The Irrational Engineer
It sounds like an oxymoron, but what if the best qualities in an engineer are the least rational?
Some time ago a passing comment was made about computers taking our engineering jobs. A comment that is not unique to engineering by any stretch of the imagination, but I took my turn at contemplating it. If I may lower myself briefly to mock the classic engineer stereotype he, yes he, is a nerdy, anti-social, white, bespectacled, balding, middle-aged man who talks more like a computer than a human. I admittedly check all of these boxes except for my age, but with a little luck I expect I'll get there too. It is no secret however that this is not the only or best version of an engineer. We know that most of those stereotypical qualities are completely unrelated to the profession. We know your race, gender, age, and hairline have nothing to do with your engineering abilities. But what about the other qualities.
By our nature and our profession is it more important to be quick with numbers than quick with conversation? We know that communication is important for engineers, but this seems more anecdotal than practiced. We still expect our engineers to more often sound like computers than humans and on some level that gives us comfort and credibility since we're preforming an analytical and technical task. Eyes roll when an engineer feels compelled to explain something in their know-it-all tone that misses the point and goes over one’s head. One may think, "I don't need to know this. Just tell me how it affects me."
I used to resent this or at least feel defensive and argue that all this complicated stuff IS how this affects you. There isn't a simple answer or else it wouldn't be a complex and technical job. This was my baseline world view before I thought about the question of computers taking my job. If I see myself as a glorified computer, pleased with my computing power and logic, then yes, one day a computer certainly will take my job. But the idea of losing my job to a computer didn't feel right. On some level I know that a computer can't replace me because... I'm human!
So I asked myself, what makes me human? What makes me useful in a way that a computer is not? And slowly but surely I realized that all this time the qualities in myself that I scorned - my emotions, my irrational thoughts, even my errors, are maybe the very things that are good and important about me and about any engineer. It's my human side that can be inspired. It's my human side that understands my human client and their needs and the humans that make the rules I have to follow and the humans who are impacted by my decisions. It's my human side that engages with my colleagues and wants to learn from them and teach them and grow with them. It's my human side that cares about all of these people so that my decisions reflect my humanity as much or more than my logic. It's my human side that can interpret data in a NEW way. It's my human side that makes mistakes, but it is also my human side that can recognize them.
We've all cursed our computers because it didn't give us the answer we wanted and it did something "stupid". The computer can only draw one conclusion from the information you give it. Us humans can step outside of pure logic and make connections and have insights and attach meaning in ways that I hope computers never can.
So now, when I think about what a good engineer is, I'm looking for humanity rather than computing power. Let our technology do the rational work it's so good at so we're free to be the best irrational engineers we can be. The best people we can be.
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Pearce Wroe, PE