The soul of an engineer

A while back, I was offered the opportunity to rebuild an AM transmitter station that I had originally installed. It was destroyed accidentally when an ammunition dump, inexplicably positioned right next door, blew up. I was offered extremely attractive compensation, but I declined the work. It was in a Middle East location to which I had no desire to return. And, besides, there's really no challenge in doing something you've already done successfully. (I always wonder why golfers keep playing again and again after they've proved they can get the little white ball down the hole.)

My decision not to take the job got me thinking about what an engineer is and what he does. To most people, we are locomotive drivers or underpaid public employees doing jobs that require little or no skill. And the impression that engineers are makers or attendants of engines is probably equally popular.

The word engineer originates from the Latin word ingenium, meaning skill. This root word also has given us the word ingenious. Engineers are at their best when they are being ingenious — solving new problems, applying their experience and knowledge to solutions that serve a great number of people. We are, above all, practical people — at least in the field in which we specialize. Scientists investigate phenomena; engineers solve problems. Scientists measure, engineers calculate. (In some languages, such as Arabic, the same word is used for engineering and geometry.)

I grew up knowing that I wanted to be an engineer (even worse, I knew I wanted to be in broadcasting). My fellow students did not understand why I had no desire to pursue a career in science, such as physics or chemistry, as they all did. But the world I saw was one where invention was key to humanity's future. All the great inventors were engineers (many of them never formally trained but no less brilliant). It's a wonder that so many people see engineering as a dry profession filled with nerdy types. There are certainly nerdy people out there, but most seem to be in arenas such as software, where the title engineer is almost certainly a misnomer because the profession relies on rigid rules that leave little room for imagination.

People also compare engineering to the practice of medicine, using adjectives like pragmatic or worldly. But all the physicians I know have been less than practical. Just watching my next-door neighbor, a family practice physician, spreading lawn fertilizer/weed killer directly from a box, without measurement, with his young bare-footed son trailing after him, was enough to make me scratch my head. And, when talking with physicians, you find a level of indecision that you don't get talking to an engineer. We're used to taking action immediately to solve a problem, more like an emergency room physician.

But, in broadcasting, how much engineering do most of us do on a daily basis? How many times do you get out your calculator (or even your slide rule) to make a calculation about something? Such occasions probably are few and far between, unless you're actively involved in facility or equipment design. That's not to say that there is no ingenious work going on in your area, although in older facilities it may involve using duct tape until the budgets improve. The engineer in us identifies the constraints we are under, along with the resources that are (or are not) available, solves the immediate problem and moves on to the next crisis.

In addition to being ingenious, most engineers are also ingenuous — frank, honest and open (often too open) — about the problems they encounter in doing their job. This is one of the reasons why it's so easy for general management to stall any but the most urgent of equipment upgrades and changes. We ourselves create the impression that it takes a lot of ammunition to trump the ever-practical, resourceful engineer. But, then, we are also ingenious enough to know that when someone moves that ammunition dump next door, it's time to move on.

Paul McGoldrick is a freelance industry consultant based on the West Coast.

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