Engineering as a career—or is it a cognitive state?

From EDN Executive Editor Ron Wilson’s Blog:

"Since EDN completed and published a Web study on engineering satisfaction recently, there has been a fair amount of discussion among the editorial staff and the engineers with whom we regularly speak on the subject. The most inflammatory part of that discussion naturally concerns H1-B visas. (Our editorial director’s thoughts on that matter are here.) It’s one of those subjects that gets attached so firmly to one’s beliefs that it becomes very hard to have a discussion that goes beyond unshakable statements of faith.

Another, less inflammatory but potentially more interesting issue was highlighted this morning by our senior technology editor Brian Dipert in his blog. That is the question of job satisfaction. It is common knowledge, and survey results reflect this, that many engineers have working regimens that would frighten a convict at hard labor. Rewards, while once in a long while gratifying, are generally mediocre in proportion to the education, qualifications, and amount of work for which they are dribbled out. While engineers in the US don’t starve, the reality is that many mid-level public employees have better pay, and far better benefits, than even senior engineers.

So one would assume, as Brian points out, that engineers would get frustrated at this treatment, express low job satisfaction, and certainly steer their children away from the vocation. (To call engineering a profession at this point would be to open a can of worms far too messy to contemplate.) But quite the opposite is the case. How could this be?

One very important insight came from technology editor Robert Cravotta. He said that in his experience, there were at least two kinds of people practicing engineering. Some people have been drawn to engineering by the relative prestige and security compared to the blue-collar jobs of their parents, or they have been lured by the small probability of entrepreneurial success. But other engineers, as Robert puts it, “have to be engineers. They don’t have a choice.”

I think he has identified a very important idea. In my own experience, most of the successful engineers I’ve known—that is, the ones who have not quickly migrated into marketing or management, but who have really drawn satisfaction from engineering and mastered it—have been somewhere on that continuum between, let’s say, Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 people are the ones who find logical thinking to be an exercise—something they can do, usually without harming themselves, if they absolutely have to. Type 2 people are wired in another way: they have to think logically about everything that presents itself to their senses. They can no more turn off their critical and logical faculties than they can turn off their senses of smell or taste.

I speculate that people who are more similar to Type 2, rather than Type 1, find the random and illogical behavior of Type-1s somewhere between annoying and acutely painful. As they grow up, Type-2-ish folks learn one way or another to isolate themselves from illogic—by constructing rational models of the world around them, working with these models, immersing themselves in a world for which the models are predictive. Such people become mathematicians, or concert musicians, or engineers.

This could explain the seemingly contradictory data. Many engineers—the have-to-be engineers—love their careers because the career is a scaffold supporting their rational and logical world. They are less sensitive to the hours and spotty remuneration because those things are external to their real world—the world of logic, models and physical realities. And so, in a way that a born salesman, for instance, could never understand, the time and the money are incidental.

I’ve tried this theory on a number of engineers and spouses or children of engineers, and it seems to make a light go on for some of them. Perhaps it is useful. It does also raise another interesting question. In the early 1960s, a lot of working-class kids, many of the Type-1 persuasion, flooded into engineering because that’s where the money was. Most subsequently became salespeople or managers. But the question: is that same thing happening now in China and India? Is the huge wave of young engineers coming up in these developing countries composed primarily of Type-1 individuals who are seeking professional careers, but who aren’t really comfortable with modeling, reasoning, and predicting? That could be very important to the future of technology globalization.

There. We’ve built a nice, logical model of a seemingly irrational situation. We’ve tested it with real data, and used it to make a prediction. I can relax now."

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