Sunday, December 26, 2004

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.

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