A fairly common definition of an engineer is "a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics, and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems." National Engineers Week is about raising the awareness of engineers and engineering, and yet this is the definition people see? We must do better!
What skills do we need to work on any given single project? What hats might we wear? At any point in solving that problem, we are:
a drafter, creating the documents that will be used to create the solution;
an optimizer, fine-tuning the solution;
a writer, creating the user manual;
a salesman, convincing customers your solution is worth buying;
an inspector, making sure the solution matches the idea that sprang from your head;
an accountant, keeping track of the costs of the solution to stay inside the budget;
a librarian, collecting and organizing the component and material documentation that comprises your solution;
and a detective, tracking down the loose wire or the short circuit.
I like the Swiss Army knife analogy, TJ. And I think today's engineers have an ever-expanded palette of disciplines, methodologies, and specialty areas that they are expected to be versed in for problem solving. That said, what specific skill areas do you think are ever more critical to have in the engineer's so-called knife repetoire?
T.J., this is a great concise summary of what engineers do. I might add "negotiator" (working with manufacturing, purchasing, etc. in order to balance their needs without sacrificing product performance), and sometimes "policeman" (making sure that everything is being done according to the design specification).
For those of us who work with legacy designs, you could also add "historian" -- reviewing design history to see why a particular decision was made, or how a particular problem was tackled in the past. (Depending on how far back the legacy designs go, "archaeologist" might be a better term for this).
The common theme underlying all of the roles you mentioned is problem solving. It's worth nothing that, even though the problems we are tasked with solving are technical in nature, it takes more than just technical skills to solve them. In spite of the stereotype of the antisocial engineer, it actually takes a lot of people skills, too.
Hi TJ, I'm delighted you included "a writer" in your list of the disciplines required of an engineer. As a journalist covering engineering, I've long been impressed by the writing skills of engineers. Of course that may be engineers who took their high school and college education at a time when writing was emphasized for all disciplines.
Rob, you are so right on with that comment. My father was a designer at a government electronics lab. He always stressed the ability to write for engineers. He saw too many of the engineers he worked with getting little or no credit for their ideas because someone else had to be brought in to write them up.
Another way to look at engineering that I like is that engineering is creative.I know there are engineers that are mostly involved in operations and maintenance, but those activities can require creativity at times.
I have had the wonderful opportunity to work in design in the spacecraft and many other industries where what you are doing has never been done before.This really brings out creativity in engineering.On one project we had a group of PhD Physicists whose job title was phenomenologist.They were there to answer a specific question about what the system we were designing was meant to deal with.Their role, as with many scientists doing science, was to describe nature.That can be very challenging.Often though, to do that they have to design instruments, etc.That is really engineering, not pure science.
Good writing skills are absolutely essential as an engineer. Well-written reports, specifications, and other documents are indispensible. It's important to be able to communicate technical ideas effectively to both technical and non-technical audiences. And "effective communication" means more than PowerPoint slides.
More and more, engineers are also managers coordinating a wide range of activities and specialists to get specific projects done. While it may take some away from hands-on work they do themselves, engineering leadership and oversight is an important role. Engineers in management may seem to be an oxymoron to some, especially those who have taken Dilbert too seriously over the years.
With patent law and regulatory needs, writing continues to be even more important to the engineer. The regulatory needs is becoming incresingly important in medical, aerospace, and civil engineering fields.
The "hands-on" stuff is the most fun, but the project management, financial, computer skills, and good communication continues to be a greater part of the job. I think PLC programming knowledge continues to become a more valuable skill.
The higher math has largely been replaced by less intuitively-elegant computer numeric methods. Thankfully some of the newer representations provide graphical outputs that again provide more intuitive insight.
It seems more common that you work collaboratively on all projects. If you have other engineers in the facility, it pays to network and know the specialized skills and knowledge of each. Then you can pull in the right consultant for advice that corresponds to their in-depth knowledge.
Hopefully I got everone, but, the prize for vocabulary must go to LOU! That is the first time Ihave ever seen the word phenomenologist used correctly in my life! You all may want to consult (a new) Webster's to select exactly what part of the defination you prefer.
In the any case the single most appreciated definition of a good engineer, I believe, has to beTEACHER. Only when one is proficent in ones own discipline can one teach, in depth to others, the multiplcity of talents needed to be proficent as a multifacited engineer; as I also believe most DN readers are.
I really like the Swiss Army Knife definition and agree with the commenters who've said that engineers must be writers, which is especially true for those engineers who must write specifications. As for the detective, that has been proven over and over again in our Sherlock Ohms columns, and never better-evidenced than by today's story about hairballs. No definition other than "detective" could amply describe the engineer who solved that problem.
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