Engineers Rule the World (or do they?)

Since joining up with The Big Beacon to discuss how A Whole New Engineering Education can produce A Whole New Engineer in the future, I have been thinking a lot about my own engineering education experience.

Studying engineering is not just about academic rigour – though there is plenty of that! It’s also about an identity; being a member of a sub-culture.  That culture influences members’ behaviours and choices, and since students are the engineers of the future, it’s worth understanding the subculture of engineering students. One slogan in particular sums up that subculture as I experienced it: ERTW, standing for Engineers Rule The World.

Engineers Rule the World.  Really?

To those of us who attended engineering school in Canada (it’s apparently not found as much elsewhere), this is a pretty ubiquitous acronym. Scrawled on textbooks, spray-painted on walls, mostly close to Orientation or Frosh Week when all manner of other spirited shenanigans are happening. The pride behind ERTW is unmistakable, mostly when yelled in fun at rival faculties.  But is there something more signficant about the mindset that compels engineering students to adopt this motto?  Do we really believe it?

Truth to the slogan?

The logic goes that if we hold the means of design and production of bridges, food, computers, energy and any number of other useful things, being an engineer must make you extremely powerful.  But during my Frosh Week, the Commerce students would yell right back at us ‘You’re going to work for us someday!’.   We knew it was probably true!   We were being groomed to work for the companies that they were being groomed to run. They also called us plumbers, which had no truth, because we would have been no help at all during a plumbing emergency, unless the toilet happened to have malfunctioned due to a broken differential equation inside of it.

Plumbers no more

Many of my friends who graduated as engineers have gone on to positions in management, and now make decisions alongside their business-major colleagues.  Our strong analytical skills can make us excellent managers, business leaders and entrepreneurs provided that they have interpersonal and leadership skills as well; skills which start in the subculture of engineering education.

Rule the World… or just Rule

As a student, I had great enthusiasm for the idea of being able to solve problems on a global scale; to really leave my mark on the world.  And to do it using math and technology – how awesome is that?  That rules!  We RULE!   Faculty pride is also a way to stay sane during the undergrad engineering education experience.  Even while straining under the weight of a metric TON of physics and calculus, and getting my butt kicked academically, a slogan like ERTW reassured me as a student: what I am learning is powerful and useful.  But could the arrogance implied in the word ‘rule’ be damaging to engineers’ ability to be effective team players in the work place?

A Humbler Alternative 

At the Engineers Without Borders Canada National Office, I saw water bottles, binders and shelves decorated with a nearly-identical alternative acronym: ESTW.

A little digging revealed this rant; so ESTW stands for Engineers Serve The World.

Some further explanation at http://estw.ca/about

The concept engineering as service feels right to me.   What is my education for if not to positively affect people’s lives?  What is my profession’s purpose if not to help? What is on my knowledge worth if it doesn’t actually make a difference?  I feel the pride in my profession that ERTW reflects, but of the two, ESTW speaks to my identity as an engineer more clearly.

The Whole New Engineer of the future is humble, and a team player and a community builder.  Clearly these are not skills or traits that can be acquired from a textbook.   But in my experience they are well worth developing. They represent an authentic personal change that comes from within, no matter what you learned in school.

Future engineers, ask yourself:  Which version works best – ERTW or ESTW?  Which is more important to you – ruling the world or serving it?   Engineering educators:  How can you help your students down the path to being proud of what they do, but self-aware and humble?

Read More

Do Engineers Rule The World?

Lately I have been part of a lot of conversations about engineering education through my work with The Big Beacon.  Inspiring stuff!  When I got to thinking about my undergrad experience, I started to think about other interesting memories.  Like ERTW… have you heard of it before?  It stands for Engineers Rule The World.

To those of us who attended engineering school in Canada (it’s apparently not found in other parts of the world), this is a pretty ubiquitous acronym. It gets scrawled on textbooks, spray-painted on walls and sometimes written in magic marker on people’s faces.  Most of these incidents occur close to Orientation or Frosh Week when all manner of other shenanigans are happening; whether or not they should be happening is a topic for another time.  But the pride behind ERTW is unmistakable, especially when yelled in fun at passing first year students from rival faculties.  But is there some truth in the mindset that compels engineering students to adopt this motto?  Do we really believe it?

