About My Job: The Engineers

by Conor Friedersdorf

We'll begin here:

I'm an engineer. Specifically, an aerospace engineer by education and a software engineer by vocation. There's a lot that the media gets right about my profession. (We have Scott Adams to thank for that.) There are still a few things that usually go overlooked. One thing in particular stands out to me: engineering is often portrayed as a boring, lifeless job. No magic.

Not true! It's one of the best things about it. I love the alchemy that takes the stuff of daydreams and spins it into hard, tangible reality. What we have dreamed, we have done. Uncounted generations dreamed of soaring with the birds. Tonight, you can go outside and watch airplanes drift lazily across the sky in exactly the same way that a hundred tons of aluminum shouldn't. And when you look up at the Moon tonight, remember that we've left six flags and a dozen sets of footprints up there. They'll outlast the Pyramids. It isn't the same kind of magic as pure fantasy, it requires structure and discipline, but the magic is there.

Engineer number two:

BP’s oil spill is a sterling example of how people only see good that engineers do. We all watched and waited as engineers for BP tried solution after solution to block the leaking oil. We all marveled that the technology (designed by engineers) could drill a relief well that would reach a 12 inch hole from five miles away. We all marveled at the temporary cap that finally worked: over a hundred thousand pounds of steel and concrete precisely placed thousands of feet below the ocean surface.

But where is the backlash against us? Where is the engineer getting flayed alive because the blowoff preventer failed? America blames the bureaucrats when disaster strikes, but thanks the engineers who “avert the crisis.” When the reality of this mess, and every other, is that advances in technology that allowed deep sea drilling, floating oil refineries, advanced prospecting, and a cadre of other capabilities required for the Deep Horizons rig to be where it was, doing what it was, all were available because we engineers had carefully and cleverly developed new technologies that allow humans to rape the Earth to a greater and greater degree.

What I am trying to get at is this: all too often engineers are the “I was just doing my job” pronouncers after disasters occur that they could have prevented with a little ethics. Imagine if civil engineers had taken a stand and done something after the May 1995 flood had shut down New Orleans and revealed the problems with the city’s drainage pumping system. Katrina could probably have been averted. Imagine if engineers (and their cousins, the surveyors) refused to build larger and larger highway systems in cities and demanded mass transit be built instead? Imagine if mechanical engineers refused to design coal power plants until more wind farms were built.  How many times does the Mississippi River have to flood before the Army Corps of Engineers realizes that a deep, narrow channel is a terrible idea? But these things do not happen. Engineers are seemingly content to work at their frenetic pace and let someone else decide what projects are ethical.

While engineers can happily take credit for directly or indirectly developing most of the world’s modern wonders…we as a group need to realize that we have a moral obligation to humanity just like politicians…and the means to enact change perhaps better than they.

Engineer number three:

Every client wants their job done to the highest quality, quickly, and cheaply.  However, you can only achieve two of those three elements in any given project.  Pick the two that are most important to you.

Engineer number four:

I'm a mechanical engineer -- what people don't get about my job is that it actually takes very little technical skill.  I spent four years learning theory, critical thinking, problem solving, and research methodology, only to enter a field in which every piece of information one needs is in a table or chart somewhere.  If you can use email, attend meetings, do Google searches, and write complete sentences, you can be an engineer too!