The Unrepentant Individual

...just hanging around until Dec 21, 2012

January 6, 2007


I’ve written a few times about engineering. But never have I seen engineering, and more specifically, a description of what makes a person an engineer, more clearly explained than over at Chris Byrne’s blog, The Anarchangel. In a post aptly titled Engineering, he asks the fundamental question: “What makes a good, or great engineer?” Some excerpts below.

On being an engineer by personality rather than education:

I’m an engineer, because it’s what I am, mind body and soul. It’s wired into me at the very base level of my intelligence and personality. Sure I could have chosen to do something else, some other profession; and I’ve certainly held jobs that had little (on the surface) to do with engineering; but an engineer is what I am, no matter what I do. Even serving in the Air Force, and doing security work; I’ve always had an engineering mindset and method, because it’s simply who I am…

This couldn’t have described me more accurately. I think I was born an engineer. I think I was an engineer when I was 5 years old and took my Fisher Price tape recorder apart “just to see what was inside”. I was an engineer when I was a teenager and built a battery pack and shock-mounted a CD player and speakers onto my bicycle in order to be able to pump tunes while I rode. And I’m an engineer today, whether it comes to building my own DVR, trying to brew better beer, or simply trying to understand how to better arrange my yard and planting so that my grass grows well in the low-sunlight backyard. What does it come down to? A question of how a thing works and how I can make it work better, as Chris explains below.

On what engineering consists of:

A great engineer is a great engineer, no matter what their discipline; no, not all knowledge and experience transfers, but if someone makes great mechanical engineer, they most likely could make a great aerospace engineer, or nuclear engineer with the proper motivation, training, and experience; because great engineering requires three fundamental drives or abilities in edition to training, education, and experience:

  1. 1. The innate understanding of how components, systems, and methodologies interact with each other; and the ability to distinguish and determine causation, correlation, and effect.
  2. 2. The absolute drive to figure out the “how” of everything around them.
  3. 3. The ability to generalize knowledge, experience, and insight gained on one system, component. or methodology; to other systems, components, and methodologies; similar or dissimilar.

We call the synthesis of these things, ingenuity; and it’s what makes engineers something other than technicians or scientists.

“How” is the question of the engineer. I don’t think I go through a day where I don’t ask “how” about something. Even at my job, when I get a result back from our R&D engineers and they say “well, if you remove this resistor, it will fix the problem”, I don’t trust the answer unless I can figure out how that resistor caused the problem and how it’s removal solves it. “How” is all-consuming. And there’s a reason for this. You can’t understand “why” without “how”.

For example, beer is a pretty simple liquid, when you really think about it. Combine barley, hops, yeast, and water, and you get an alcoholic beverage called beer. But it’s not really that simple, because the same barley, hops, yeast and water can create an absolutely beautiful brew, or it can create something not even worth drinking, and the results are all tied up in the “how”. Often new homebrewers know what they want as a result, and know the ingredients it takes to get there, but there’s a big roadmap in between. Understanding the “how” is important, because without knowing the “how”, you may end up with something great, or you may end up with something disgusting, but unless you know “how” you don’t know “why”. Beer is a lot more than the sum of its parts. And as Chris describes below, it’s the sum of the parts that needs to be understood, not simply the parts themselves.

On how engineers see the world and the systems within it:

Now, take what I’ve just said makes a great engineer; and stop thinking about mechanical systems like cars, and computers.

Engineers are not just mechanics, or machinists, or programmers; they understand SYSTEMS, and by that I don’t mean computer systems, or tooling systems or anything else normal people think of when they hear the word system.

A system, is a set of inter-related and interacting components, actions, decisions, behaviors, results, inputs, outputs, and feedback; be it a machine, or a busy intersection, or a city, or a society, or a person; they’re all systems.

Normal people look at the world and they see people and places and things going about their business; engineers see something entirely different. We see systems interacting at every level; every action, reaction, result, behavior… they’re all interconnected.

