Are you a tall and thin engineer or maybe a short and fat one? I’m not talking about body shapes, but rather what kind of engineer are you. As unflattering as these phrases appear, they’ve been used in the past to describe two types of engineers: those with broad experiences versus specialists with deeper backgrounds in their domains, respectively. Most recently, the tall-thin phrase has been used to describe engineering experience levels and skills in a data-driven society. But before one can appreciate the modern interpretation, one must first understand a bit of semantic confusion with the term tall, thin engineer.
Historical Viewpoint: At first glance, one might think of a tall, thin engineer in terms of their levels and years of experience, meaning very deep and specific. After all, deep is just another word for tall if you’re looking from the bottom-up. Apparently, that was not the perspective taken by Howard Sachs, VP and general manager of Fujitsu Microelectronics Group’s newly formed LSI division back in the late 90’s. According to Sachs, the idea of a tall, thin engineer was first promoted in the 1980’s at UC Berkeley when the first 3 micron CMOS chips (up to 100k gates) were just coming into the market. There were no real layout tools and in theory one really good engineer could do both design and layout of a chip, in essence, creating the entire chip.
This mythical person was known as a tall, thin engineer, meaning someone whose knowledge was broad and just deep enough for the existing technology to do everything required in the chip development life cycle. Manufacturing of the chip was still left to the fabs.
My Take: Personally, I’ve found Sachs interpretation of the term to be a bit misleading. To me, a tall, thin engineer seems more indicative of a specialist, i.e., someone who has a deep (or tall) understanding in a very narrow (or thin) area of technology.
I guess it really is a matter of perspective. If you view that life cycle development process in the classic way, i.e., as one long, continuous process like the early waterfall model, then a long, tall engineer would start with design, go through implementation (layout) and test to do everything needed to design and deliver the product (except manufacturing). In this case, this mythical tall thin engineer would really be a one laying down across all phases of the development process. It would really be a lazy engineer in repose.
Meanwhile, a decade before the Sachs description of a tall, thin engineer, another profession had emerged with a different perspective of the engineer who could “do it all” or, more accurately, control it all. In the late 1960s, the first comprehensive definition of a systems engineer (SE) emerged from the Department of Defense. The SE was a person with wide engineering and program management skills but who specialty or depth was more limited. Instead of going deep as a specialist might, the SE went broad across a number of technical domains and disciplines.
Image Source: Franco Recchia / Microchip Cities