Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How Do They Do That?

A few thoughts about engineers for a Tuesday afternoon.

I am an engineer.  My husband is an engineer.  I work every day with about 40 engineers and I pretty much love every minute of it.  Every once in a while I catch myself stepping back from the task at hand and thinking about the situation (not necessarily the problem) from an outsiders perspective.  I can understand why people have so many stereotypes in their mind when they hear the word engineer.

I hear them often, especially when people find out I'm married to an engineer.  There is almost always a question like, so when you go home at night do you just talk about work non-stop (we talk about work but not about the issues we solved that day – after all Its proprietary – but mostly we talk about a funny thing our co-worker did over the weekend or a stupid mistake a maintenance guy made that sucked up our afternoon – nothing more detailed then I would tell any other person engineer or not) or if we just have white boards all over our house so we can solve any problems that arise on the home front (because everyone knows an engineer is only able to solve issues when writing on a white board).  Or how do you guys manage to put the groceries away (I'll admit my food storage definitely has some elements of lean manufacturing to it but it's a system that works so why not apply it off the operations floor?).

So on that note, here are my random thoughts about engineers:

A few weeks ago while eating breakfast at work someone was eating mandarin oranges.  Now I don't know about you, but since I work in a fast paced manufacturing environment, every time I see a mandarin orange I wonder how in the world they make them and not just how they make them but what the machine that makes them look like (judging by the low price of a can of mandarin oranges one could almost assume with a surety that it's an automated fairly fast paced product).  None of you will be shocked when I tell you that every other engineer sitting at the table had the same exact thought – how do they make those and what does that machine look like?  Do you think things like that when you look at a simple commodity like mandarin oranges?  If you do, you might be an engineer.

Today we had our engineering department meeting.  While all of the engineers working at the plant squeezed into the tiny conference room they scheduled for the meeting I had a thought.  If someone posed a problem to this entire group and the problem involved something we all had some knowledge on, would the entire group be able to agree on one solution?  I didn't even hesitate to answer that thought, absolutely not. 

In college we're trained to solve problems and given a few skills to enable that problem solving along the way.  My college professors were constantly reminding us when the age old question of "when am I going to use this?" came up that they were 99% positive we were never going to solve a problem like ones we solved in class.  But by going through the process of solving this difficult problem in which many things are known and arriving at a logical answer, we should be able to go out into the real world, take an issue with which we have only a few known's and an infinite amount of unknowns and come to a logical conclusion using the same process.  They were explicit that it was not necessarily important that we remember how to calculate the heat transfer to a piece of aluminum in the middle of our classroom.  It was important however, that we remember how to gather correct data about the situation and use a few of the skills we picked up along the way to reach a guess at what the problem could be and how to fix it.  So even if the entire engineering group was given the exact same information for the known's, it's the unknowns that would allow the group to argue and speculate for days and still not emerge from the tiny conference room with one solution to the problem.  But that's also the reason we get problems solved, every solution I come up with isn't going to solve the problem.  Some are going to make it way worse.  If everyone came up with the same solution, we would all be up a creek.

When I was an engineering ambassador at the University of Utah, one of the things we always stressed when speaking to students about what engineering is was the need for diversity amongst a group of engineers.  It was hard for me to see that as easily when I was in school, we were all around the same age, mostly from the same place (Utah), mostly had the same religious beliefs, and mostly were paying our way through school by working part or full time.  We were pretty much the same person and honestly any one that had a few more things different about them typically didn't make it through the program.  So I would wonder, if we're all basically the same and the people that aren't don't make it through the program, is diversity really that important?

I guess in my co-ops I didn't pay enough attention to the diverse groups of engineers around me because since graduating and going to work I know by having people that are different from each other is the only way to really solve problems.  Every day I get to work with engineers that are different ages, have different types of families, grew up in different places, were educated differently and have different engineering disciplines. 

My one last thought about engineers.  For a group of people that is typically comprised of type A personalities we learn to pick our battles very well.  In college by the time we were seniors, we no longer complained about how long or how hard an assignment was, we didn't dread how bad a test would be because at some point we all just stopped caring.  The energy spent worrying and stressing about those things didn't help to get the hard assignments done or make the test any easier so we all just adopted the attitude of it doesn't matter.  We realized that we had done some really hard stuff and if it got worse, well so be it.  Fighting it or arguing about it didn't change it so we all just bucked up and did it. 

I see that at work now.  With every new change – you must attend this meeting every morning, we're making this material cheaper and you have to figure out a way to run it, or we're now tracking all of our assignments on this board so everyone can know what you're working on- the decision has to be made.  Is this worth my energy to fight or would my efforts be better spent getting that down machine up and running again or solving that consumer complaint issue.  Instead of fighting for what we would like, you're a good engineer when you keep the big picture in mind and get down and do your work.

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