This is why an electrical engineer like myself can look at beer and learn to understand it, or look at a car and learn to understand it, look at a production line and learn to understand it. I don’t look at a computer as a collection of parts, it’s a system in itself. When you understand the rules of a system, you inherently are able to deal with that system as if you created it. I want to brew better beer, so I do everything I can to understand the process, from start to finish, of creating beer, which is a system of interactions within itself and with the outside world. When I said I wanted to open a school, I said I didn’t want to teach kids how to fit into the system, I wanted to teach them how the system works. It’s because every day, I look around me and try to figure out how the system works, because I can only give myself the best chance to benefit from it by understanding its workings.

Part of my writings about politics are a desire to figure out and improve the system. I don’t say government doesn’t work because we have the wrong people running it, I say government can’t work because the system has flawed incentives that cause it to fail. It doesn’t matter all that much who we elect unless the system itself changes. My recent dissatisfaction with the Republicans is largely because they promised to change the system, but instead simply said “plug me in”. Of course, understanding the “How” of a political system doesn’t necessarily allow it to be changed, because often the “How” is highly linked to ballot choices of people who refuse to even question or investigate that same “How”.

In that respect, Chris also points out that any political or human system is complex, and based upon some people acting unpredictably or irrationally. He uses that as a suggestion that trying to understand and fix that system is bound to make an engineer like myself unhappy. That’s true to an extent, but if you build that irrationality and unpredictability into your model of understand the system, it’s not as depressing as one might think. Engineers, by nature, understand the difference between “working perfectly” and “working well enough”. Nothing works perfectly, and while you want to get close to it, you only need to get close enough to meet your requirement, which is usually short of perfection. You can’t expect irrational people to behave rationally, but if you can modify the system such that they’re largely irrelevant to its continued operation, it’ll work “well enough”.

I didn’t necessarily go to Purdue to “become an engineer”. I went to Purdue to get the education I needed to get a job as an Electrical Engineer. The desire and the aptitude for engineering were always there, and come out in everything I do, not just from 9-5. There are a lot of people who never went to school for an engineering degree, and wouldn’t consider their job title to be “engineering”. But some of them will understand what Chris described as applying to them, because they’re still engineers, even if the title isn’t there.

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 12:58 pm || Permalink || Comments (5) || Trackback URL || Categories: Around The 'Sphere, Beer, Personal Life


  1. Some of the criteria you describe, I would say would apply to a scientist. Its interesting, Chris doesn’t think this fit techs. I thought you were talking about the mind set, not the type of education one has gotten.

    Comment by VRB — January 6, 2007 @ 1:36 pm
  2. VRB,

    I’m not sure what Chris’ response would be, but I would say that some people with a “technician” mindset get an engineering degree and become engineers, and some people with an “engineer” mindset end up working as technicians, not engineers.

    There are some engineers who aren’t really useful engineers, they basically find a job where they’re doing technician work. And there are some technicians who learn enough on the job to be an indispensable help as sort of a “junior engineer”, simply because they have the mindset even if they never really went through educational hurdles to get the degree.

    So there are gray areas, and if your job title says “technician”, that doesn’t mean you don’t have the engineer’s mindset.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — January 6, 2007 @ 3:18 pm
  3. I am not saying that I have the mind of an engineer, but when you took that quote “We call the synthesis of these things, ingenuity; and it’s what makes engineers something other than technicians or scientists:” I just felt a conceit that I have felt working with some engineers. (I’m a technician.) I just think engineering is a different aspect of the criteria you have described. An individual can have those approaches to life, without ever becoming a scientist, engineer or technician.

    Comment by VRB — January 6, 2007 @ 6:45 pm
  4. VRB,

    That’s why I said, in the last sentences of my post:

    “There are a lot of people who never went to school for an engineering degree, and wouldn’t consider their job title to be “engineering”. But some of them will understand what Chris described as applying to them, because they’re still engineers, even if the title isn’t there.”

    However, I did take some things out of context in my reflection of the post, so if you want to see exactly how it all fits together, I’d head to the original post at Chris’ blog.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — January 6, 2007 @ 8:31 pm
  5. I had tried earlier. Problems with loading then.

    Comment by VRB — January 6, 2007 @ 11:39 pm

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