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?
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The higher math has largely been replaced by less intuitively-elegant computer numeric methods.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.
Beth, they're all critical; that's the point. I am reluctant to pin down anything specific. The really good swiss army knife engineer knows he (she!) is a special generalist, and knows his (her!) limitations. Upon hitting a limit, the SAK engineer can either learn to add depth, or call in one of those big badass Rambo knife specialists. The good SAK engineers know when there's time to learn, and when to get the specialist.
Hmmm. I think those letters might look good on a business card.
The secret to my success as an engineer has been not knowing everything, but knowing how to get the information I needed...research is an essential skill and it could be as easy as referencing an old textbook or calling a tech support line, or taking the initiative to create an engineering set up (could be anything - I used to work at a company that made hall effect sensors and every product was new so we had to figure out how to test them which first meant designing circuits to drive coils, figuring out what current supplies would do what we needed, learning about magnetic fields and playing with gauss meters etc.) that one can use to experiment with to determine the best approach for the task at hand.
An engineer also needs to be part savvy – selecting components that he will be able to get replacements for, and to know to determine lead times when ordering parts so that the project doesn't get held up waiting for something to come in...
Your statement regarding knowing how to find the information you don't know is at the core of good engineering. First, however, you need to be able to recognize what you don't know. The most durable part of my engineering education was learning that there are lots of things I don't know, but I was forced to acquire the skills to find out where the information I need is [many years pre-Google] and continue learning. Unfortunately, the newest graduates I interview from engineering schools indicate that this critical part of their education seems to have been dropped from their cirriculum.
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.
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.
So true!! Most of the engineers I work with hate writing and try to avoid it at all costs. They complain when anyone corrects their grammar saying it doesn't matter. They are generally the first to complain when they get a poorly written spec. They don't realize probably at some point the author of the document got similar feedback. As a systems engineer, I write a lot... a lot... and try to always improve on my writing skills (not my area of expertise) which is real important part of my duties.
I'll never forget my interview with Dallas Semiconductor when I was fresh out of school (Dallas Semiconductor is now a subsidiary of Maxim so we are going back a ways). The guy interviewing me wanted to know how I got along with people and if I worked well with others. He informed me that my degree told him I had a good foundation in electronics (not to mention the grueling technical testing that I had endured in multiple interviews, but I wisely kept my mouth shut) – what he needed to determine is if I could work well with others and that I had good oral and written communication skills. I must say over the years those skills served me well. Documentation is my least favorite engineering chore. However, I was often a hero because I actually commented my code as a test engineer which resulted in much faster troubleshooting and modifications then the guys who didn't...I might not look at a test set for years but if called upon – I could quickly orient myself and usually rapidly narrow in on the problem area.
Yes, writing is a skill that can give an engineer freedom, independence and a leg up. I discovered in college that proficiency at writing gave me an advantage in nearly every non-writing course I took.
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.
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.
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.
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.
TJ's post cuts to the root of the problem which plagues engineers--the lack of respect accorded to the profession. I think this in part stems from the fact that there really is no single, clear, agreed upon definition. When an engineer can be described by the many, many hats she or he wears, I submit that there's no single hat which fits comfortably. A doctor cures sick people. End of story. A lawyer fights for his/her client. A baker makes bread and cake. But engineers, well, they do everything. Unfortunately, that's why so many people call themselves engineers, schooled or not. But I guess that's another debate, one we've had many times on this site.
In retirement, I teach in several fields. One of them being tech inspections on novice race cars. Which leads to explaining methods of resolutions to pass tech. Many times the question comes up are you an engineer; which is hard to hide with my many experiences in developing a good automitive product. Engineers think in a whole diffrent spectrum. Our job is to convey techonolgy to others. When you talk to me of a probablem, I am building a memory bank of resolutions while you speak. Then I need to explain solutions that come from my readings, conversations, experiences, and/ or additional reasearch. All the time I hope to convey this information in an understandable manner. True Engineers are not common. We are not "intelectuals", we are probablem solvers. With some specialties. We want young people to to come into our career area. We don't want them to think it is too complex for them to get there. We do have fun and appreciation in Engineering.
You raise an interesting point, Alex. Engineering does become the catch-all phrase for a variety of skills, often those not even remotely connected to the discipline we think of classic engineering. Something that just came to mind in reading your comments is "sanitation engineer" and I'm sure we could think of others.
Alex, I've heard many engineers complain that we don't get enough respect, but honestly, that hasn't been my experience. My boss treats me with respect, I get paid a reasonable sum of money (not that I couldn't use more), my wife and kids think I'm a genius (most of the time), my parents are proud of me, most people I talk to are impressed when I explain what I do for a living -- and most importantly, I get paid to do work I enjoy. That's not too bad, in my opinion.
You make an important point, Dave. I neglected to distinquish between respect on an individual basis and respect for the profession as a whole. On the former, it's definitely true that most engineers are accorded respect. (If you meet someone and they find out you're an engineer, they're likely to say: "Oh, you must be smart.")
