Leland Teschler – Executive Editor
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There’s a lot of public lamentations that too few youngsters see engineering as a profession worth pursuing. I’ve come to think part of the problem is with experts trying to describe what engineers really do, giving explanations that are murky and unsatisfying. So kids have trouble distinguishing the activities of engineers from those of car mechanics or maintenance personnel.
One who has taken a stab at explaining what engineers do is Guru Madhavan, a biomedical engineer. He wrote a book called Applied Minds—How engineers think, in which he claims engineers visualize the structure of a problem by breaking it down into elements linked by logic, time, sequence and function. Madhavan also says engineers work under constraints, make tradeoffs to get reasonable solutions and divide complicated problems into manageable pieces.
This description sounds reasonable—until you consider that real estate developers, scrap yard managers and movie producers might all claim to go through similar sorts of processes to get a job done.
Alternatively, some might say Albert Rothenberg gets closer to the essence of engineering in another book called Flight from Wonder: An Investigation of Scientific Creativity. Rothenberg is a psychiatrist who does research on creative thinking processes. He said the creative thinking techniques he describes in his book come from Nobel laureate scientists, not engineers. Nevertheless, engineers reading the book are likely to recognize cognitive tricks they use themselves.
For example, a visual imagery exercise called homospatial reasoning involves overlaying and combining ideas in different ways. With another technique called the sep-con method, you conjoin functionally separate ideas or objects in odd ways to see what happens. Rothenberg also takes a crack at describing broader qualities that Nobel laureates possess. They include passion, self-confidence, openness, courage and domain expertise.
Many of us would probably say we’ve often seen colleagues display those qualities and thinking processes. Trouble is, passion, self-confidence and an ability to combine ideas in novel ways aren’t exclusively found in either engineers or Nobel laureates. It’s not out of line to say farmers, fire fighters and construction workers can display the same qualities.
The inability to define what engineers really do has lead to a disagreement about who an engineer really is. That brings us to video game designer Ian Bogost. Writing in The Atlantic, he recently suggested that software experts are programmers, not engineers. “The title ‘engineer’ is cheapened by the tech industry,” he writes.
Bogost asserts that an engineer is someone who is regulated, certified and subject to continuing education requirements. He or she has to jump through these hoops because “something could go terribly, horribly wrong with unqualified actors at the helm … When it comes to skyscrapers and bridges and power plants and elevators and the like, engineering has been, and will continue to be, managed partly by professional standards, and partly by regulation around the expertise and duties of engineers. But 50 years worth of attempts to turn software development into a legitimate engineering practice have failed,” he said.
Bogost argues that, in contrast to maintaining professional standards, there is an informality to software work that is being made worse by movements such as agile development, which focuses on rapid iterations rather than long-term planning. This sort of slap-dash fix-it-later thinking is the antithesis of engineering.
Bogost didn’t set out to explain what engineers do, but he helps show what separates engineering from areas where a cobbled-together solution is acceptable. Simply put, engineers are people who have a responsibility to produce a product that is safe and reliable. Their expertise as builders and designers originates from that responsibility.
Filed Under: Commentary • expert insight
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