Off Topic – A note to a son.

You are in college now, and you see people that are likely smart as far as youth will provide.  Everybody can have strong “opinions” and perhaps their track record in high school has been one of success after success or being the person known to be knowledgeable – as far as high school topics go.  University work is much different as I am sure you know.

I have been ruminating about engineers and what I think makes a good one. It is not the know it all’s – and many people besides engineers fall into that category (have this malady). People are so certain of what they know to be true, but is likely not at all true, or only true for a very finite or specific situation.  Engineering is as much about creativity as science.  It is about devising experiments for those situations in which it is not so easy to understand or calculate due to complexity, or wide ranging and unknown environmental factors, or any of a myriad of inputs that add complexity.  Even if you can simulate via a computer, ultimately you must find ways to compare the model in the computer simulation to the real world, and that requires some testing (experimenting) and exploration.  That testing, and exploration is what lets us know the level of correlation between the model and the real world.  If the two are not congruent or consistent (model and real world) then there is something wrong with the model because the real world is the real world.

This belief that people KNOW more than what evidence points to, was one of my issues at my last gig. They were all too happy to put all faith in the process, or other individuals, without measurements, without objective thinking. Rather, they put on their rose-colored glasses and Ass-U-ME all would be well.  Engineering is not a democracy, just like science. The majority’s voice does not make them right.  Consider your canoe problem (as I understand it), there are a group of people who think that the cement viscosity should be thin, and another who believes thicker.  This should not be ruled by majority in my opinion. There is an easy way to solve this, and that is where experiments come in.  There should be some experiment(s) that the team could execute, that would tell them of the properties of the cement when applied for this specific application – to make a canoe.  There would need to be at least two versions, one at one end of the viscosity scale, and the other at the other end. This should be planned and well executed for both scenarios – including measurements. Those measurements include the final evaluation of the end results, and should be known before you create the experiment. For example, is it buoyancy, or structural rigidity, or whatever the significant attribute would be. Then the two experiments are planned, executed, and evaluated. The results of that experiment either clarifies what we needed to know and makes selection of the correct solution possible, or illuminates that we have many other questions that need to be answered before we know enough to adequately address the problem (and hence more experiments).

It is not about knowing the right answer right off the top of your head, that may sometimes happen, I guess. It is more important to know the right questions to ask, and how to go about answering them as objectively as possible. Ego is one of the worst thing for an engineer (and probably for people in general), and usually that disappears or is put in check when you have made many mistakes when you were so certain you know how things work (but not well armed with data and having not asked the right questions or explored).  I once had a project manager tell me how long it was going to take to get some testing completed. I shared with him a histogram of similar testing, showing the range of times, it would take to make a product suitable for testing when it was received from that part of the company.  He said we would get the product on Monday, start testing Monday evening and finish on Wednesday.  We had no such situation ever occur with any similar product received from that part of the company.  The graph did not change his mind, neither did the fact that key vehicle system software would not be available until many days after he was expecting the product to be shipped and the system released.  He told me I was raining on his project.   Those people are everywhere, whether you are an engineer or not.  Stick to your guns, try to work with them, coach and educate as best you can, but stick to your principles, when you do not know, you do not know – but you are smart, and you can always find things out either by reading, or exploring or experimenting.

To be a good engineer, in my humble opinion requires:

  • Problem solving and creative solutions (think outside the box)
  • Inquisitive nature (constant learning – why)
  • Objectivity
  • Good collaboration skills (sometimes no is the right answer)
  • Principle based decisions

If you do not want to be an engineer, that is cool with me. I believe you have considerable skills and talent, and can do whatever you set your mind to, and you will be good at it.  I suppose that list of attributes probably serves well with any life endeavor.  I am here for you always, I may not know the answer, but I am good at asking questions, and that is a big part of any (endeavor) career in my mind.

If there is anything I can do to help, please let me know, you are my son, and I am here to do all that I can to help you get to wherever it is that you need / want to be.  I am sure you will figure these things out, and know this, there is no real failure.  You are learning all along the way, and you will use that learning throughout your future.  Your education is like experiments in that regard, you learn, and adjust. Your classes, add and never subtract from you.  If you change to a new something, that is what should have happened.  Even in your career, if you find out 20 -30 years in you should be doing something else or want a change, then move to that something else.  That is not failing, it is learning and adapting. What I am trying to say in a long-winded way, is do not worry about every step as if it would put you on a path that was irreversible.  That is almost never the case (except murdering somebody or criminal acts).  Think about it, make your best decision, learn from what happens, and adapt. All those things you are very good at.


Love always,




Post by admin