Charting a Course from Recent Grad to “Citizen Engineer”

I've spent a good part of my career as a practicing engineer. First designing flight controls for planes and rockets, then designing computers. This actually wasn't terribly unusual as computer science was in its infancy when I started and there was no such thing as computer engineering.

There I was fresh out of school – Bachelor's degree in hand – beginning a career in controls. I set out to conquer impossibly hard problems at HP and then Honeywell, eager to work out the possibilities of limit cycles in a nonlinear bang-bang control system. Instead, my greatest pleasure came from designing and programming the computers to actually make it work. I could get lost in that incredible flow state of debugging some bit of logic, either a circuit or a subroutine.

Throughout my career I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and then managing, some truly gifted engineers. Over time a pattern emerged. The engineer's engineer. What do they have in common? I think it's three basic things:

First, they know their stuff – they have a thorough grounding in their discipline and they never stop learning. Second, they use their expertise to identify the essence of a problem and drive toward the simplest possible solution – a complex answer always makes them worry: Where did I go wrong? What am I missing? Finally, they develop (often after many years) the ability to step back and judge their own work objectively, and openly accept the critiques of others.

Wanna be a great engineer? Know your stuff, make things that are simple and elegant, and embrace criticism in order to make them even better. That's all there is to it. Easy, huh?

As you go out and start your careers, one of the first things you'll realize is that you're part of a team, and that your efforts need to be coordinated with the efforts of other engineers – quite possibly hundreds of them.

You'll get to experience the product development process and learn about things like statistical quality control and methodologies such as Six Sigma. Remain calm. Don't panic. Process is your friend.

As your career’s progress, you'll have to learn about business. Learn that business is about managing the small difference between two large numbers. If the difference is positive, your business has value. If negative, it's a bust.

It will be up to you to communicate your value (and the value of your project) in terms that business people can understand. But your responsibility is actually much broader than that, because engineering has the capacity to impact the day-to-day lives of more people than any other discipline.

Almost everything that people touch in our society is created by engineers. The car you drive, the road you drive it on, the cell phone you talk on when you should be paying attention to the road, and the machine that made the foam on the double tall, non-fat, extra-hot latte that just spilled into your lap.

Of course, cars, roads, phones, and coffeemakers have been engineered for decades. So what's new? We all feel that engineering today is somehow distinctly different than the past, that there are uncharted territories and challenges. There is something viscerally exciting about the possibilities of engineering.

What has changed, and changed dramatically, is the scale at which we get to play. Scale used to mean large – big bridges, power grids, giant rockets, mass production. Steel. Plastics. What scale means today is small – transistors, DNA, nanomachines. Silicon. Base pairs.

Put another way, last century was the great century of science, the century in which we discovered the building blocks of us and the world around us. The century of scientists. Now we are moving into what I believe will be the century of engineering, the century in which we will use those building blocks to create new things and indeed whole new worlds. The century of engineers.

As engineers you are the connection point between science and society – between pure knowledge and how it's used. There's a responsibility that goes with that. You have to think about all the implications – real and imagined.

Whether we're talking about RFID, nanotechnology, genetically modified food or any of the myriad places where engineering connects science and society, the top-of-mind question has to be: How will this affect people's lives? And how will people who don't have the benefit of your education imagine the affect on their lives.

If you want to be a great engineer, if you want to do work that really makes a difference, think about that every step of the way. Practice engineering in a social context. You have a duty to make things simple, usable, secure, and safe.

During your careers, you may be tempted at times to scoff at people's reactions to new developments. You may be tempted to dismiss them as ignorant or alarmist. And you may have occasion to rail against the politicians who enact laws about things they don't understand in the least. Resist those temptations.

It's your responsibility to communicate the benefits of what you create. And, believe me, public policy is too important to be left to the politicians. So it's up to you to get involved, join the discussion -- lead the discussion -- and make a difference out there.

Think of yourselves as “Citizen Engineers.” You may even learn a thing or two from the people who will (or won't) use the things you create.


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