Rethink Technology to Balance Engineering and Spirituality.

Chapter Two: The Engineering Enterprise

Thomas Mahon

When I was ten in the mid-1950s, I saw an incident that remains for me the gold standard of the engineering enterprise. One of the kids in our neighborhood had a red Radio Flyer wagon, and he let all the rest of us use it as common property. But after several years it finally gave out, and one day a wheel fell off. All the kids in the neighborhood gathered around looking at it the way a rider looks at his crippled horse: it had to be put down.

There was an older boy on our block, about two years ahead of most of us, who was a “tough kid” by the standards of that time. His hair was combed back in a DA, he wore a black leather jacket, he never smiled, and he usually kept to himself. When he saw the group of us standing around, he ambled over and made his way to the center of our wagon wake. He sussed out the situation for about thirty seconds, then left us and went to his house down the block.

A few minutes later he returned with one of his mom’s bobby pins. Without saying a word, he flipped the wagon over, put the wheel back on the axle, and stuck the bobby pin in to serve as a makeshift cotter pin to hold the wheel in place. Then he turned the wagon back on its wheels and it worked again, and we all stood in awe of the boy.

For just a moment I saw a slight grin on his face when he said, “There.” Then he got on his big old Schwinn, like the Lone Ranger astride Silver after saving the town and went off on his solitary way.

Engineers may be the most taken-for-granted and under-appreciated people in the world. We see the courage of first responders, and the skill of airline pilots, but the engineer’s face is usually well hidden.

Engineering is defined by The Engineers’ Council for Professional Development as: “The creative application of scientific principles to design or develop structures, machines, apparatus, or manufacturing processes or works…”

Further, The National Society of Professional Engineers’ Code of Ethics insists, among other things, that the engineer hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public, and perform services only in areas of their competence. (www.nspe.org/resources/ethics/code-ethics)

Newton’s second law of motion states that force equals mass times acceleration (F = ma), and that explains why it’s easier to pound a nail with a hammer — having more mass — than a fist. (Although user experience discovered that long before Newton found the underlying principle.)

Traditionally, engineering was the middle step between unskilled laborer and skilled professional. In the past, the laborer’s son became a railroad or mechanical or automotive engineer. He still got his hands dirty like his old man, but then his kids could go to college and enter a profession.

Among electronic engineers in Silicon Valley, the field of engineering I am most familiar with, the process has been accelerated. I know several electronic engineers who went on to become successful venture capitalists. I don’t know anyone who took the reverse course.

Regarding the pace of change now, many engineers — professional problem solvers, and descendants of those who once built roads, bridges, and dams — feel betrayed that so much of their training and passion is frittered away on the transient, the trivial and the instantly obsolete.

A structural engineer could show his granddaughter the bridge he built seventy years ago. Today’s double-e can show his kid sister a landfill of boxes of all sizes that were obsolete a year after his team rushed them to market; gizmos and doodads tossed aside like engineers themselves who burn out at 40, or see their jobs outsourced.

I once spoke on a panel at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference, the leading annual global forum for describing advances in solid-state circuits and system-on-a-chip technologies. While most electronics trade shows and conferences highlight products coming to market in a few months, this is the show for Ph.D.’s working on technologies that won’t be commercialized for another five years or more.

Our panel concerned issues regarding the high-tech engineering workplace. Engineers don’t typically wear their feelings on their sleeves. So it took a while for the audience of 300 professionals there to engage, but once they did there was no stopping them. After three hours, at 10 p.m., the hotel made us clear out of the ballroom, and there was still a long line waiting for the microphone to air their concerns. A typical complaint: “My closet is filled with devices I put my heart and soul into, that had a useful life of nine months.”

I’ve also had lunches with women engineers my age who got their degrees in the 1960s and ’70s. They speak of the downright cruelty of teachers and classmates in grad school who tried to push them out of the field: “Leave the seat for a man who’ll have a lifelong career, and not a woman who’ll just look for a husband, have kids, and stay home after three years.”

And it’s not uncommon now for some male engineers to carry that attitude into the workplace after graduate school, and subtly (and sometimes not so suddenly) remind their female co-workers they really don’t belong there.

Engineering mind

In my decades in Silicon Valley, I’ve worked with some of the most brilliant electronic engineers in the world and seen the clarity and precision that is part of the engineering mind. And every time I see an example, I realize I don’t have an engineering mind, and never will.

