But They’re Just So…DIFFERENT!

But They’re Just So…DIFFERENT!

Yup, this week on Engineer Blogs, we’re talking about cross-functional engineering teams and working with engineers that aren’t like our own field. And in the true nature of someone that writes articles at the end of the week, I’d like to discuss the things that all our other wonderful writers haven’t mentioned yet (like my post reversing how the world looks at engineers). I mean, I need to keep the topics fresh and snappy, ya know?

Anyway, this week, I’d like to talk about those engineers in a group that a bit “off”. That sub-group of the engineering fraternity that no one seems to understand. The group that had a really strong period, but now have started to fade into the background. The group? Surely, it must be civil engineers, right? Or what about chemical engineers, who needs those guys anymore? What about those crazy mechanical engineers, machine shop is so last century, agreed?

Nope, it’s none of those. The group of “different” and “out there” engineers I’m thinking of? Old engineers.

Why do I lump these elders into a seperate group? Because they’re different! And not in a bad way.

  • They’re really experienced
    • I’m not saying that this trumps all other decision making processes, but it does mean that they’ve seen a lot of ideas tried and failed. Now, this can be a weak point too, giving up on an idea too soon. But it also can mean that they will be able to point out stumbling blocks of a project before it even starts. That’s a valuable person to have on your team, assuming they offer suggestions that may work instead. The best experienced engineer will politely warn a younger engineer and then allow him or her to go off and fail miserably and figure it out for themselves. I always appreciate that. It’s how I learn!
  • They’re rigorously educated
    • Just the other day my fiancee told me of a 4 year study of college students and how schools aren’t nearly as rigorous as they used to be. My reaction? Lack of surprise. Talking to older engineers about their university experience, I realized they did twice the amount of work I did (and not just because of the lack of a calculator) and in the end wound up with worse grades (because the grading was different). Aside from my guilt about this, I know that there were things they learned in school that I then had to learn from them! This is expected from older to younger engineers in most cases (mentoring, etc), but it’s the rigor in problem solving and thought exercises that are the true skill that younger engineers need to glean from their older counterparts.
  • They’re rare
    • Let’s be honest, folks. Engineering is not cut out to be a life-long profession any more (though I’m not sure it ever was). The earning potential of engineers is all front loaded and engineers are expected (or forced) to move to management or other fields as they start to move up in the world. Or at least as they move up in years. So the ones that stay behind and are engineers to the end are a more rare breed. They love having their hands in problems and they love figuring out technical challenges. This could also mean they dislike or are not cut out for managing people, which also could mean they’re closer to the dreaded “stereotypical engineer”. What does this mean for you? You will have to realize why they’re still in engineering (the good and the bad) and try to learn from all the positive things they’ve done in their career.
  • They’re passed over for new hires
    • Brian Fuller of EElife recently did a survey about age and engineering. Well, it was EEs, but that’s the only group that matters, right? Kidding. Anyway, the survey found that having a job and continuing in that role is not a problem for older workers. It’s gaining new employment while out of work that older engineers start to  feel disadvantaged. This could mean that older engineers are less likely to move out of an existing position, because moving on to other jobs is more difficult. As a result of that, younger engineers might have a harder time moving up in the ranks because the older engineers aren’t willing to budge.  Or in other situations, young superstar engineers will be moved up and around the existing older engineers, either into a more senior role or management; in which case the older engineer would then be reporting to the younger engineer.

So how do I suggest that people work with this group of “outcasts and misfits”? Listen to them. Older engineers are not some crazy group, in reality. They’re actually just you, 30 years into the future (well, I make the mistake of thinking others are MY age, so you can do your own math). You can bet you’ll be in their shoes some day: some youngin’ will come up to you hoping for some nuggets of wisdom and think you’re similarly smart, experienced and insufferable (what are they teaching those future children???). Try your best to utilize the wisdom they have, be patient with their suggestions (they’re being offered for a reason) and in the event you’re in charge, treat them well.

So what about you? Do you find it harder to work with engineers outside your discipline? Or outside your age group? Let us know in the comments!