It's the profession as a whole which is not accorded respect. My case here rests on the fact that engineers who've been discarded due to outsourcing are not rehired because they're "not up to date." We also routinely here from industry that they "can't find qualified technical people" in the U.S. to hire. Nonsense, and all indicative of a lack of respect for the profession as a whole. We engineers, unfortunately, must bear the burden for this lack of respect, because we've allowed it to fester in a way that, say, doctors never have.
Alex: I agree with you that the profession as a whole isn't accorded the respect it deserves, especially in the U.S. When I hear that big companies can't find the qualified engineers that they need here in the U.S., I find it galling.
TJ, your question implies a lot, "How do you define an Engineer" and who is an engineer. I think most of us have university engineering Degree and PG certificates. But, how many of us are using the really engineering skills in our day to day professional and personal life. I think only a minimal; personally speaking I have master's degree in engineering and doing draftsman's work in my company.
In IT also most of the engineering graduates and post graduates are doing simple coding works, which can simply manage by a person with six months diploma in same domain.
Many engineers do indeed take on many widely varying tasks, but I have not noticed one mentioned that I find quite important.
A good, and especially a great engineer is a true artist. This is the reason machines cannot be programmed to be engineers. Development environments might help take care of many low-level mundane tasks for the engineer, but the engineer creates. Regardless of the product definition (which often comes from the engineer), the engineer is the creative force that makes the design what it is.
You are certainly correct about that, Electron Rancher. You can look through our Sherlock Ohms postings and it's one detective story after another. The detective function arises in all aspects of engineering, from product design through process engineering and trouble shooting. The detective's skepticism is an important quality for the engineer.
The Engineer as a "Generalist" who utilizes his/her skills in science and mathematics to design solutions to a wide variety of societal challenges is well on the way to becoming a dinosaur. Once the certification industry (and yes, IT IS an industry) figured out that they could extract a revenue stream from the engineering profession, by "certifying" engineers to perform functions that were traditionally offered by them anyway, it has doomed the Engineer as Generalist to eventual extinction.
For example, structural engineers will soon be required to be "certified" as an SE in order to be licensed in US States that they do not currently hold a license. LEED certification is now affecting the ranks of engineering generalists ever more in order to remain competitive in today's market. ISO, AISC, SECB, AAWRE, SIRIM, IQNET have their own certification programs, all of which are extracting a revenue stream from individual engineers just trying to continue practicing engineering as generalists. Not only are most of these certifications and yearly fees unnecessary, it is also dangerous to the future of the engineering profession.
Eventually, engineers are going to have to choose which certifications they will be able to afford and stop practicing in other areas of engineering. Think this can't happen? It's already is a reality with PE's choosing to practice in some states, but not others, due to the cost of bi-annual license renewals. Mark these words.... the end game of specializing through certification is destined to be the obsolescence of the engineer generalist. Maybe not a year from now, nor even a decade, but eventually it will happen. Won't it be a sad day when the brilliance of a future engineer practitioner is muted when asked to solve important societal problems spanning across specialties and all he'll be able to say is "Sorry, but I'm not certified for that."
Extremely sad and too well said, Mick. Is is sad in the same sense that some Medical Doctors nowaday become too specialized in very narrow fields, so that they are not as proficient as health problem identifiers, much less solvers. Often, a too narrow vision hinders the troubleshooting ability of the engineer, or produces designs that are far from optimum.
I am from the 1978 generation of Chemical Engineering, and one of the very few engineers at my job that still continues to perform daily as an engineer, while most of my colleages have walked very different ways (Administration, Sales, Personnel admin, etc.)
As an old engineer, I still handle the wide multi-discipline approach to problem solvingand engineering in general. Back in 1981, when visiting the USA to review and approve a set of drawings for a large compressor for an Offshore Platform, I first became aware of the interplaying capabilities that a good engineer usually has, in order to be able and apt to solve complex problems. When maybe 8 or 9 different specialists were coming one by one to the meeting room, there were only two of us dealing with them, reviewing the many different drawings for the compression packages: the structural, electrical, control, process, piping, heat transfer, instrumentation, even the painting system specs!. Soon I realized that I was able to cover many areas at the same time, since that visit, I opted to follow the generalist path to become an experienced engineer. My only requirement, that I choose to adopt myself, was to become as knowledgeable as possible in every branch of engineering that I was touching. One older engineer asked me at that time: How many years did you study in order to become an engineer? Then told me that a true Industrial engineer in Europe in the 60's, meant having around 12 to 15 years of school...! then told me: In engineering, Sky is the limit!, and continued to explain that people capable of talking and writing many languajes always find that after the first three languajes, the next one becomes easier to command, because the common elements and structure present in many languajes help the person understand more and more languajes; it is the explanation for people capable of talking many different languages! But as years passed by, I started to see a trend towards over-specialization, "certification" and so called "quality systems", that have too little relationship with the true quality of goods or services. Certification trends have gone too far, same as those pieces of paper hanging from walls "certifying" that ISO (or any other organism, pick your favorite) has "permitted" that factory to produce correct designs and products, but in real life, product failing to meet acceptable criteria for performance or more importantly, safety; continue to inundate the market.
