Marathon Engineering

I was watching the live web feed from NASA on the Messenger satellite achieving orbit of Mercury when I was struck by how engineers (and scientists) actually are versus how we are perceived by the public. The host of the webcast was in front of a live audience and the camera would periodically flip to a feed of the Command center which was a room with some large flat screens but mostly filled with some office chairs, desks, and a bunch of casually dressed engineers. A room most of us engineers can relate to – sort of our natural habitat.

The engineers in that room were calmly doing their job even though they were about to fond out if their twelve years of hard work was for nought or not. When the Messenger was in the middle of it’s burn and it appeared that orbit would be acheived, the host remarked – sarcastically – how excited everybody in the Command center was. That got a good laugh from the audience as they could see that little had changed in that room. The professionals were still going about their duties as before.

You see, the audience was there for that historic moment and were excited with that thought. They were seeing the last steps of a race and had little knowledge that it had been – like most big engineering efforts – a marathon, not a 100 meter dash.  And engineers are built for mental marathons. In my area, shipbuilding, you can spend an entire career on just one project. And that takes a great deal of effort and patience.

And, to the amusement of the audience, this doesn’t equate to great emotional displays from the runners. Yes, there were handshakes and a few pats on the back, but that was about it. And that’s fine for us engineers and scientists, but it doesn’t fo a whole lot for our public appearance as somewhat cold or boring nerds. Those people in the Command center were very pleased and proud of their successful work, but they were also just plain tired. I just don’t think the general public gets that.



Admitting you’re wrong

A good engineer, like a good scientist, must at some point admit that he is wrong.  This is very difficult to do — especially for mid- and late-career engineers who are a bit set in their ways.  It is, I guess,  a pride thing.  And may older engineers have spent their whole careers building up that reputation and pride.  But what they, and their management, don’t understand is that it is important, and right, to admit when you’re wrong and that act should bolster an engineer’s reputation, not mar it.

It is those who won’t, or can’t, admit errors who are the bad engineers.  These people ignore or spin data and calculations so as to fit their view rather than accepting that the data don’t support their belief.  This is not engineering but rather wishful thinking.  Or pride gone amok.   One problem with this is that it can take years before the truth comes out.  And sometimes it never does.  This only contributes to the cognitive dissonance in the mind of such an engineer.

Granted, this path is difficult to avoid and each step down it makes it more difficult to make that jump to the right path.  But it needs to be done and I think it is a sign of character and good engineering when people correct their path that way.  Of course in our current climate this step is just an invitation for blame; probably the main reason for people staying on that wrong path.

Bad enough for the lone engineer, but real trouble comes when you have a whole organization that fosters this stance.  We have such an organization where I work and the very idea that they are not ever wrong, and cannot ever be wrong, is ingrained in the history and management of this group.  The members are smart, no doubt of that, and are highly educated engineers, but they can’t escape the corporate climate (even if they wanted to).  This, in my opinion, makes them poor engineers in a poor organization.

And if you give such an organization power, what you get are arrogant and defensive engineers who use intimidation rather than rationality when dealing with people outside their organization.  Because, you see, they now have to convince both you and themselves that they are always right.  And that is a lot harder to do without the bluster.  No matter what, this only leads to Bad Engineering.

Don’t fall into that same trap.

Suggested reading: Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)