The Inside Looking Out

The Inside Looking Out

I decided to try taking our topic for the week–the perception of engineers and the field of engineering–and turn it on its head: What do engineers think of the rest of the world?

Some would say, “Who cares?”. Duly noted. If you don’t think engineers are worthwhile, you probably don’t care what they think of you or anyone else. Of course, if you don’t think engineers are worthwhile, you’re probably on the wrong site/side of town. Hint: you’re surrounded, get out while you can.

The engineers I’ve met over the years, both in my career and around the web, have generally been quite a benevolent people. In general, we don’t hold ourselves above other professions because we understand systems, including social systems (though some would say engineers are lacking social skills, stepping back and looking at social systems seems different somehow).

For example, an engineer might look at a widget manufacturing floor. They see the whole system. They see that it requires not just production engineers to chase down problems, but also assemblers to begin assembling the widgets. And purchasers to procure the screws for the widget on time so it can all be put together in a timely manner. And machine technicians to troubleshoot the widget screw machine when it’s broken. And an HR professional to ensure the people working there don’t have to worry about health insurance and 401k’s. Each of these positions is required to make things run smoothly.

However, this doesn’t stop us from having opinions. Lots of them. Especially about who is useful in a different light.

The term “value added” is used a lot in engineering (mostly by non-engineers inside of engineering companies). If a company is making a widget that has software on it, and an engineer creates a new piece of software that greatly improves the overall value of the product, that’s “value added”. This also goes for people in the work place. If they have a function that could not be replicated by others in the company and create more output than the person “costs”, then there is value added.

Engineers seem to carry this concept along with them, as it seems to show up as a recurring theme among responses when I asked on Twitter how engineers felt about other professions. Though certain professions seemed to come up repeatedly, it was the theme among why those professions came up that was most consistent. Those that do not appear to add significant value to the world were looked upon less favorably. What were some of these less highly regarded professions?

  • Lawyers
  • Bankers
  • Marketers

No surprises here. In a world where engineers feel they are creating value, but not being paid nearly as much as the professions listed above, it’s easy to see why there is tension (of course and economist would come in and start drawing supply and demand curves, but that’s besides the point). Does this mean that the above professions have no effect on society? Hardly. Just that the direct value created from a new injunction filed, another Credit Default Swap or another campaign to try to sell the widget you created doesn’t seem to compare with the creation of things.

I’m sure some of you out there think I sound self righteous right now, that I and my engineering cohorts hate other professions. I don’t think that’s the case though. It comes down to each person having a role in making the world work and hoping that each person does their job well. And yes, this also includes the professions above in the correct circumstances. As a friend Robert put it on Twitter put it: “[It’s] not about degrees but what you’re doing. Are you doing work that matters?”.  And as another friend Victor put it: “I’d rather talk with the best farmer, janitor, mechanic than the worst engineer, lawyer, congressman.” Engineers care about quality work in all professions, possibly because we know what can go wrong when we don’t have quality in our own.

So how about you? Do you have a particularly strong opinions about professions outside of engineering? If so, which professions get you the most worked up?


I agree with the idea that it is what someone is doing, not necessarily their title or degree.

That being said, I tend to get worked up about government subsidized professions (like lawyers). If there is a legitimate need for a service that creates a market and opens opportunity to be taken advantage of, that’s fine with me, but when individuals or companies are forced to divert resources into an overlay large (at least in the US) legal system for little benefit to society, it just rubs me the wrong way.

It seems most politicians being lawyers is a conflict of interest. They create law which in turn benefits their profession. The other aspect of law and government related to engineering is we get to see up front and center what type of impact overzealous regulations have on business and innovation. CE regulations, for example, absolutely crush little companies. Dropping tens of thousands of dollars on CE testing is no big deal when you’re selling millions of product, but when you’re selling 100 a year to other small industrial companies, it becomes a massive cost. And are European products really any safer than US products, which don’t have to confirm to any safety requirements (other than the fear of getting sued to hell and back)?

