I was just out in the garden, admiring the efficiency of my leaf-raking technique, reflecting on what it is like being an engineer. Because for me, it’s become a way of thinking; I’m an engineer all the time. I suppose this happens in most occupations anyway.
When I say engineer, I mean proper engineers, the sorts that deal in Newtonian physics, the physical world. Mechanical, civil, mechatronics at a stretch, and a lot of the practical trades. None of this applies to electrical, computer or software engineers who in my experience have been some of the kookiest and least practical people I’ve ever met. The Honourable Senator Fielding obviously excluded.
I feel like I’ve got a natural advantage in anything physical. We’re trained to look at the way practical systems come together and the basic rules are pretty broadly applicable. Raking the leaves say, there’s a few little angles and things you can exploit to take best advantage of the rake and the spring in the tines. It makes lots of practical things much easier, some jobs in the garden and around the house.
But, obviously it’s a 2-edged sword. For a long time human relations were completely baffling to me. That is, until I determined a strict set of rules to apply to interpret people’s actions. I am also still surprised when people make ‘irational’ decisions. I don’t know anything about classical literature, poetry or history, unless it relates to the history of science. I’ve never been able to play a musical instrument and I doubt I ever will. Practise sessions would be consantly interrupted with trips to the shed to better optimise the instrument’s design. I haven’t seen an item yet that I didn’t think I could improve.
I was asked recently what it was like being an engineer, what sort of personality is required. I said it was mostly maths, which pragmatically is often the stumbling block for returning students. I think it would be more accurate to think about how you look at the world. If the processes and shapes around you aren’t interesting then it’s probably not for you. Formula One motorsport is interesting to me because I can sit there and look at the design changes from last season and muse on how the rule changes will affect the engineering choices. I rarely care who wins. Airports become fascinating, right up until the moment the plane leaves the ground and there’s nothing to see. Then it’s just 7 hours of thinking in detail about how jet turbines work, how easy it is to stop one working and what system failures would be required for all 4 engines to go down simultaneously.
The other things that are crucial are an ability to lecture people on things they don’t care about and a belief that if you just keep explaining it will suddenly become interesting.