Engineering is a Zoo

Engineering is a Zoo

Most people are familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality types.  People are categorized into sixteen groups that are described by a combination of four letters.  The letters describe the two extremes of various aspects of personality.  Despite the fact that there are sixteen groups, you can make life simpler by generalizing a bit and grouping into four groups.

In engineering, the NT and SJ personalities are the most prevalent.  NTs, or ‘rationals’, comprise only about 5% of the total population but a significant chunk of engineers.  SJs, or ‘guardians’, are nearly half the population.  The more analytic of the guardians tend to enter engineering, a field which tends to utilize a lot of rules and is thus appealing to the SJ personality type.

The funny thing is, SJs and NTs tend to not get along very well at all.  SJs like rules and like to follow them and like when other people follow them.  NTs are known for their unconventional but pragmatic thinking, which means they tend to try to find what works, even if it means thinking outside of the box.

As you may have guessed, this can lead to a lot of workplace conflict.  Sometimes engineering has nothing to do with what you’re making and everything to do with your approach to the project.

There are other ways to categorize personality types.  One that I came across many years ago was the Trent-Smalley categorization.  While it doesn’t have the same level of background as the Myers-Briggs/Keirsey types, it is useful in it’s simplicity.  NTs correlate to the personality type of “lion”, while the SJs become “beavers”.

So engineering can boil down to a bunch of egomaniacal carnivores trying to work with busy-body vegetarians.  And then people wonder why it can be so hard to get along with coworkers.

What do you think?  Have you seen these personalities in your workplace and do you think they make it more difficult to get real engineering done?  What type are you?


We do the Meyer-Briggs inventory (or a knockoff of it) in our senior design classes as an aid to discussing team building (it is not all about getting the technical skills the team needs).

The NT/SJ split you discuss here is misleading. The N/S (intuition/sensing) split is one axis, but T and J (thinking and judging) are orthogonal. If you want to use the Meyer-Briggs classification, you also have to be aware that not all splits are clean ones. I came out as ITJ (about equally N vs. S)—what surprised me in the last class was how many students were extroverts. After seeing how much socializing and how little engineering happened at some of their group meetings, I was less surprised.

Keirsey is the one who highlighted this particular split. While it seems like we ought to use two separate axes, apparently the groups are more easily recognized as NT, NF, SJ and SP. For an N, the thinking/feeling axis are more likely to affect outward personality – which makes sense because the T/F split will affect how they think about things interally. An S is more affected by the judging/perceiving axis because how they take in information affects their sensing properties.

I’m an INTJ though have been moving towards ENTJ. I was looking into this again because I’ve been getting tired of subjects once I learn them and want to get onto the next thing to learn (as opposed to mastering that subject). That also may just be a specific instance, but has brought the topic of introspection back into my life.

What I will say is that I’m struck at how much people stick to the categories once they’re tested. I don’t really believe there are only 16 personality types. There are just 16 classifications. So I even find myself saying things like, “Well, what would an INTJ do in this situation?”, but that’s really wrong. It’s, “What would Chris do in this situation?”.

As for SJ types, they seem a bit more prone to sticking to the rules, which has its ups and downs in an engineering firm. On one hand, it helps get things done when there’s work to be done and the work is similar (evolutionary product changes). On the other hand, when there is a big problem that requires a shift in thinking, they’ll chase their proverbial beaver tail. Conversely, NT types can be horrible to be around when there is work that just needs doing, because they keep wanting to change the rules and find a new way of doing something. Did I mention I get bored once I have learned how to do something?

I think the whole personality thing is interesting because I’ve seen a lot of discussion about whether or not it’s scientifically valid. Even if it doesn’t explain people’s behavior, I am inclined to think it at least explains their values. Maybe they don’t always behave ‘rationally’, but they value rationality.

As far as the getting bored thing, this is why a lot of academics are NTs. You’re right – I can get bored very easily. It’s a hard balancing act between repetition and learning to master something versus needing new stimuli while not getting overwhelmed.

Both my husband and I are INTJs. 🙂

There are multiple ways to think about what “the rules” are. They can be established engineering methods, physical “laws,” or corporate procedures. I know lots of engineers that like to break or bend all three, and lots that don’t. The biggest source of friction is the corporate procedures one. After all, everyone admires the engineer that gets something done in a creative, outside-the-box way (at least, AFTER they actually get it done). But some people are sticklers for things like paperwork, proper documentation, and the like. I tend to befriend people who are the opposite, since that’s how I am. If my project is getting held up by something that I don’t think is worth my time, I get frustrated, as do a lot of people I know. Paperwork falls into that category.

So; when you do these things how do you stop yourself answering the questions how an engineer should rather than what I do?
Doesn’t that skew things towards a self-fulfilling prophesy?

I have a theory based on my experiences why Engineers don’t like dealing with other people. Over the last 10 years my outgoing personality and my extroverted ways have diminished. As a Civil Engineer I spend all days dealing with morons, so now when I am not a work I would rather not deal with anyone at all! Engineers are at the bottom of the industry chain. We are the bearer of bad news, if something goes wrong blame the Engineer. Can someone give me a reason why being an Engineer is enjoyable? I can spend weeks on end calculating designs to be told by the concreter, who needs help tying his shoe laces, that he knows more my job than me. My chargeout rate is less than a plumber and I work more overtime in a week than most people do in a year. Clients know that we have no choice to do the extra work they throw our way because we won’t get the next project if we complain.

Statistics indicate the most common reason school leaves choose Engineering at University is for no other reason than they are simply good at Maths! Based on this being good at Maths is just a curse…

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