Monday, October 11, 2010

What is an Engineer?

To pin-point exactly what it is that an engineer does is not an easy task.  In essence, an engineer is a problem-solver.  However, the engineer of today applies his or her skills to such a vast array of scientific fields and performs such a wide variety of tasks – today’s engineer does more than solve problems.  To engineer something is to create it, modify it, upgrade it and/or test it.  To be an engineer, one must often do much more than that. 

Engineers typically apply principles of science to solve real-life problems.  There are so many kinds of engineers, with new specialties being created as new scientific discoveries arise.  The classical areas of engineering are Mechanical (things that move, like cars) and Civil (things we hope won’t move, like bridges).  Other major branches include Electrical, Material, Computer, Mining, and Process.  More recent areas of engineering are Chemical, Environmental, and Bio-Medical.  Each of these branches of engineering involves a whole world of knowledge and requires special training.  Mechanical engineering is probably the most broad with sub-specialties including mechanics, thermo-dynamics, fluids, robotics and space.
Science students who succeed in early-level Physics and Math are often directed towards engineering degrees.  If their experience is anything like mine, they didn’t know much about the practice of engineering until halfway through their Bachelor’s degree, and are still figuring out their job description years into their work in industry.  While aptitudes in Physics and Math are very useful, the ability to work well with others is perhaps more important.  Engineers have earned a reputation for lacking in social skills.  While this may be true for some, few engineers succeed without teamwork abilities.  An engineering project, from conception to delivery, touches so many hands, and suffers so many meetings (think Dilbert), that candidates with good social skills have become those most sought after by management.
It should also be mentioned that less than 50% of my graduating class work as traditional engineers in engineering firms.  A Bachelors Degree in engineering is a great first step towards more lucrative careers in management, law and sales.  It is often easier to teach an engineer some basic sales techniques in order to sell a plane engine, than to teach an accomplished salesman how the engine works.  The scientific base of knowledge that an engineer acquires in University gives the graduate many options upon graduation.  While I once worked as a Mechanical Engineer in the space Industry, I have found that a career in teaching is more suited to me.  Engineering has turned out to be a very transferable profession.
There is a good reason why the average person is clueless as to the function of an engineer: engineers are invisible in pop-culture.  What was the last film you saw that featured an engineer?  What TV show taking place in an engineering firm is currently sweeping the nation?  There are endless storylines featuring lawyers and doctors.  The lives of teachers, firemen and policemen are documented in many films.  Even businessmen have crept into film lately.  It seems as though they’d make a film about accounting during tax season before they’d tackle the subject of engineering.  I am not looking for glory or validation of my profession; I’m mainly curious as to why the engineering profession has been overlooked by pop-culture.  My cousin is a mechanical engineer and detonation specialist.  He builds bomb suits.  That’s really cool!  But they won’t make a movie about him.  They’ll make a movie about the guy who wears the bomb suit whose years of specialization have taught him to sweat a lot and choose which colour wires to cut (they’ll be so screwed when bombs go wireless).
The one instance where engineers took center stage was in a brief fifteen-minute spell at the climax of Apollo 13.  Some NASA engineers were given a problem to solve with limited materials.  If they managed to find a solution in the next thirty minutes, the lives of three astronauts would be saved.  Well, they succeeded, and the engineers in the audience had found their heroes for a brief moment.  I guess the number of instances where that kind of drama exists in an engineer’s day is limited.  Tempers flare up as engineers try to agree on a design that meets all requirements, but that is not the basis for a story.  Engineers are interested in optimization: meet project requirements while minimizing cost in a limited timeframe.  It is exciting work, but is not fun to watch.  It’s like baseball, which is only fun if you’re playing (or watching, but drinking heavily).
In summary, an engineer is a person who applies scientific knowledge to a wide array of applications, while working in a team to meet project demands at a reasonable cost in an acceptable timeframe, and who may be able to sell the product and defend it in court.  Oh, and a train conductor is usually not an engineer.

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