Truth to the slogan?

Engineers Rule The World!   The logic goes that because we hold the means of design and production of bridges, food, computers, energy and any number of other extremely useful things, being an engineer must make you extremely powerful.  But is there any truth to it really?  During my Frosh Week, the Commerce students would yell right back at us ‘You’re going to work for us someday!’.   And well… we knew it was true!   They also called us plumbers, which really wasn’t true, because we would have been no help at all during a plumbing emergency, unless the toilet happened to have mal-functioned due to a broken differential equation inside of it.

Plumbers no more

Many of my friends who graduated as engineers have gone on to positions in management, and now make decisions alongside their business-major colleagues.  Whether they get MBAs or not, many engineers benefit greatly from learning the ways of business.  Our strong analytical skills can make us excellent managers, business leaders and entrepreneurs provided that the interpersonal and leadership skills are there to complement them.  My friend Anthony J. Fasano does a great job of showing engineers how to ‘Engineer [Their] Own Success’ in his book by developing all those “soft” skills, precisely the things many engineers dismiss as unimportant and “artsy”.  But of course we had no way of knowing that back in university…

Rule the World… or just Rule

Myself I believe we cried ERTW not necessarily as an expression of world domination, but as testament to our enthusiasm for the idea of being able to solve problems on a global scale; to really leave our mark on the world – using technology!  How awesome is that?  That rules!  We RULE!   That’s one possible interpretation.  Another is that we were trying to make ourselves feel better during our undergrad engineering education experience:  as in, I may be straining under the weight of a metric TON of physics and calculus, and getting my butt kicked academically like never before, and none of it seems very useful or relevant right now, but one day I shall rule the world!  (Pause for evil laughter)  Something you say to get yourself through.

My days of stuffing electro-magnetics and calculus knowledge into my head are long behind me, but like most engineers I have grown up with the phrase ERTW.  It always felt a little satirical to me, like Pinky and the Brain, and not terribly relevant since Ruling the World was never much of an ambition of mine.   Still, a fun piece of my personal history.  A tribute to youthful enthusiasm and joie de vivre, the joy of nerding out and yes, just a smattering of charming arrogance; one of the many great memories of engineering student culture I carry with me.

A Humbler Alternative 

On a recent trip to the Engineers Without Borders Canada National Office, I saw water bottles, binders and shelves decorated with a nearly-identical alternative acronym: ESTW.

A little digging revealed this rant; so ESTW stands for Engineers Serve The World.

Some further explanation at http://estw.ca/about

Well – what a marked departure!  The concept of service in engineering feels right to me.  My own priorities have always asked:  What is my education for if not to positively affect people’s lives?  What is my profession’s purpose if not to help? What is on my knowledge worth if it doesn’t actually make a difference?  Of the two, ESTW speaks to my ambitions more clearly, and though I feel the pride in my profession that ERTW reflects, mostly I just feel really lucky that I get to make life better for people while nerding out.  (I could do without ruling the world though.  Too much work!)

Scared and cocky at the same time

When I first graduated, however, I would have identified more clearly with ERTW.  Interestingly, back then I was both terrified that nothing I’d learned in school would transfer to the real world at all, and cocky that I could fix everything using my super-smart equation-solving, hard-exam-slaying brain.  I suppose I was testing a hypothesis that I could have an impact on the ‘real world’, which is what I most wanted to do above all.   Also, though my burden was nowhere near the level of debt most of today’s graduates are shouldering, I needed to make money, so I coudn’t afford to be picky about my first job.  Every single engineer wants to get a ‘good’ (translation: well-paying) job after graduation, whether they are primarily motivated by money or not.

So is it about the money?

But returning to the topic question of this post, does serving the world fit with being financially rewarded for your work?  Is the version of engineering in which we ‘Rule The World’ about being wealthy as well as powerful?  Or is it just about being arrogant, and supposing ourselves to be better?  I wonder if there are there will always be two schools of thoughts within the engineering profession – some relishing ERTW while others identify more closely with ESTW, or if over the course of their careers, most engineers will go from one of to the other.

Which version feels more relevant to you – ERTW or ESTW?  Which is more important to you?  Do you think of your professional purpose as service?  If you knew you could make enough money to live a great lifestyle either way, would you rather Serve the world… or Rule it?

Read More