For example, when I’d write a tech manual, the editor would insist I put this notice on every blank page: This page intentionally left blank.

But never has the editor of a poetry journal felt the need to add: These lines are intentionally of uneven length.

I’m comfortable with ambiguity. As a sometimes fiction writer, I can make things up as I go along, and that’s okay. A surprise event at the end of a play, called a deus ex machina, that suddenly resolves all the issues, is a literary convention that audiences accept. Structural engineers, however, cannot count on a deus ex machina if their bridge starts collapsing in an earthquake.

When non-engineers go to a movie together, we can spend hours afterwards giving our various interpretations of what we just saw, and never reach a conclusion beyond, “We’ll just have to leave it there.”

Engineering mind is very uncomfortable with such ambiguity. And that’s a good thing. No one wants to be on that bridge during an earthquake that was designed by someone who brought an ‘Oh, what the hell…” attitude to work.

Plus a Zoom Lens Mind

As an average student, I was always curious as to what made the smart kids smart. So, when I came to work in Silicon Valley as an adult, amid so many bright people, I decided to explore this further.

The best engineers, like the kid back in our neighborhood who fixed the wagon, look at a complex problem, zero in on the key issue, and by addressing that, fix the underlying problem. They see to the heart of the matter, address that, and the rest falls into place.

So that’s it, I came to think. Focus on the heart of the matter; the rest will fall into place.

If only. The more I looked, the more I noticed the downside of this single-minded focus. By zeroing in on a specific problem there’s a risk of not seeing how this-here connects to that-there; of not being able to then stand back and connect the dots. And that is very important. School is where we go to study dots. And education begins when we start to connect those dots in new and interesting ways. But connecting dots must extend far out, as well as deep down.

I was at a major telecom trade show in Las Vegas once when a calamitous natural event struck in East Asia, resulting in a massive death toll in the hundreds of thousands. But there was no talk or acknowledgement of the calamity at the show among all these well-connected communications professionals, many of whom were from that region of Asia themselves.

Why should there be talk of such a horrible natural disaster half a world away at a telecommunications trade show? Why should there not be? What’s the point of instantaneous, global communications of it does not serve the common good in a catastrophe like this? Is it just a technical challenge to be solved, or is it meant to bring people together in a bond of empathy and help?

Over time, I’ve come to see that really sharp people have a zoom-lens mentality: able to discern when a two-foot focus is required, and when the 10,000-foot view is necessary. And then shift focus instantly and effortlessly, back from the giga level to the nano level again.

Universities today do an excellent job of schooling engineers for the bit-level work. But until lately there was little effort to educate students taking STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) to consider the larger social, cultural, and human impact of their work. The growth of STEAM programs (adding the Arts) can help in that.

Given the central role of digital technology in everyone’s life now, we need user manuals that remind us to incorporate “soft” notions — like meaning, value, purpose — into our tool use, so we don’t find ourselves subsumed into a digital, virtual, artificial, soul-less environment where weapons are ‘smart’, the products are ‘cool,’ and anxiety and stress are a way of life.

It would be a tragedy if the results of all our Information Technology (IT) serves merely to dumb us down, at least relative to the growing smartness of machines. Tragically, that is a hoped-for outcome by some of the digi-elite.

“The Calling of an Engineer and the Iron Ring”

On August 29, 1907, as four years of construction were coming to an end, a section of the Quebec Bridge collapsed into the St Lawrence River, killing 75 workers in a matter of seconds. A committee of enquiry found errors in planning and design — human error, not acts of God — to be responsible for the collapse, which proved to be the worst bridge construction disaster in history.

As a result of that, the Engineering Institute of Canada in 1922 established “The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer” with the goal of directing engineering graduates to a greater, and lifelong, awareness of the social significance and impact of their work: a finished project, however elegant, has human consequences.

The text of the ceremony was written by the English poet, Rudyard Kipling, who also suggested that at the ceremony each graduate should receive a ring made of rough iron fashioned from the collapsed bridge, to be worn on the pinkie of the engineer’s working hand during his or her professional life.

Maybe the time has come for the entire global engineering profession to formally recognize the social impact of its work: tools have consequences — intended and unintended — and we need to get better at considering those before hiring the publicists to write the new product news releases that stress engineering specs over human benefits and costs.

© 2022, Thomas Mahon

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