Remember back in the day when you could spot an engineer (or science geek) from a block away because of the tell-tale calculator on their belt?  Or going a bit further back, how they wielded their slide rule?  Okay, so neither were cool (why is wearing an iphone on your hip nowadays cool but a calculator isn’t?), but they were objects of some pride to the engineers.  A symbol, if you like, of somebody embracing math, technology, and applied science.  And of course the more complex the instrument, and the better you knew  how to use it, was the basis of some sort of hierarchy in the ranks.  Or, at least, something that earned you respect from your peers.

As a student I couldn’t afford the pinnacle of calculators, the HP-15C.   Or any of the HP products which, at that time, were the best you could get.  I had to make do with a very capable, if a little quirky, Commodore scientific calculator and a backup K-mart special.  I cared not for the TI-55 with their sticky keys.  Since then I’ve collected calculators here and there based on design and features and at work I have about four or five hanging around; more at home taking up a drawer.  My goto ones are a new HP-35S ( and an old HP-11C I recently purchased on eBay for more cash than I’m willing to admit to you.  The 11C is still, as far as I’m concerned, the second best calculator ever made and now, thirty years later, it is still a joy to use.

I guess I still think that these calculators are things of great usefulness and pride for an engineer.  And I guess that’s why it bugs me when I pass my coworker’s desks and see four-function calculators sitting there.  Have they no pride?  No sense of embarrassment that they are using a two-dollar POS that never could have gotten them through the first month in engineering school?  No desire to use or even play with the friend of the engineer?

When I asked one of them about it, he replied that he’s just a manager now, not an engineer (then what is he doing in an engineering position?).  Well, not for me.  My engineering blood still runs strong and I still carry my HP to meetings and proudly have them on my desk within easy reach.  It’s still a matter of pride to me (and usefulness) and I don’t foresee ever giving them up.

Anybody know of a belt holster for the 11C?

(Check out the HP-11C tee-shirt in the store —–>)



Forget about it.  If you’re looking for recognition of your efforts you need to work someplace else than the engineering field.  And why is this?  Well, two reasons: the very nature of engineers, and lousy management.

Let’s face it, engineering, while still considered a professional profession, is not given much respect in the US society.  Or, rather, it isn’t given much thought here.  They all love their cars, planes, roads, and cell phones, but they don’t have much interest in who makes all that happen.  Unless something goes wrong, of course.  Then you’ll get plenty of recognition.  The kind you don’t want.

So if you can’t find recognition outside the organization, can you find it inside?  Well, pretty much no.  Engineers who are good engineers are, for the most part, pretty bad managers.  The idea of complimenting workers, or writing them up for awards, or singing their praises to the higher-ups is not really in their nature.  There is an implicit feeling that the work should be enough.  And that there should be no ego stroking in engineering.

And this sort of works.  After all, you don’t see a flood of engineers leaving the field for more sensitive fields of endeavor.  Of course you also don’t see the quiet desparation/apathy in many engineers since they, also because of their nature, don’t advertise their feelings.

So here does that leave us?  With lots of engineers who want and need recognition working in a system where they won’t get it.  And the solution?  Well, a wise man once said to us, “You need to let the work be your reward.”  If the work alone isn’t enough to carry you through, then you’re going to have a rough time of it.

I suppose this all comes down to the difference between self-satisfaction and outside recognition.  In a perfect world the former would be enough.  For many of us, me included, we aren’t yet wise enough to not want the latter.  I hope that changes with age since equating worth by others’ opinions and actions is, I think, foolish.

Here is a quote from David Wallace’s The Pale King that might help a little:

“Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is.  There is no audience.  No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand?  Here is the truth–actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”

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)

Lesson Learned?

With the BP rig disaster, Toyota recalling vehicles for multiple reasons, issues with our local Metro system, and many other items in the news lately, I was reminded of this, probably the most ironic example of the failure of adhering to good engineering practice.  I don’t think it hurts to be reminded of these things once in a while.


Metrics is becoming one of those Bullshit Bingo terms that are tossed around at most higher level staff meetings – like synergy, paradigm, and empowerment – but I think metrics are being given a raw deal through misuse.

I define metrics as information graphics that show performance trends. As such, they should, at the very least, do two things: show the data and tell a story based on the relationships of the data. When you depart from this, you end up with, well, a mess.

Case in point. Recently there was an exercise to produce “metrics” on how offices would be supporting projects in the coming year. The example provided was a colorful Gantt-type chart with red, yellow, and green bars, milestones, and deliverables plotted against the fiscal year. This “metric” failed in at least three areas:

  1. It did not show any data, nor was it based on any data. What it showed were the guesses of managers about the coming year and how their offices were going to perform. There was no math involved, no objective extrapolation from previous years, and no indication of the level of uncertainty of those guesses.
  2. It did not tell a convincing story. It did not objectively show data in a way that shows relationships. Instead it just showed a pretty picture of what managers wanted to say: things will be good, okay, bad, etc. You don’t need a metric for this, you need words.
  3. It wasted time. For those of you in Very Large Companies (or the Government), I’m sure you’ve already guessed that the example metric was in PowerPoint. And not as a plot of data, but as a whole shitload of drawing primitives to make it look like a Gantt chart.

Needless to say, this request was met with distain from working engineers and with a “let’s just get it done and over with” attitude from mid-level managers. I’m happy to say that most of the metrics were returned in Excel or Project format – the working engineer does’t have time to be fingerpainting in PowerPoint.

This was a metric to scoff at, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from thinking about metrics and how best to design and use them for your own projects. Just make sure you have real data, that you show real, meaningful relationships, and that you use a tool that is efficient and that presents the data honestly.

The best references on this are the books by Edward Tufte and by William S. Cleveland.