Though I’m an engineer, I don’t necessarily consider myself a natural tinkerer. Sure, I started out that way, as most kids do. My childhood inspirations included Legos, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets and lots of toys that are precursors to engineering. But as I got older, I didn’t step into many of the other stereotypical “future engineer” activities. I never learned how to change a car’s oil or do regular maintenance. I never framed a house or similar structures. I never built a computer from components at the store (though this is obviously more relevant around the time I grew up vs 20 years prior). I never got a ham license or had a 200 in 1 electronics kit, two things that almost guarantee a future as an electrical engineer. So what gives?
My parents were both very supporting and continue to be to this day. And I regularly worked on simple projects around the house with my Dad, though often as the flashlight holder and gleaner of swear words. I consider my childhood to be a normal suburban experience for the time period when I grew up. We didn’t have everything but we were very fortunate for the things we did have. But I didn’t learn any of those things above.
When I got out of high school and went to college, I decided I wanted to be an electrical engineer. I don’t think I was alone in having little experience in the field and going into it on a whim, at least in my generation. But the summation of all these events leading up to my training as an engineer and the actual training itself resulted in a curious effect. In school, often you’re given an assignment and asked to complete it. You aren’t expected to do anything additional outside of class because the assumption is the assignment is all encompassing and difficult enough on its own. As such, no one was asking me to play around with circuits. Or really even teach myself. And I wasn’t taking these things on by myself either. I wasn’t teaching myself circuits above and beyond my school work because I had a lot of school work. Notwithstanding my assigments, it felt like in order to learn these other things and because my learning was often pushed to me (in the form of assignments), I felt like I would need to ask if I could do something else. Not that I wasn’t allowed to learn other things; just that it was the natural order and the right thing to do.
In the years since graduating school I’ve learned this: You don’t need permission.
Since my days in school, I feel like I’ve grown a lot as an engineer. I’ve been in the workforce for 6 years now, at 3 different jobs. I’ve met lots of people, encountered lots of problems and picked up a lot of useful skills (with lots of room yet to run). In work, I’ve realized not only do I not need permission to learn things, I am expected to learn them on my own; really, I need to keep learning in order to stay relevant to technology and the work I’m doing.
The most striking difference though since my school days and my “permissive learning” is that it’s really changed how I operate outside of school and work. Since I’ve left school, I’ve bought a house and fixed up a lot of it. We’ve refinishing floors without professional help and and similarly have done many different projects in and around the house without 3rd party support. And it was this kind of work this weekend that prompted this post. Instead of taking my lawnmower to a service center (which I was still slightly tempted to do), I changed the oil, adjusted the cutting deck and removed the blades for sharpening. When the time came to take the blades in for sharpening, I realized I could do that too given the tools I have on hand. More important than the tools though is the mindset. As soon as I thought, “This is something I can do”, the entire project changes.
I wanted to review some of the things that inspired and enabled the way I think about trying new things, especially around the house.
- YouTube & the Internet — I imagine in 20 years, children buying and fixing their own houses will be flabbergasted when they open their new purchases and see a paper manual. How 2012 of them! Really any project I’m doing these days starts on the internet with simple searches not just how to do something, but how best to do something. Why spend all day figuring something out when I can have an expert (or at least a presumed expert) tell me how to do something quickly? Even if they’re suggesting their product, it’s worth it to hear the pitch for the information.
- Gloves — This is another psychological leap. I’m notoriously squeamish about spiders and bugs (don’t judge me). But there’s something about having leather gloves on makes me feel like superman and that I really don’t need to fear anything. And beyond my silliness about bugs, the gloves insulate me from my environment and have a practical side to them as well. Even separating myself from my environment a bit and putting off a little pain allows me to do things I would have normally eschewed, like clambering all over my roof (rough shingles I can easily grab with my leather gloves).
