Engineering mindset

I’m frequently puzzled by the workings of my own mind. Especially the question of “Why do I hurt myself?” I often feel ashamed when I’ve hurt myself, and think things like “I should have known better.”

The quote that comes to mind is from a senior engineer on the Panama Canal. After they constructed one of the massive locks, they needed to test the motorized mechanism for opening one of the doors. So he says, “All right boys, let’s fire her up, and find out why she doesn’t work!”

It’s a quote that sums up the reality of engineering work. You plan the thing, you build it, and (most of the time) it doesn’t do what it was supposed to do. So you examine it carefully, find out why it doesn’t work, fix that problem… and learn that there’s another reason why it doesn’t work. Getting something from ‘almost finished’ to ‘finished’ is mentally and emotionally grueling work.

Non-engineers will talk about the virtues of planning, and operate on a belief that if only we prevented problems properly, we wouldn’t have them. Engineers love prevention when it works, but they don’t have jobs unless things need fixing. Fortunately for the ethics of the engineering profession, there’s no danger of running out of things that need fixing.

I work hard to understand things. I build things, and I test them. Sometimes they work, other times they don’t work. I learn best when I have an example of the system working well, and an example of the system failing. In those situations, the differences between the examples become ‘potential causes of the failure’. I adjust the potential causes of failure (hopefully, one at a time). With a little luck, the system springs to life. Repeat enough times, and you start to make the adjustments properly before you activate the system.

I’ve been obsessed with systems of communication for some time. Between computers, between humans and computers, and between humans and humans. I construct prototypes, I test them, I take them apart again, inspect which parts got damaged, and try again. It’s no longer a conscious process, it’s a deeply-ingrained habit.

Every time I build them, I build them hoping they will perform well. It hurts when they don’t. I try to live up to my favorite Edison quote “I haven’t failed to make a lightbulb 100 times; I’ve identified 100 different ways that you can’t build a lightbulb.” (The problem was finding a filament material that would glow brightly without melting. Why did they bake a thread of cotton? Who knows? But it worked.)

There are things I know I can do. These are the things that people are happy to pay me for; the things where I no longer fail enough to find them interesting. There are things that I can probably do, and could definitely do with the right help — this is the sweet spot. And there are things that I might be able to do — when the mood takes me, they’re irresistible.

I’ve had successes that I’m really proud of. And I’ve had failures that have really hurt. And I can’t always tell which I’m going to get before I run the test. I think I’ll suffer a bit less if I accept that I’m an engineer at heart, and that I will keep running tests for the foreseeable future.