Then don’t even get me started on patents…

are European products really any safer than US products, which don’t have to confirm to any safety requirements (other than the fear of getting sued to hell and back)?

Short answer: yes. Episodes like people’s cell phones turning on the burners in their ovens (’t happen in the EU because there are standards for susceptibility there that don’t exist in the US.

I don’t think that government oversight is inherently evil…we could have used a lot more of it before the last economic meltdown. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need a serious overhaul.

LOL, are you sure that’s not an “Internet of Things” feature?

I agree that government oversight is not inherently evil. Apparently, I must have come across as an anti-government wing nut. Smart regulation can be a good thing, but over-regulation can hurt innovation and smaller companies which drive a lot of new product innovation.

Nope…definitely EMI. 🙂

I think the reason over-regulation is occurring has more to do with lobbying by large corporations. Until corps lose their power over congress critters, I don’t see the situation changing.

For some reason, I’ve always got the feeling from other people that they are capable of being engineers, but choose other fields instead. The trouble is that because someone can change a spark plug on a lawnmower, that doesn’t make them technically competent to consider themselves as good as a mechanical engineer.

I can’t tell you the number of times someone in accounting tell me that I’ve overestimated what it cost to design, document, build, and assemble a major piece of equipment. The same was true with physicists, CAD designers, and software programmers. They all thought they were as competent as a good mechanical project engineer.

In the end, they were all wrong and came asking for help to bail them out of trouble.

IMHO, I think the reason why engineers haven’t reached a more elevated status in society like lawyers and doctors is that we don’t have a strong central authority like the legal bar or medical board. If you’re not certified, you are not allowed to practice in either of these professions.

As for engineers, the large majority of us are not licensed. Even though I have a Mechanical Engineer certification in my state, every employer if he doesn’t have to deal with safety related issues doesn’t need to hire a licensed professional engineer to sign off on designs and documentation.

BTW, the term “engineer” has been bastardized for a long time. “Domestic Engineer” (home maker), “Sanitary Engineer” (garbage man). How many other “engineering professionals” can you think of?

When I started my degree in EE, I thought it would be easy because, hey! I had a degree in physics and this was just engineering. Didn’t take me long to realize it was a lot more difficult than I thought and that having a degree in physics meant that I was capable of picking up a lot of the theory involved.

Also worked with a CAD designer who thought he was an RF engineer…that was fun. 🙂

Unfortunately, the licensure issue is hard to deal with since engineering is such a diverse field. In medicine and law, I think what you have to know is more narrow and easily defined.

Some jurisdictions license engineers based on their sub-field (electrical, civil, chemical, etc.). So it’s not hard at all to establish a baseline of competency. The professional code of ethics require licensed engineers to perform work in which they are competent. I’m sure the same goes for the medical field. I’d hate for my dentist to perform brain surgery on me.

Old engineer, I agree with you completely. If only certified engineers are allowed to practice any sort of engineering, the supply would shrink and the wages and prestige would go up. The cost of products to the general public would also rise along with it though.

Here’s an anecdote about the title “engineer”. This title is protected in Canada and reserved for PEs only. When Microsoft starting passing out their MSCE (Microsoft Certified Engineer) designation to Canadians, they were challenged in court by various professional engineering societies. The compromise is that only the acronym MSCE is allowed to be used, but the expanded title that includes the word “engineer” is to be forbidden.

Bill speaks up with the most common kind of disdain I see from engineers: bitterness and anger over government regulation or involvement. It’s incredibly amusing to me since it tends to come the most adamantly from people whose paychecks come directly or indirectly from government funding. I’m not even sure what people think government is anymore.

I work for a small private (non-defense or government funded) company. But I find most engineers I know are not satisfied with current patent law and regulatory law, and I don’t necessarily think that some of them working for government subsidized industries makes them hypocrites. You have to take these things on an issue by issue basis (e.g. the mailman can be anti-war even if the government subsidizes both him and war).

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