Monday, December 27, 2004


Welcome to my unashamedly negative views on the general subject of life in the workplace, and in particular the profession of engineering.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Being Yourself

Life at work wouldn't be so bad if it were possible to do things your own way. What if you actually have some aesthetic sense and hate fluorescent lighting, formica desks and nylon carpet? What if you hate vending machine coffee? What if your flimsy typing chair makes your legs go numb after a couple of hours? What if you despise the fluffy toys that the woman at the next desk sticks on top of her computer, or the tinny music that you can hear coming from her headphones all day? You spend most of your waking hours in that environment, and you hate it! Of course you could work at home, but it isn't always practical for some jobs, and working with others can be stimulating and fun.

There was a TV drama series in the 1980s called "A Very Peculiar Practice". It was set in a provincial university which was expanding and moving with the times, adopting the methods and ethics of big business, and which was now housed on a campus of ugly concrete architecture (but still more interesting than the average building on an industrial estate in 2004). The bit I remember best was the office of "Jock" the gruff old GP. It was filled with all the old furniture, pictures, books and detritus presumably from his office in a previous building, and entering it was like stepping back into the past. I could be comfortable in a room like that.

If only we could all do that: make our working environment exactly as we want it. You want a comfortable chair to sit in and a real coffee machine? Why not? You want wood panelling on the walls and a gramophone that plays 78s? If it makes you happy. The point is that some of us have never achieved the internal, self-imposed virtual lobotomy that you need in order to switch off at work. For me, every day is like one of those perfect summer days when you were a kid, stuck in the classroom and dying to go out and play. I'm happy to do the work much of the time, but I resent the loss of part of my life to what amounts to a prison sentence.


When I was a child I used to feel terrible about my father having to go to work, leaving us kids at home with our mother, having fun all day. I wondered how I would cope without endless days off when I was grown up.

The answer is that I now delude myself into thinking that one day I will have a job where I can just take as much time off as I like. I'm 40, and time is ticking by. One day I'll set up on my own doing some sort of engineering, or maybe I'll take a change in direction and make furniture or something instead. One day...

I remember a British "Horizon" documentary from 25 years ago which caused quite a stir, prompting questions in parliament the next day. It asked how we would adjust to lives of leisure, working for only two days a week but with a high standard of living, because of the rise of the microchip. I was quite excited at the prospect. They needn't have worried. Human nature ensures that people without the imagination to do anything constructive by themselves (in other words most people) will always work long hours so that they can afford to have someone else fill their remaining leisure time for them.

The Typical Engineer

You may be the sort of engineer I observe at work every day: diligent, professional and, above all, disciplined. You believe that engineering is a process which if followed correctly will result in an adequate product. You don't look for short cuts, but you avoid "over-polishing". You use the methodology which your company says is the best, and you work steadily towards the day when the project is over and you can start the next one. You tend to specialise in a narrow field, preferring not to get involved in anything too far beyond your area of expertise. Most of your working day is spent at your computer screen writing and modifying documents, or at meetings with your colleagues. You come to work at 9, and you leave at 5.30. You don't expect any fun in your job.

If that is you, then I envy you in some ways. It probably means you could do well as a contractor and earn a fortune. Even if you're not that good, you probably come across as a safe pair of hands, and most of the people hiring are only interested in keeping risks low, rather than looking for a genius. You may not even be aware of your own limitations.

My problem is that I can't work like that at all.

The first thing I'd like to know is why anyone ends up in engineering in the first place. For me it was by default. Thought of as a bit of a child prodigy when I was very young, at school I was at home in any of the "in-between" subjects i.e. those which are neither hard core arts nor science, so I did well in English language, history, French, biology etc. I was no good at fine art, but I do have an appreciation of it ("I know what I like"). I could busk my way through the real science subjects like chemistry, physics and maths until 'A' level, where I came a cropper. All along it was my interest in building gadgets which provided me with the incentive to learn anything, rather than school.

I have a passion for building things, and so while other kids were perhaps playing football I was tinkering with electric motors and circuit boards. By the time I was 20 this obsession must mean that I have soldered more joints, drilled more holes, stripped more wires and filed more bits of metal than most people do in a lifetime. How much lead vapour I have breathed in I dread to think. And all along, I wanted to design my own things, rather than follow anybody else's plans. I'm sure this was partly because my mind works differently from most people's and so I don't understand their designs that well; designing something from scratch is often easier than trying to understand someone else's completed design! Plus, by starting simple and trying something out with all its faults, you get to understand why some things have to be so complicated.

To this day, I still get a real buzz from doing experiments. While others might bury themselves in literature when presented with some new project, my first reaction is to build a circuit or write some software to get a feel for what I'm doing. I really think that you can build, test and document a prototype of anything in the same time that you can write a conventional "feasibility study". It's all about getting a feel for the problem straight away rather than spending months and a fortune on creating something sub-optimal because it is based on a lot of assumptions and theoretical values. The serendipitous value of a prototype is huge; it stimulates ideas from everyone who sees it, and the process of building it reveals huge amounts of hidden information.
So I'm an engineer, though an unconventional one - more about that later. I wonder how and why some of my colleagues became engineers. I suspect it isn't for the same reasons I did. I think it's probably to do with engineering being seen as a job which pays relatively well but which doesn't require much flair, passion or talent. People serve their time for a few years, and then make their move effortlessly into management, promoted by people similar to themselves. I don't feel bitter and twisted about this - it is inevitable - but it is a shame that it makes working in engineering so damn dull.