I would mention another important capability to add to the "tool" or "blade" collection of the Swiss Army Knife simile: the Understanding of physical world phenomena, based on a proper and vast Analogy grasp and handling; Think of the old engineer that is capable of perfectly visualizing, handling and predicting a given system because of a finely tuned sense of the physical/chemical/Optical/Materials/Energy relationships, thanks to being capable of almost feeling the proper analogies (like the Hydraulic/Electrical/Magnetic/Thermal/Acoustic/Mechanical or whatever analogies he or she can apply in order to fully understand the problem at hand. As far as I see, Analogy handling should be taught in all engineering courses, for its importance in understanding all kind of systems.
Mick, another part of this is that engineering schools seems to be slowly moving away from giving undergrad B.S. degrees in EE, ME, CE, ChE, and replacing them with a generalized undergrad B.S. in engineering. Then students are encouraged/required to take further coursework (e.g., a Master's) to get training in their specialty. I think the academic rationale for this is that there's so much more to learn now, with computers being available (as opposed to 30 years ago). OTOH, this seems to me to be in large part a revenue-generation trick for the schools.
Alexander I do whole heartedly agree. You hit the nail on the head. What you said about periferals is also true, but I wonder if every engineer has to be proficient on computers A to Z. It seems to me a well trained engineer has/ must have good visualization skills in his head befor he/she even aproches a computer lest the client becomes misdirrected or pre-design infected, prior to advanced design selection. Some times a rough sketch can save hundreds of hours of time & MONEY while working out what the client REALLY WANTS.
The other problem I have is with the CONSTANT need for "Certification" especially when the software is continuously managed by capable engineering company IT people and the company PEs regularly attend IT seminars and their specialty organizations' meetings most of which stay abreast of software advances.
PS A closing comment on Systems Engineers. Should they have a 6/7 year course and graduate Doctorate? A question asked by UT Dallas, U of P, and many other high ranked schools. $$$
Ozark Sage: I was not aware that engineering schools were pushing the idea of 6-7 year graduate degrees. Imagine the cost associated with that, especially given the fact that many public schools are now over $20,000 a year, and private colleges are twice that.
"A TRUE ENGINEER is a Maestro of Genius in the Symphony of Pains."
But then again, so is the average Farmer, or Forklift Technician - they may each wear many hats during the course of a successful day at work.
Bottom line is, know your job - and do it well, and always respectfully consider the input of each instrument in the orchestra, being ready (even intuitively) to provide further direction when required. Spontaneity is, of course, reserved for those who cannot exercise abandon to the cause.
The digitizing, compressing, and unfortunate tendency to condense an abundance of information, even objectively, negates the Character of the Band; Only the Soloist would disagree. Hence, "The TRUE MAESTRO knows his audience as well as the composition he conducts, with the pains of a genius." This also applies to the concept of Simplicity in Design [Engineering], especially for those who prefer (and who buy) hard rock music, for instance. Riff melody ...
Improvisation then can also be construed as Sound [Design] Engineering, perhaps if only for the buff.
Generally, I would see an engineer as someone that can solve problems with a clear plan and can explain how they solved it. I have known some people that have graduated with engineering degrees, but due to their lack of ability to use that learned knowledge to solve real world world problems, I would not call these people engineers.
I like the definition with the following additions: A negotiator with government regulators. Here in Washington State permitting agencies for civil works control most of the design standards and practices such that I question the validity of stamping engineering plans, specifications and studies. For example, in most cases storm drain analysis and design are completed using manditory computer models developed and provided by local agencies. However, the private design engineer must stamp the hydrologic (Technical Information) report. I question whether the engineer can attest to anything other than using the agencies black box model and therefore should not be expected to accept liability for design. Some agencies use non-engineers as reviewers and the State Licensing Board allows them to use 'engineer' in their position title which in effect is shows a lack of respect for professional engineers. Therefore, the engineer needs to be a negotiator to get through the review and approval process in Washington State.
The second addition to the definition is that engineers are creative but as noted above, creative engineering is not readily tolerated in Washington State.
I teach an introduction to engineering seminar to grade 6 students and I tell them that engineers are "the ones who take science and make it affordable". The sample is a pencil that has 8 pieces and with parts costs, assembly, shipping, handling, etc., it sells for less than 10 cents - AND - the store selling it and everyone in between made a profit! That's engineering.
As additive manufacturing (including 3D printing) becomes increasingly popular among businesses as a quick and easy solution to creating and evaluating prototypes and end-use products, the debate about whether to outsource production or to purchase equipment for in-house use is at the forefront of industry discussions.
With increasing terrorist threats overseas, organizations are thinking about how best to defend themselves here and abroad. Engineering can play a role, especially when it comes to putting a barrier between yourself and the bad guys.
In the last few years, use of CFD in building design has increased manifolds. Computational
fluid dynamics is effective in analyzing the flow and thermal properties of air within spaces. It can be used in buildings to find the best measures for comfortable temperature at low energy use.
Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.