do everything - False
This is typically not true for any profession, and engineers are one of the most affected professions by this condition. And here's why:
Engineering is : ruled by thousands of different standards; its steered by trade best practices and; the amount of knowledge that is particular to a given domain of application makes it impossible to learn it all at school.
Universities do its best to teach the bases of engineering, the basic principles, and if all goes well, the graduate is able to quickly access a good extent of that information. In reality, he must go back to study from time to time.
In fact, the learning curve of an engineer on any given domain is his entire lifetime. Taking the pace at which technology progresses, an engineer will never know everything. It’s a lifetime of learning and continual improvement.
For a young engineer, getting up to speed can take years and without guidance, the learning by trial and error process can be very very costly. That’s why having engineers with experience do make a difference. It’s known that age degrades learning abilities but a seasoned engineer can still outperform a young one both in speed and cost.
Engineering is not exhausting - False
It’s true that engineering is not a physical job, but that doesn’t mean that an engineer doesn't get tired. The brain consumes about 20% of energy of the body , and intellectually demanding jobs do create glucose dips in the blood.
The relation between cognitive functions and demand for sugary food has been for very long exploited by supermarkets. They understood that after spending one hour making decisions on buy/not buy the craving for sweets is peaking while waiting on the queue to pay.
Furthermore, continued focusing generates cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, which as everybody knows, it's not good for health.
Well, engineering is a an intellectual demanding job and requires very focused work. To keep working at an optimal level, an engineer should make frequent pauses, eat well, and regular exercise is strongly advised.
Knowing this, it’s quite puzzling why there are still engineering companies that impose limits on work pauses and push for long hours seated in front of a computer. This is a post industrial revolution imposition that doesn't have any sense nowadays, where intellectual work is predominant.
To compensate, the distribution of coffee is quite common, which continued use is known to lower cognitive performance. It's like buying a sports car and then adding water to the fuel.
Any other engineer can continue an ongoing task - False
This one is often assumed by managers, and is often a recipe for disaster because it doesn’t take into account that two engineers don’t forcibly think alike.
Every time that a task changes hands, the receiving engineer will firstly spent a great deal of time trying to understand what was done, and then, in most cases she will start re-writing parts that were already “accepted as good”. I saw this happening over and over again, as a receptor, as a creator and as 3rd party observer.
replacing an engineer will add delay and
effort to a given task.
It’s a variant of the old managerial tenet that says that “9 women don’t make one baby in one month”.
Engineers shape the future of companies - True
The strategy of a company is defined by its managing director, but, the strategy definition and it’s implementation is strongly depending of its engineering capacities. That is, the capacity of creating new products or reinventing new services.
No matter how good and reputed a CEO is, if he doesn’t have a good team to perform, then his strategy will either fail, or will forcibly be less ambitious.
Let’s admit it, not all engineers are top performers, but, a managing director should know better than to complain about its engineers. It’s his job to keep permanently accessing their performance and finding ways to overcome their shortcomings.
Please note that engineers can also ruin a company. A bad conception, a wrong calculation or a bad ethic can have huge impacts on the company finances. For example, the case of the Volkswagen tricked emission tests scandal.
Being engineer is a complex work of extreme responsibility and often can put finances and even lives at risk.
Engineers are a scarce resource, that do creative and complex work, in a high stake stressful environment and are architecting the world of tomorrow. If you know an engineer, please give her/him the well deserved respect.
If you know an engineer, please give her/him the well deserved respect.
 Investigating the viability of mental models held by novice programmers, http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1227481
 The Mythical Man-Month and Other Human Factors, Irene Bonomo-Kappeler, The Mythical Man-Month and Other Human Factors - Universität Zürich
 Does Thinking Really Hard Burn More Calories? http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/thinking-hard-calories/
Photo - Installing interplanetary probe InSight.
Electron agitator and Software enthusiast