Twenty five years ago I remember listening to my colleagues discussing projects and thinking ‘I wasn’t even born then’. Now my time has come 🙂

One thing you failed to mention about older engineers is they know how to make real measurements. In their day instruments didn’t do all the corrections for you or perform fancy DSP tricks.

I remember it like it was yesterday. Now, if only I could remember what ACTUALLY happened yesterday…

As someone who works at a measurement company with a couple other 20 somethings, I’d probably debate this point. But I understand what you’re saying and I realize I’m the exception.

It’s not just real measurements: “old” engineers know how to do lots of real stuff from the ground up.

This means that they have to understand the *principles* on which things are built. Too often, youngsters don’t have this understanding – because the principles have always been hidden in some “framework” or “IDE” or whatever…

A classic example is software build errors: understanding the difference between compiler errors, linker errors, etc, is a major help in knowing where to look to fix the problem. Older engineers know about these things from the days when they had to manually run the compiler first, then the linker, then…
Younger engineers don’t see this – because it’s all hidden by the “IDE”.

Great post Chris. There are some OLD engineers hiding in much younger bodies however!

There are engineers like myself that did not find engineering when at college or Uni but when they were very little. For me when I was about 8. That means that have now clocked up 30+ years of electronics and I’m only 39 – so that means I started out in 1979! OK it was a hobby but you gain and learn a lot at that age. By comparison a Fresh Uni student would have to reach the age of 55 to clock up the same amount of years in engineering.

So look out for the 30’somthing engineers too! and less of the OLD you young whippier snapper! :o)

Great post. Though in my experience older engineers tend to be less educated than younger. The older ones are not always degreed engineers having gotten to the position based on experience (which of course means they are even more naturally smart than us traditionally educated folks) and many others while having perhaps more stringent education in some areas, would not have had the same programming and CAD I had to go through, and generally they did not work internships and their first “real” job was not that difficult to get. Just my experience though, it could be a regional. Or note also when I think older engineer I’m definitely assuming a 45 or 50+ cutoff for this generation gap.

Not to be a naysayer, but I have noticed other things about working with older engineers – they don’t know how to treat women like professional colleagues, they prefer to use traditional methods when what you’re SUPPOSED to be doing is cutting edge, they’re not comfortable dealing with new things, they don’t always have good reasons for doing things they way they’ve done them (but I’ve always done it this way!).

That is not ALL older engineers – there are always exceptions, of course. However, I can’t get behind the ‘older is wiser’ standpoint because sometimes the lessons learned from the past make people too afraid to work on something new now. However, this is coming from someone in research, which is different than working in industry.

I’ve added the bulk of my 2cents over on my blog but I do think Cherish has an extremely valid consideration regarding sexism and professionalism towards women in the workplace. That’s not something I thought of immediately but should be brought up in the discussion.

I’ve never seen any unprofessionalism or sexism openly directed at a women engineer but older engineers do have a lower tolerance for bullshit and emotional pandering. The way I see it, if you have to work with someone, you have to work with them. I will add this though. In my experiences, women MEs are very intelligent book-wise but lack the hands-on experience that men have in that they did not grow up taking machines apart and building things. You can’t learn design by getting a 4-year degree. It’s an ongoing learning process that hopefully started when you were a kid. All the theory and mathematics in the world can’t help you if you don’t know when to apply them. There are a lot of male “textbook” engineers too and aside from research, I’m not too enthusiastic about working with them either.

ME basically started with millwrights who had to physically build things after coming up with an idea. IMO, a good ME with a BS needs to be well rounded. Analysis, design, prototyping and testing are all things an ME should be able to do if needed. Ideally, MEs should have some electronics experience too. Anytime I’ve worked with a woman engineer in a long project, I ended up carrying her weight. I’m sure not all woman engineers are like this but I can only write about my experiences. If that offends you, hey what can I tell you. I have never been rude to anyone in the workplace though.

While I can’t speak to your past experiences, I believe things are changing. I highly recommend you read some of Miss Outliers posts (http://engineerblogs.org/author/miss-outlier/). She has been in a machine shop since childhood. And as in your examples, one data point does not make a trend, so I am not saying all engineers are as awesome as her. But she gives great perspective on hands on engineering and she’s someone to watch who is doing great things!

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