Hardware, Hard Truths.

On being grounded in technical work at turbulent times

(In case you’re wondering if this publication is really about how many hardware puns can I make before running out of titles, the answer is yes.)

It has been quite a week, or month, or year. It feels like everyday we must stare difficult things in the face, things that we probably knew before but didn’t have to confront head-on quite so often. Combined with the lack of distraction from socializing or other pre-pandemic pursuits, life can feel heavy, dark, relentless.

2019, in contrast, was a year that I felt a bit listless, laid off from a job and wandering, literally and figuratively, while I thought about what to do next. I traveled to Toronto, New York, Denver, New Orleans, making the rounds among friends and family and having new adventures, too. When I ultimately accepted a position, even that felt a bit transitory. I had the sense that (though I enjoyed the work and loved my team) it wasn’t quite the right fit for the long-term. I started to wonder about the field that I chose; I explored other things, like toying with writing more formally and getting involved in the music industry (stories for a different blog post). I interviewed for positions that were not strictly engineering, such as consulting and even finance. I had a lot of conversations with friends who felt a bit “done” with engineering. I remember a conversation I had with a close friend while visiting them in California just before the pandemic.

“I mean, is your life dream to be, like, a CTO?”

We were all in that figuring-it-out stage of life where so much could happen that it’s a bit overwhelming. While I’m incredibly grateful to have a love (and talent, if I might be so arrogant) for writing, it also felt like some kind of subtraction from my skillset in engineering. STEM and humanities are always positioned as diametrically opposed, mutually exclusive, you must do one or the other and not both at the same time. I felt as though I needed to quiet my constant need to write in order to be good at engineering, and on dark days, felt like I was average at a few things and excellent at nothing.

But I knew plenty about being two or more things at once, in ways that people never expected and always questioned — I was born that way, not only mixed but incredibly, visibly foreign to everyone, constantly needing to correct and explain. Of course, when it comes to skills rather than identity, it is true that there are only so many hours in a day, and it may not always be possible to dedicate equal time to everything. Still, there is a long list of writers and artists who had different primary professions, and I desire only to keep doing what I’m doing now.

In 2020 I became more comfortable in this duality, especially when also realizing that the default mental image of who is a scientist or an engineer and who is an artist are quite different.

It is presupposed that femininity has no place in labs, doctor’s offices, or machine shops and daring to be a woman that does not contort herself to fit into a man’s mold in those places is, somehow, an affront to science.

It is assumed that complexity is always better, smarter, and more impressive than simplicity, and that confusion-inducing complexity is somehow a symbol of greatness. It is assumed that a person’s socioeconomic status at the time they were born has nothing to do with how successful they are in technical fields later on in their lives. And none of these things, actually, are about the science, or the engineering, or the physical principles of the real world. It became funny to me how, in a field where many people ignore important debates about inequality or representation because they are deemed irrelevant to science and technology, a great deal of attention and money is often invested in other, more palatable smoke and mirrors.

Gravity persists, air molecules vibrate, and heat radiates from surfaces. This is all happening, all the time, whether you pay attention or not, whether these natural forces are painted or framed in some way, whether one force or another is the more popular topic of discussion. No deception or convolution can change anything. These are the ultimate truths, and I see a beauty in that. We are living in an age where even smart and well-informed people can have their perceptions divorced from reality. But in a thoughtless moment when they drop an object, and it falls to the floor, reality is there.

I surprised myself in 2020 by responding to stress by throwing myself into work, which is rare for me. Like everyone, I had my fair share of unproductive days, particularly those at the earlier, thinking-and-reading stage of the design process, before the comfortable flow of building-and-iterating that, for certain tasks, has a mindless zen-like quality. I changed jobs (yet again) to a position where I felt I could grow more, and pursued interesting side projects with friends. I felt the excitement that I associated with my field again, at odd moments, like standing in front of a whiteboard looking at, essentially, a solution to a geometry problem that was informed by a little physics. It is so beautiful that we can think through problems like this, I thought, that we can take a real thing in the world, a hard truth, and know enough to build our way around it. I aspired to become as good as my superiors at that process.

A picture of a written solution to a homework problem about hydraulic actuators
A picture of a written solution to a homework problem about hydraulic actuators

There is a kind of robustness, resilience, that I’m inspired toward from the work that I do. We spend so much time thinking about reliability, recovery, flexibility. We think about ingress protection and impact resilience. We spend a lot of time designing objects which can survive the harshness of the world, that can survive abuse beyond their use case. And well made objects built to last inspire fierce loyalty in people, from boots that last 20 years to media players from 2011 that still work just fine.

It makes me wonder how to be robust and resilient myself too. I will bend, but I will not break; I will deflect and still recover. I will have my week of despair and wallowing in self pity.

And then I will sigh and get back up again, a little more worn, but still alive.

Written by

MIT grad, robotics engineer, mixed. A place I write.

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