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Optimistic Engineering

2014-09-12

This is a blog, so it's time for a rant. Now, I'm not incensed enough about this to re-enable my CAPS LOCK key, but it's still pretty bad. What I want to rant about today is the stereotypical pessimistic engineer.

This is prevalent enough that entire comic strips are built around the concept. The gist can be summarized with an example:

Customer: "Hi, can you make me a widget that does FUNCTION?"
Engineer: "No, that is impossible for these reasons: [enumerates highly technical reasons the idea could fail]"
[hours later] "...and even if you could make a widget that does FUNCTION, it would likely explode and kill everyone."
Customer: Leaves disheartened, seeks consolation in pastries and hard drink.

Now let me begin with a disclaimer. Engineering school teaches people how to shoot down ideas with amazing precision. My entire Engineering Ethics course was essentially about how someone screwed up an engineering project and killed tons of people, and the general curriculum is filled with gotchas and exceptional cases. I think it is fair to say that schools try to impart in their students the ability to be wary of unforeseen problems. And, much of the time, this is great. We do hope that the engineers who designed the overpass thought of lots of potential problems and squashed them all before we embark on a collective public reliability study on their behalf.

So we come out of school with very serious grimaces on our faces and set out to do the right thing in the world. And often, that is conflated with "do not do the wrong thing", which sounds similar but has vastly different consequences. While projects can indeed go wrong in many ways, they can also go right in many ways. This is a key idea that I think does not get enough attention in engineering schools. Interestingly, liberal arts programs tend to get this idea exactly right. There, it's often called "creativity" or something similarly quaint.

What puzzles me is that the creative spark is biased toward the non-solutions. I don't know if this is rooted in fear (of failure, or disappointing customers/bosses/peers), or laziness (non-solutions are infinitely reusable). But clearly the creativity is there. It's just working in the wrong direction.