- My wife — No, there’s no joke in here about a “honey-do” list. My wife has always encouraged me to try out new things when we have a problem at home. And she kicked off a lot of the home repair stuff, like when I aired my doubts about refinishing our own floors. I kept saying how I had never done it before, to which she responded, “Neither have I. So what? If we mess it up, what’s the worst that can happen?” She was completely right. They’re not perfect but thanks to the internet we did alright! And I love that she encourages me.
- My friends — I’ve had multiple friends who had lots of exposure to building and working on autos that simply invited me along for the ride. And aside from the exposure, they were good friends and insisted that I do much of the work. Partially so I would learn how; partially because they didn’t want to do it all themselves! I helped replace brakes and built my own workbench in my basement because of my pals and I’m glad they were there to encourage me.
- The rental store — I had never rented tools before buying my own home. Once I started on projects though, I quickly found out the utility of having a local hardware rental store. Not needing to purchase or service the tools, many of which would have been out of my price range and have sat dormant most of the year, was a huge advantage. Once again, looking up how to use them online and I was often up and running quickly with almost no risk. Being nice to the staff at the rental place also is a good idea. When you don’t have to worry about breaking or wasting your equipment, you feel freer to do more.
- Cheap tools — On the other side of things, when I felt I would be using something often, I just go ahead and purchase it at the hardware store. The advent of low cost power tools really allows me to simply build out my workshop at home. If I don’t plan to use it every day, I can often get away with a slightly lower quality tool but at a much lower price point. This has encouraged me to hold more tools. The side effect of that is that I see more projects to do at home, in a sick feedback loop that will eventually have me building my own house (at which point I’ll need better tools…gah, another feedback loop, there I go again!)
OK, but all this is home repair work, right? How does this relate to engineering?
Well, I think there are a lot of tools and methods out there that are allowing engineers to try out things easier. If before you would have needed to go talk to the mechanical group at your company in order to try something (and get permission from their boss and yours), that’s not necessarily the case these days. There are tools within the reach of many engineers that allows faster iteration and “trying things out”. Whereas in the 1940s and beyond a “Skunk Works” project would be necessary–with a requisite hidden budget–it’s no longer necessary.
- 3D printers — This is one that I usually harp on about, but only because my experiences with this has been wonderful so far. Whereas in years past you needed a machine shop or expensive molds and drafting ability, now you can create or download a model and quickly see what the mechanical aspects of a project will involve. I know in my experience, I tried out some wacky concepts because I knew they were simply prototypes. Those same ideas ended up feeding later iterations of the project and might never have made it in otherwise.
- Modeling/SPICE — If making the physical thing is too much work or too big a step, you can always stay in the digital version to ensure the model you’re working on will fit your needs. In the mechanical world, this might be a 3D modeling program like SolidWorks or Pro/E. In the electrical world, this might be a program like LTSpice or MATLAB. In either case, you don’t have to put a lot of “skin in the game” in order to try something out, which should encourage people to try things they wouldn’t normally.
- Abstracted hardware platforms — In the electronics world, there are a lot of new platforms available to allow you to work on electronics without actually designing the circuit board and doing the soldering. A good example is the Arduino, a small microcontroller platform with a simple programming interface (and its own C-like language). The benefit is that it allows artists, hobbyists and the rushed professional to simply pull in or push out digital and analog signals. In terms of quickly trying something out, there’s very little at risk, especially at $30 each. Another $30-ish board that was recently released is called the Raspberry Pi, which is a full Linux Platform that can also input and output signals. This is a low risk way of adding a full OS to a device, something that was quite involved in the past.
- Online communities — The rise of online communities and central meeting places to discuss issues is a huge part of more people trying things these days. Imagine 20 years ago and needing to be physically close to an expert in order to tap his or her knowledge. Now it is only governed by their willingness to help and you finding the correct expert to ask. Now that people have access to not only information, but the knowledge behind it, it becomes much easier to try new things…because you have someone who will tell you when it won’t work!
Thanks to my sawzall for the picture.