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?

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So what does an engineer do? 4 data points from real engineers

So what does an engineer do?  4 data points from real engineers

‘Engineer’ is an identity I have worn quite comfortably for the last decade or so, and it’s a profession I have enjoyed practicing, but when I started the Engineer Your Life project I realized I wasn’t clear even to me exactly what an engineer does.

Was it what I was doing?  Who could tell which activities were really engineering, and which ones were just, well, what I happened to be doing at the time?  When I made photo-copies, was that duplication engineering?  (Silly example, but you get my point).

As a starting point to figuring out just where that line lay between true engineering and incidental activities, I asked a group of fellow engineers:

What the single most important thing that your engineering education gave you?

since I knew that tell me how what they acquired at school actually gets used and which sits on the proverbial dusty top shelf of their minds, never to be used.

Some of the answers touched on the benefits of being an engineer, rather than the activities involved, which was nice to know but not very informative:

  • The freedom to take big, exciting risks, secure in the knowledge I will always have a job to fall back on because my skills are useful and transferable. I can get stuff done!
Some answers hinted at the benefits of the experience of engineering school itself, in that you find your tribe:
  •  My friends. The amazing women I met during my education are pillars of strength – they inspire me, encourage me to take risks, and love life. It also taught me how to live the life I love – and gave me my first opportunties to “write my chapter” differently.
  • Connection to other people like me…which gives courage to be even more me!
 Awww!  Very sweet.  But it does not really answer our question either.
Then we started getting somewhere:
  • Single most useful thing I learned: how to build and test hypotheses. Being an engineer, I took it for granted that this was the way people thought; after graduation I was amazed to see that most other people don’t think like that
  • An organized problem-solving approach that requires being explicit about your assumptions. Very useful in academic research, and in life.
  • The ability to think critically, the desire to challenge everything and the skills to sound like I know what I’m talking about. :):)
  • Critical, organized thinking, and a desire for making evidence-based decisions.
  • The ability to problem solve and to consider – and discard – ideas based on evidence and data until you find the best fit. Being comfortable with best fit rather than perfect fit.
  • And probably most important of all, understanding that the public good is paramount, tap, tap, tap.
Okay so to summarize.  What does an engineer do?
1) Think critically.  Respect evidence.  The ability to build and test hypotheses is thought to belong to the realm of pure science or research, but it nonetheless shows up as a well-worn tool of practicing engineers today.  Take an idea, strip it down, test it out, and put it back together.
2) Know your biases.  Explain yourself.  All that knowledge in your head is going nowhere and accomplishing nothing if you have no ability to relate your framework, approach, assumptions and ideas to those around you.
3) Solve problems.  Be comfortable with real life, not perfect conditions.  At some universities, including mine, the Engineering Faculty is referred to as ‘Applied Science’.  So don’t spend all your time nerding out on theory.  Roll up your sleeves and solve something.
4) Recognize your responsibility to public welfare. In Canada, we wear an iron ring to remind us of our responsibility to do our work properly.  The tap-tap-tap refers to the sound we make with the ring to taunt the younger, not-yet-ringed students.  The complete story of the iron ring is found here.
I have one more answer that doesn’t fit into the question I am exploring in this post, but it did make me laugh!
  • To see everything as black and white. Some times that cause issues on “normal” life (at home for example) :):)

How about you – do you agree that these were the most important takeaways from your engineering education?  How you do draw the line between engineering and not engineering?  Leave a comment or a tweet!

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