An Engineer’s Child

An Engineer’s Child

Fluxor kicked off this week with a post about his father, and with Father’s Day coming up, I thought I’d chime in about how my parents’ careers have affected my choices. Both my parents are programmers, and so my form of teenage rebellion was to avoid learning any programming. These efforts turned out to be counter-productive in the long run, since my current work is about half programming.

When I was little, after he left the Navy, my father worked in the defense sector. When my sister and I started school, he started his own graphic software business from home. I earned my allowance by copying floppy disks and debugging. We were supposed to try and do new things with the software, and if it broke, tell him exactly what we had done that had caused the crash. I learned how to methodically trace my steps, and figure out where things went wrong, a skill I use pretty much daily.

There are also certain lessons I got as I child that were uncommon. My father taught me how to solder and use power tools. As a craft project, we would make bugs out of old/dead circuit pieces. I watched him rebuild PCs in the basement. Normal children are (hopefully) taught to say please and thank you, to be polite. We were told the importance of commenting code to be polite to your coworkers. Now that I’m older, my parents are a great resource for discussing technical problems. I recently inherited my dad’s copy of Numerical Recipes, and several old Fortran manuals.

I’ve had some wonderful, inspiring teachers, but my true engineering heros will always be my parents.

Punch card image by Marcin Wichary


Amen! What we learn from parents as children are powerful lessons. Never quite realize how hard those lessons stick until you look back as an adult… 🙂

I grew up on a farm and much later in life realized that my father was my first engineering teacher. In addition to raising livestock and growing crops, he was a competent electrician, plumber, mechanic, designer, builder, and accountant, and to some extent he taught me all of those skills. Empirical physics and practical engineering are practiced daily on a farm. He knew what would work. Later on, I learned why they worked. A few years ago I wrote about some of my early experiences in a piece in Today’s Engineer:

Kids who follow their parents’ professional footsteps always have an advantage. They grow up with continuous (hopefully successful) exposure to the ins and outs of those professions. That’s probably why so many kids end up doing similar work as their parents, even if they originally intended to rebel.

Ironically, my father is the least mechanically inclined engineer I’ve ever met. (But he’s a chemical engineer so he isn’t heavily into mechanical things.) Once I entered high school our normal roles reversed when we’d tackle projects around the house – he’d become my helper. But he still had plenty to teach me about methodically approaching problems and reasoning out solutions. He also instilled an urgency in me to learn why and how things work (or don’t work) rather than accepting “that’s just the way it is”. That’s what creates positive results.

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